Setting Boundaries could be your next Superpower
Updated: Jan 13, 2021
I’ve been lecturing people about boundaries this week. “Boundaries will set you free!” I exhort them. “They are the jars in which you can preserve your sanity.” “They are the rules of the game. When we say them out loud, then we can all play the same game.” At work, we can put them into policies and procedures, so that everyone knows what’s expected.
Boundaries create safety, provide comfort and empower employees to make decisions within the scope of their position.
Last Friday I was expounding upon the importance of boundaries to one ECE (Early Childhood Educator) with regard to a messy situation involving her meddlesome neighbour, when the doorbell rang. A parent wanted a form filled out. I said, “Come back next week when our office administrator is back from vacation.” She seemed put out.
“Look,” she said, “It’s a really simple form. You guys have done it before. You just have to write in the name of the Centre and what we pay.”
I conceded. After all, she had caught me in a moment of personal conversation. It would only take a minute.
Except it didn’t. Instead it turned into a 45-minute odyssey into our accounting database, which I barely know how to use. One call and two screen captures to our accountant later, I was able to understand the Customer Aged Report. Consultation with the Excel Billings spreadsheet and Subsidy binder helped me understand how much she paid, and how much the provincial government paid. I carefully filled out her form the best I could, explaining her portion of the payments without too much complication. Unfortunately, I also had to deliver the bad news that she owed us a fair bit of money.
I didn’t exactly receive gratitude in return. “This is taking way too long. It’s just a simple form” she said. “They won’t understand how you filled this out,” she complained. “I’m going to have to print it again and have the office administrator fill it out. She knows how to do it. I’ll have to come back next week.” Also, mom insisted, she didn’t owe that much money. She resisted taking from my hand the Customer Aged report with written explanation of fees owing.
I tried to bite my tongue, but it did slip out that when she first made the request, I had suggested she come back next week. We both ended the interaction irritated and unsatisfied.
Who lost out? My older son, who was sitting in an empty room nearby watching YouTube videos. I had promised him that I just needed to “do one quick thing” at the daycare, and then we would have a good chunk of one-on-one time before we had to pick up his little brother. Of course, my son knows better than to believe me. It’s never one quick thing. It’s 12 emails and 3 perceived crises later. Every time. I am always putting him off (cue the “Cat’s in the Cradle” lament).
What was I saying about boundaries? Oh right, that everyone would be happier if we made them explicit, and then followed through with applying them. As this little story demonstrates, I’m still figuring this out.
The problem is, we don’t like saying “no”. I didn’t want the mom to judge me, or think me unhelpful or uncaring. I wanted to show her that I was committed to helping, even if it was a huge pain. But in that moment, instead of trying – and failing – to impress, I should have prioritized the thing that mattered most: my relationship with my son. I should have said to mom, “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t do this right now. Yes, it looks like a simple form, but you’ll have to come back next week.” Everyone would have been happier.
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