"Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others." Dr. Brene Brown.
After two weeks of high intensity grandparenting, yesterday my husband and I returned three of our grandchildren to their father, Sam. He had just returned from a trip to Thailand and Singapore. The kids’ mother would stay in Singapore for a couple more weeks.
Despite being enthusiastic grandparents and passionately loving our gkids, we were exhausted and eager to make the hand-off. We noticed, however, that our son was absolutely wiped out from flying for over 14 hours. I was conflicted.
Stay over with the kids another day or make a quick retreat home? It was an internal battle between compassion for another or self-compassion, being a good egg or a cracked-up one.
We want to be good eggs, being a good egg has a lot going for it. Societies aim to set moral codes and give guidance to their young about being good eggs. However, we can over-do a good thing. We can neglect our own needs. Most of those problems come down to not knowing how to set compassionate boundaries.
The word “boundaries” often conjures up images of fences or borders. The idea is to keep two things separate to provide protection and safety to one entity who might feel in danger.
Psychological boundaries are a little different. They are more like rules or standards. They delineate how we want to be treated by others and how we will treat ourselves. They are harder to make clear because they are less fixed and may change depending on the situation and one’s personal capacities. We must be attuned to both our own and others’ needs.
I really wanted to respond to my son’s unspoken needs. He was obviously tired. At the same time, I noticed how exhausted my husband and I were.
What should we do? I decided I had limited capacity at this point, but I could do something. I could take a walk to the park with the kids and puppy. Cutting up some fruit and opening a can of soup would be well within my resources. Helping them unpack and get ready for school the next day also seemed easy.
We left my son and the gkids in good conscience with the suggestion that this might be a good time for them to settle down for a family movie. We were on our way. It felt freeing to be good eggs, but not so good that we were neglecting our own self-care. (Plus, I know how my frazzled, cracked-up-egg-self behaves. It is not all that useful.)
Here are a few things that helped me with compassionate boundary setting. I had been reading The Good Egg by Jory John to our young grandson. The story is unsurprisingly about a “good egg” who will carry others’ groceries, paint their houses, rescue their cats – do whatever others need. But eventually the good egg starts to crack under the pressure. The good egg learns that he needs rest, balance, and to take care of himself too. This little book is perfect for those of us who often want to help others get stretched beyond our capacities.
Second, I do understand that we all have needs. However, I tend to be more aware of others’ needs rather than my own. Or maybe it is that I’m trying to be heroic. Bottom line I am coming to terms with knowing that I can’t do everything that others would like me to do or that I want to do for others. Sometimes I just do not have the energy. I am becoming better at noticing when I am internally pulled to help but am running on empty.
I say to myself a little mantra, “I can’t do everything, but I can do something. What is it that I can do right now with my resources and limitations?” That is a handy little go-to acknowledgment of the reality of my situation yet nudges me to find some way to help.
Now some folks go way far the other way. They are extremely self-protective. They have rigid unhelpful responses to others’ needs. Even if they have the resources, see the need, and could help, they choose not to…ever. “I never give money to beggars.” “I never help anyone outside my own family,” “I don’t believe in helping others do what they can do for themselves.” “I never respond to a doorbell or call during the dinner hour.”
These rigid boundaries can protect us, but they also can hurt our relationships and leave us with small, meaningless lives. It is in helping others that we often find connection and purpose.
To move up to the good life, we can be more aware of others’ needs. AND we can be aware of our own. We can notice what resources or capabilities we have available at various times. I have often been way too quick to jump to the rescue of others and not only hurt myself in the process (and been resentful), but also unintentionally harmed others who have been denied the opportunity to pull up their own strengths and build their own skills.
Sam texted today. He is feeling fine, kids are doing well. So are we. We had two weeks of self-giving - playing in parks, jumping on the trampoline, eating pizza, reading The Good Egg. Now we are taking a few naps, planning a trip, enjoying adult conversation, repairing our cracks, and …eagerly readying ourselves for our next grandparent gig.
Don't let this specific scenario fool you. Yes, it is around grandparenting, however, the general principle applies broadly. We can't do everything to care for the world, our nation, our community, but we can do something. What can we do with the resources and limitations we have right now? How can we consider our own needs as well as the needs of others?
How might we Journey together to The Good Life by creating compassionate boundaries which balance self-care and care for others? With Love, June
(Dear readers, I am readying this article to be published soon in a local magazine, please add any comments or personal experiences that you think might help.)