Boundaries

A spontaneous heart of passion fruits from the garden. Passiflora, a boundary-protector, too. Photo: Jenny Holmberg, 2020

I’ve been working a lot with boundary-setting these last couple of months. A situation here at home has triggered the need for a lot of that to happen – work that I had not planned on having to do here and now, work which I was reluctant to “being forced into”…and work that, of course, in the end is helping me grow.

The situation

A person close to where we live had a big surgery this summer, in the middle of covid-19 and all, and as we had had an exchange since before where I helped them with food and gardening, they probably found it a logical thing to instruct me about their needs once they came home from the hospital (because, we live in the US. And people are pretty much left on their own with their needs here, once the insurance coverage is over. It’s how “the system” works (or not…) :/ ).

I used the word “instruct” above, because that was part of how all this set off in an…unfortunate way. Assumptions were made on our neighbor’s side, and although I thought I was being pretty clear on what I could provide and not in this situation, I felt ambushed into a role I never had agreed to in the first place. But there you are – someone in need of assistance and you’re the one around…what can you do??

Well, for one you can work on your boundaries, and everything that comes with that – I was basically offered a crash course in it all over the summer here (and just to be clear, the person did have other options for how to solve this, as they are surrounded with a large set of friends and family – it’s not like it was ever “me or nothing”. If that would have been the case maybe things would have unfolded differently)!

I’m still in the middle of this all – and yet it seems appropriate to sit down and reflect over lessons learned so far. Because, without a doubt, I will forget things as soon as they “get better”. I know that insights made can so quickly disappear, at least partly. And I feel that boundary-lessons are so hard-earned (for me and probably for many others) that they are worth stopping to ponder on and formulating, to possibly be of use another time.

Components of keeping clear boundaries

From what I’ve learned this summer – by personal experience, no science included 🙂 – I can so far boil this down to three main parts: Compassion, Firmness and Clear Communication.

Compassion

For me, not having had much training in this sort of boundary-keeping, I feared “losing” my compassion, or seemingly loosing it, by saying No to someone asking for help.

Now, I am positive about that I am still as compassionate as I was before this all started, even though I’ve had to toss in many No:s lately. And I’m learning that in cases like this the most compassionate thing really is to try and be as clear as possible – since doing something against one’s will and thus with different grades of resentment built in, is NOT AT ALL a compassionate and kind thing to do. It’s rather the opposite.

The “seemingly” is an important word in the first sentence above too, since I of course could feel that I was still feeling compassionate even though I needed to say No to certain things. But, what worried me was that others would hear my No, and think that I was being non-compassionate or mean or not caring or who knows what. I didn’t catch his one until just recently and it really is an important one I think. Because what matters isn’t really what other people think, is it? What a stupid reason to “fear” saying no.

Firmness

To me, as a “sensitive person”, being firm can feel really scary – and rude! When other people think they are just speaking firmly to me, I often feel like they are screaming at me (whatever one believes or not about the concept “Highly Sensitive Person” or “HSP”, Dr Elaine Aron describes this all very well in her books, such a light bulb-experience the first time I read about it).

Working on my firmness-muscle has been a crucial part in this summer’s boundary-education. While I have no problem being firm in more political discussions and such, being firm in personal relationships is just not something I’ve really worked much on before. I’m often very diplomatic, seeing other people’s perspectives and so on (except when I get real mad, but that’s another story). And above all, I don’t want to be mean, or hurt other people’s feelings.

It’s just that…by “not wanting to be rude or hurt someone’s feelings”, I have sometimes been too soft in my approach. And that – is not very kind at all, I’ve realized. Since, as I’ve already said (but I need repetition, it helps in order to really take it in), by playing it “soft”, we can easily end up feeling resentment…and that, again, is both rude and unkind.

In other words, working on our firmness is just the respectful thing to do in cases like this.

…and how to combine the two

The combination and balance between “compassion” and “firmness” is one of the trickiest things in all this I feel (even though it perhaps sounded above like I had figured it all out. I haven’t). In my case, I wanted to help, I felt compassion for a neighbor’s situation and need for assistance. I also wanted them to see that what they were asking for (part care-giving and house-keeping) was a pretty big deal. And just because I live close by it doesn’t mean that I’m always available – time wise and energetically. And that a fair exchange (as in payment, basically) would need to be put in place if I was going to give up other things in order to be available to the extent that they wanted. Which leads us to another component of this important puzzle:

Clear communication

This is another piece that I’ve had to work on a lot. Maybe it’s a combination of “culture” (me, a Swede, speaking to an American), and character (or even neurology, see reference to HSP above). In either case, it’s become clear to me that when I feel I have “shouted” a loud NO – to someone else that has sounded like a “maybe” or “OK” or a “yes” even. Mind boggling to me, and kindly pointed out by Anna in my attempts to re-enact the conversations had, and where I in my frustration have expressed variations of “I said NO and still they just assumed x and y – and z too…why would they be so rude??” and where Anna in her turn has responded by “But…did you really actually say “No, I can’t/don’t want to do this”? ‘Cause I don’t really hear that”. And where I have looked up, first starting to explain something along “Well, I said I’d prefer this, and that I’d rather not do that and…well you know, I’d really appreciate it if….” and so on – in my world CLEAR signs that I don’t want to do a certain thing, or that I’m not available, but also…just not a “No”.

Definitely not a simple and short “No”.

Writing this now, it all seems so clear and easy (“Why not just say “no” if a no is what you mean?”), but in this whole process this thing has certainly been a biggie. It’s not that I expect people to read my mind – but I have understood now that I do expect people to “tune in”, and adapt accordingly. That I expect to not having to say a firm no for someone to understand that I’d prefer not to do it.

The “prefer not” in my world does give some space for “doing it anyways”, but more in an emergency or something, not as something I’m readily offering. At least I think that’s part of my “logic” around it. It’s hard to remember these things once you’ve started to see something with new eyes and understanding (as in, I’m beginning to realize the value of a simple “no” and therefore find it hard to see why I wouldn’t just say that).

Conclusions – for now

So. After almost three months of having this situation take up lots – and I mean lots like in really really A LOT – of energy and space, I’m starting to feel like I…can do this better now. The frustration of feeling “forced” to do work (both as in the actual work I’m doing for this person, and as in emotional work within myself) has shifted into me taking more responsibility for how I handle this all and how I respond to it. It’s not crystal clear, and just the other day, after feeling more OK with this all from thinking we had talked at least some of it out and reached an understanding, a new conversation sparked a new round of “But what the heck…..? How can they expect h, l and m when I have already said u, y and o??”.

But, I was happy to see that I could keep from going ALL into it, emotionally. I could retract, think and ponder about the situation and how I wanted to handle it, and I could stay a lot clearer from feeling completely overwhelmed by it all. I still had a night of laying awake “talking” to this person in my head, but I think that that’s just part of it, and whenever we are out in the world dealing with other people, this will happen from time to time, I’m pretty sure. Still, the whole experience was just miles from how I dealt with it all two months ago.

For that I am grateful – and, yes, a little proud. Cherishing my new toolbox – and hoping I will remember to use it in the future (never a given, that’s for sure).

Happy beginning-of-October weekend everyone, let’s have a toast for constant learning! ❤

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