I learned how to set limits back in the late 1980s, when I was training to be an emotional support volunteer with people who had HIV or AIDS. The idea then was to ensure that we knew how to take care of ourselves so that we didn’t burn out, and one important aspect of that was learning to set appropriate boundaries. And while I know how to do that, and sometimes do it very well, other times I really do need a reminder.
Because it’s easy to over-give.
Maybe that statement shocks you. We’re taught that giving is good and it IS good. I’m a giver and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There have, however, been times when I have failed to set appropriate boundaries for myself. When I feel the first tinges of resentment, I know that I have failed to set limits. But some people never have that little warning twinge. They give and give and give under the mistaken impression that more is better.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes, though, more is just more.
Setting limits is important in so many different ways. If we’re caregiving taking time for respite is important. It’s what allows us to be more effective at being there for our people. The same is true of working in any organization. Working too much can hamper our productivity. And even in our personal lives, when it comes to relationships of any kind, including romantic ones, we need to keep our own boundaries in mind.
How can you tell if you’ve failed to set limits and what can you do about it?
You won’t say “No.”
There are times when it’s perfectly OK to say “no” but we don’t, even if we’re overloaded with other responsibilities and are going to find it difficult to do what’s asked.
Most people might say “I CAN’T say no,” but that’s incorrect. Everyone can say “No.” Oh, I hear the “can’t” all the time. The truth is, there is some payoff to saying “yes” to things that add too much pressure to our lives. Maybe we get our sense of self worth from giving. Maybe we feel guilty saying no. Maybe we feel we have to make an excuse or give a reason. But often, we don’t need any reason. No is a complete sentence that stand per. It’s not “No, but…” or “No, because…”
“Can you make cupcakes for next week’s meeting?”
“I’m sorry, no.”
It’s got to be done.
We’ve all been asked to achieve something impossible at work and some of us have really stretched to do it, and not in a good way. Sometimes we have to belly up and do it. But not always. In those cases, there are some alternatives. Let’s see how that would work:
“I need that report by Tuesday.”
“I can’t make Tuesday, how about Wednesday at close of business?”
Offer a different deadline or some other way to participate, as in “I can’t make cupcakes for this meeting, what about next month, instead?”
Many people find setting limits hard, but it must be done for our own mental health. I’ve seen a lot of delusional thinking about this. (See my related post, here.)
And so, I’ve come up with a little litmus test to help those of us who are boundary-challenged. How can you tell if you’re doing too much?
You can’t resist.
Oh yes, I’ve been offered opportunities that seem too hard to resist. I’ve learned the hard way that if I’m going to take something on, I probably need to also let something go. It’s like keeping an organized closet: if you add something, donate something.
1 You’re the only one with the burden.
Oh, now this is a big one. How about working on a team and being the only one doing the majority of the work? Time to say “no.” Use that complete sentence. You do not need to carry the whole burden. Set limits.
In a relationship or friendship, maybe you are often initiating and getting nothing back. The solution is simple. STOP initiating.
Maybe you’ve made an invitation and gotten no response. Stop inviting. If they wanted to take you up on the offer, they would.
2 Stop and think.
Take a moment. Sometimes we just have to stop and consider a request. Given everything else we have to do, can we reasonably say yes? What else might suffer if we add another task? Can we give our full focus to the most important things in our lives?
The other day I asked a dear friend who has many important things on her plate, “how do your priorities lay out?”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “They’re ALL important!”
She’s right. They are all important. But this is a story we tell ourselves. Because without a priority list, no matter how much you want to do it all well, it’s not possible. We aren’t super-people. Something has to give, even if you don’t realize it. Something will be given short shrift and probably several somethings. You have to set limits to be effective. If you have no priority list, you aren’t giving your best to anything.
So, there you have it. Lessons I’ve learned during my life, sometimes the hard way.