Last weekend, I cleaned and cooked all day Saturday for a guest who never called or showed up. I could have spent that day writing. I fumed, but did nothing about it. Right now, I'm waiting by the phone for a long distance call that was supposed to come an hour ago. I won't make it to the post office on time now to mail my finished manuscript. Judging from the acid in my stomach and tension in my neck, it's time to set some limits.
Being an approval junkie, I cringe at setting and enforcing boundaries. Claiming sufficient writing time and energy has been a twenty-year learning experience--and I'm still learning. However, speaking up and setting boundaries is one thing. Enforcing limits is quite another.
Setting boundaries is about learning to take care of ourselves as writers, no matter where we go or who we're with. Boundaries emerge from deep decisions about what we believe we deserve (and don't deserve). The ability to set boundaries increases as we get it through our thick skulls that what we want and need as writers (time, solitude, new experiences) is vitally important. Boundaries emerge as we learn to value, trust, and listen to the writer within.
This isn't as easy as it sounds. One writer has been writing for six years and still finds it a struggle. "I'm good at setting boundaries with my friends and family once I realize something is hurting me or making me angry; it still takes forever, though, to recognize when something bothers me."
We're all good at stuffing our feelings and staying busy enough to ignore them, but boundary issues don't stay confined to our minds. As Harriet Lerner says, "We need to listen to our bodies to know where our boundaries are."
For a variety of reasons, we may be adept at ignoring the knot in the stomach, the headache, the cramped neck, the sadness that occurs when people invade and take over our time, space and energy. The next time you feel this way, don't automatically reach for the Excedrin or Pepcid AC; consider instead whether it's a physical reaction to boundary violations.
Anger, rage, complaining, and whining are clues to boundaries we need to set. Other clues might include feeling threatened or suffocated when around certain people. Listen closely to yourself.
Even after recognizing the anger and hurt when your boundaries have been trampled, it can be difficult to think clearly about the situation and decide what to do. I have found journaling a big help at such times. Writing brings clarity, which is no surprise to most writers! Describe the incident in your journal. Write how you feel about it. Is it related to your writing? Is it a pattern with this person? What do you need to do? Write out what you might say. Practice until you can say it firmly, but with kindness. If you're still angry when you finish, perhaps a letter setting the boundary would be better.
Set limits clearly, using as few words as possible. Avoid justifying, rationalizing, or apologizing. Offer a brief explanation, if that would help, but don't get trapped into being defensive. ("I know you want to have company again this weekend, but I really need some down time, with no company.") If they insist (however nicely) on inviting people over, just say, "That's fine. I know our needs are different. I'll plan to spend the day up at the lake (or at the library, or wherever) to unwind and write." Smile! End of discussion!
By the way, don't try to set boundaries with people while simultaneously fixing their upset feelings. It can't be done. Their feelings and reactions to your boundary will probably be negative, but they are responsible for those feelings, not you.
I should mention that some people will be perfectly happy to respect your boundaries. They've simply been unaware that their actions cause you any distress. We are very good at hiding our frustration, of saying "Oh, it's okay" when our writing time is interrupted for the umpteenth time.
On the other hand, people who have been able to control and use us will react more negatively. There's an old saying: "People don't respect people they can use. People use people they can use, and respect people they can't use." Users may get angry with you for setting a boundary, especially if it forces them to take more responsibility for themselves. That's okay.
Be aware of one thing however: it does no good to set a boundary until you're ready to enforce it. So convince yourself first. Once you know deep down what your limits are, what your true needs are, it won't be difficult to convince others. Haven't you noticed that people tend to have a sixth sense about when you've truly reached your limit?
You will be tested when you set boundaries. Plan on it. They might be little tests: your toddler curls up and sucks her thumb when you sit down to write. They might be big tests: your wife or husband threatens to "find someone else who's agreeable like you used to be."
Sometimes you have to get mad (and noisy!) to set boundaries, but you don't have to stay mad to enforce them. If you're prone to "people pleasing" and approval seeking, however, demons will come out to torment you for a while when you set boundaries, threatening you with losses both real and imaginary. Just stay calm--and quiet. Be confident and go on about your business. If you can do this, their protests will die down fairly quickly.
Do be prepared to follow through on any consequences you've mentioned or boundaries you've set. If your boundary is that you will write undisturbed in your bedroom from 3-4 p.m., yet you allow your children to constantly interrupt while you whine about it, it's not a boundary yet. Our boundaries must match our behavior. Just remember, boundaries aren't made to control others' behavior, just our own. The kids may keep trying to interrupt; you may have to lock your bedroom door and ignore the screams.
Often we writers are given tips for carving writing time out of our busy lives. We look for hidden pockets of time to write. We set aside time alone to think, to do research, to journal. All the planning in the world, however, won't do a bit of good unless you set and enforce boundaries with those who (for whatever reasons) feel they own all your time.
Setting and enforcing boundaries may be difficult at first, but the sense of freedom they bring--as well as time to pursue your writing dream--makes it well worthwhile.
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