Outside of a school setting, my first creative writing teacher was a former nun. Living in a cloistered setting, her spiritual customs impressed upon her the importance of establishing boundaries to fulfill a life of contemplation. She left the order to follow her heart while many of her learned practices followed, and her first task was to establish a different set of boundaries around a now boundless time.
In our writing classes, this same teacher often declined social invitations or book events, and softened her response, saying, “I don’t have the space for that right now.”
If you were on the receiving end of her rejection, you would ask yourself, was she speaking of physical, mental or emotional space? Or all three? It didn’t matter. Her carefully chosen language allowed her to opt out, while maintaining a sense of respect for the individual or effort she declined.
I’ve since used the phrase frequently. During a recently busy time, a writer reached out and asked me for a testimonial, a question tricky to answer. I wanted to honor my relationship with the writer while also maintaining the level of energy required to complete a project of my own. “I don’t have the space for that now,” was the perfect response.
Author Nedra Glover Tawwab writes in Set Boundaries, Find Peace, “You have to be the consistent boundary because you have created it.” Yet, sticking to our boundaries is not so easy.
Boundaries and Barriers
What is a boundary exactly? Ms. Tawwab explains it as “expectations we set for ourselves and others.” They come in all shapes and sizes. There are boundaries for relationships, work, technology, and even for our health. Think of a living will as setting forth the expectation your designee will do as you wish when you can no longer direct your care. They will not push beyond your pre-set parameters.
Boundaries are designed to keep us safe. In national parks, rangers rope off areas in order to keep hikers from falling down a deep ravine. The same is true in other aspects of our life. How quickly might our time streaming television shows disappear if we don’t have a bedtime? Boundaries protect individuals from abuse and give children a map in which to navigate their lives. As youngsters, my sisters and I weren’t allowed to cross the highway by ourselves until we were twelve years old. In industrial jobs, client schedules and productivity goals shape our modern workday. Even now, we have work from home requirements, and employees must adapt and set their boundaries as to when they are “on screen” versus off.
How do we begin setting these boundaries? First, we must understand much of our everyday angst is a result of not establishing firm constraints or allowing others to set them for us. If we consider speaking up about our boundaries, we should not jump to the worse-case scenarios regarding the response. Finally, we must rid ourselves of the guilt when asking others to respect our borders.
Boundaries in Caregiving and Relationships
As our loved ones age, many of their actions begin to resemble that of a child’s response. Whether we are caregivers of parents or spouses, we must still learn to set boundaries for them—and us. Establishing expectations and revisiting them often because they will change, is the basis for a compassionate and symbiotic relationship over time.
My mother lived in a community care setting. Out of love and guilt, I would have visited her every day. Instead, I learned to established certain days and times for my visits without staying much past my time—unless we were seated outside. Despite her memory loss, I considered our relationship healthy because I gave myself permission to step away and process our interactions and allowed my mother space to exist without me. And in the weeks leading up to her death, as her power of attorney for health care, I honored her expectations one final time according to her living will.
Learning to say “no” or “I don’t have the space” is difficult at any stage of life. My husband is a night owl while I prefer a solo morning routine. As schedules shifted over the past year, I found myself being specific about “how I like my morning time.” He would sleep in or slip into another room. In another instance, my husband often read aloud headlines from his phone before bed, just as I was falling asleep. In the end, we agreed to “no news in bed” during the height of the pandemic. First, I acknowledged who I was as spouse and what I needed, then owned it.
Boundaries do not cause relationships to fail, but a lack of them for sure will.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours: What my mother taught me about dementia, cookies, music, the outside, and her life inside a care home (Three Arch Press), available online, and is a recipient of a 2020 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.