“Insist on continuous connection with just one individual: your own self, who knows where to draw the boundary lines on any given day, with any given person.” — Martha Beck, Oprah.com
“Shut it, Martha.” — Me
One day last year, I left my kids with a houseguest while I took a cab over to a new friend’s house to deliver homemade food (her husband was very ill and she had three small children). I had to take a cab, you see, because I had loaned my own car to a friend, who needed to pick up his wife and child from the airport. Oh, also, I had taken the afternoon off from work so I could entertain our guest…a member of my husband’s family. My husband was firmly ensconced at his own job that afternoon.
I’m not listing this because I think I’m such a saint (though you should feel free to think so). I wanted to help. But what I see when I look back on that frazzled afternoon is the stress sweat shining on my upper lip, exceedingly lousy time management skills, an annoyed guest, my own career free-falling down the priority list, and poorly prepared food (also, chili leaking from a plastic container and running down my leg onto the cab floor, but alas).
Am I happy to have helped two friends and their families? Of course. Am I happy to have hosted family? Sure. Did trying to check every one of those boxes that day fill up other people’s buckets while actively depleting my own? Yes.
Not only is a day like that stressful, it’s not usually all that productive in the end. In that state, I was completing each task terribly, if at all. Often, when I’ve overcommitted, I just don’t get it all done. (Here’s an easy one: What’s worse than an overbooked person? An overbooked flake.)
Here’s an easy one: What’s worse than an overbooked person? An overbooked flake.
So I took a break from “doing the right thing” for a while. I tried to stop saying yes to every bake sale, resume-help request, lift to Ikea, casserole brigade. This was counter to my instincts. Wasn’t saying yes what you were supposed to do?
We all know people who will never help you paint or move, accompany you home from the doctor after some light anesthesia, or pick you up from the airport. I’m even related to a few of them. And, real talk here, I always secretly thought they were kind of jerks. I didn’t want to be like that.
But I also couldn’t keep saying yes. I needed to reduce both my stress and my self-loathing—and other people’s frustration with me—by not taking on too much.
How, I wondered, could I start to say no without feeling like a selfish turd?
First, I needed to be brutally honest with myself: At least half of the things I have done “for other people” were, on some deep level, an attempt to be liked, or likable, or “good.” Giving was an attempt to assuage the guilty gratitude of having so much. Didn’t that make me just a different kind of selfish turd?
I also needed to at least consider the possibility that people with “very clear boundaries” are pretty freaking happy. They know their own limitations, which usually align neatly not just with their priorities, but with their interests as well. Maybe it wasn’t that they were unconcerned with other people’s stress or strife; maybe it was just that mythical beast known as “self-awareness.” To thine own boundary-defined-self be true.
Perhaps my binary was unfair. Maybe the ability to decline an invitation to help others doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a nice, kind, or good person. There’s empathy, and then there’s action. Maybe sometimes empathy has to be enough.
So I went cold turkey. Which is pretty much never a good idea. Not long after I began my experiment in drawing healthier boundaries, a woman I barely know received a phone call, right in front of me, informing her of the sudden and unexpected death of a family member. We were separated only by my laptop, which flickered and glowed, reminding me that I had a deadline in a matter of hours. She hung up the phone and sat, shaking, her eyes locked on me. She clearly wanted to talk. To me. I felt terrible for her, but I won’t lie, I also felt really stressed about my work.
My instincts went to war with my determination. I held her hand for a moment, asked her a few obligatory questions, then, as she took a deep, steadying breath, I gently pulled my hand from hers and went back to work. While she choked back tears two feet from me.
I’m not proud of that exchange. I was heartless and rude. It’s a moment high on my list of do-overs, for when such a thing is finally invented.
So maybe the answer lies, like most answers, somewhere in between.
The idea that the group can accomplish something that the individual cannot, and that the giver will eventually be the recipient, is lovely. (Think of the traditional barn-raising, still a thing in some Amish and Mennonite communities. It’s not technically necessary, though. Uber and Super Shuttle have outsourced the airport pickup. Grocery delivery and affordable “fast-casual” takeout (I’m looking at you, Chipotle) have replaced the glumpy baked noodle dishes that once arrived on the doorstep of the infirm.
But convenience isn’t the same as community. I was raised by lots of people—family friends and classmates’ grandmothers who routinely helped out my single mom. Dozens of extended family members whipped up an extensive (and, by the way, delicious) meal in the church basement after my grandma’s funeral. My aunts and uncles and cousins and friends decked out the tent for my wedding. After my uncle died a couple of years ago, I was brought to tears by the steady stream of neighbors bearing teetering stacks of aluminum trays with reheating instructions scrawled on masking tape across their lids.
All my family had to do was be together; we didn’t have to jot down orders and weird no-lettuce-but-extra-tomatoes-please requests and send an emissary out into a world that didn’t know or care how sad we felt.
Regardless of the personal cost, I would like to think that I will help other people when they really need it. I’ll figure out where the line is (warning: It’s probably right before your sister’s kid’s best friend’s school’s origami fundraiser). Because I would like to think that when my turn in the shitstorm of life comes around again, the doorbell will ring, and a marvelous kale salad with toasted pepitas will appear on my stoop. And that I will feel confident that I have made someone else feel, just once, as cared for—and connected—as I do in that moment.
Cover photo: Classic Film/flickr