Learning to set (elastic) boundaries

Elaine Luddy Klonicki, Columnist

When my husband Gary, daughter, Jenny, and I called our son, Doug, a few weeks ago to sing “Happy Birthday” to him, he sounded tired. He said he’d taken the day off to recuperate from his life. I remember my 29th birthday, and it wasn’t pretty either. I think when you’re young, you imagine that by the time you’re 30, you’ll have conquered the world. Suddenly 29 sneaks up on you and gives you a good reality check.

Doug said he was so overwhelmed, he was finding it hard to concentrate. In addition to his regular job, he was playing with two bands and they were both releasing CDs. His band buddies were calling him at work about production details, practice schedules, and rides to gigs. I advised him to put off or delegate whatever he could to reduce his stress level. Typical of 20-somethings, he said he wanted to do it all. But he promised to think about it.

I also suggested he turn off his cell phone at work and check messages only at lunchtime. And then I started to feel a little guilty. You see, I’m pretty sure Doug inherited this “helping syndrome” from me, just as I got it from my mom. Boundary-setting isn’t my strongest suit; at least it wasn’t while he was growing up. Thankfully, it’s a disease you can recover from over time.

A few days later Doug e-mailed to thank me. He said he “felt like a new man.” He had re-evaluated his activities and adjusted his thinking. He was back in control. I’m proud of him; it’s a difficult thing, balancing your needs against the needs of other people.

As part of my own recovery, every day I read this Steven Covey quote: “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically—to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside. The enemy of the ‘best’ is often the ‘good.’”

Oprah says developing the ability to say no is like developing a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Obviously it’s good to do favors for friends, but not necessarily every time you’re asked. Where do we draw the line? Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to decide whether you should respond to a plea.

My friend Myra counseled me long ago that you should save your energy for the situations where you can make the biggest difference. If someone grows and moves forward because of your help, even if it’s hard work, it’s worth the investment.

But sometimes people don’t help themselves; in fact, they seem almost determined to play the victim. If this is their modus operandi, then you’re better off staying away. Author and inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant says, “If you see crazy coming towards you, cross the street. Don’t go up to them and invite them to dinner!”

One remedy which works for me is to respond, “I’ll need to get back to you.” That gives me time to decide whether I really want to do what they’re asking. And lately, unless it’s a free chair massage, I probably don’t. But stalling a bit allows me to think of a polite way to say no.

I’m working on my third book, trying to get it out before the holidays, and my boundary-setting is getting better and better. I’m not answering the phone (much) and I’m not straightening up the house. I’ve barred the front door, and I’ve given instructions to Gary and Jenny not to let anyone in.

Except Doug and his buddy, of course, who came in on the red-eye last weekend from L.A. for their friend’s wedding. When it comes to my kids and their friends, I’m still a boundary-free zone.

This article first appeared in The News and Observer, October 27th, 2006.

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