Setting boundaries is not easy. Even under normal circumstances most of us struggle with saying “no.” So, what do you do when you find yourself consumed with grief and your well-intentioned neighbor can’t take the hint that you need some time alone? Or maybe you’re recovering from surgery or an illness and could use groceries far more than a cheerful, one-sided conversation.
When your emotions are taxed and your energy is drained, how do you ask for help in a way that ensures you get what you need, instead of being saddled with more burdens?
When I feel too worn down to function, it helps to remind myself that my focus needs to be on my own rest and recovery. If I’m grieving, I remind myself that my brain must learn to make sense of the loss to reflect this new reality. I know it’s not physically or mentally healthy for me to deplete my limited energy for the sake of politeness.
Keep Calm and Practice Compassion
Not that being polite doesn’t have a place. We never grieve in a vacuum. We’ve all been on both sides of grief and know the difficulty of trying to find the right words or know the right thing to do to support someone we care about when they’re struggling. And we’ve all said things that we realize, in hindsight, probably weren’t very helpful.
Be aware that platitudes tend to fall flat, and reassurance based on a well-wisher’s belief system (that you may not share) can be difficult to tolerate. People will sometimes project on you their own upset with what has happened without even realizing it. This can be triggering under normal circumstances. When you’re emotionally vulnerable, even more so.
But if you can manage not to take their stumbles personally, it will be easier to remain compassionate and remember they are only trying to be empathetic. For me, it helps to recognize their care for me has triggered their own grief, and if I can look through the words themselves to the sentiment behind them, I can receive the gift of their concern for me.
Of course, compassion is only possible when I’m calm. And the most reliable way I know to restore and maintain calm is to use what I call, the Practice.
When I invest what energy I have in calming down by using the Practice, I’m far less likely to get caught up in the kind of emotional reactions that will only drain my energy even more.
Get the Help You Really Need
1. Prioritize your healing process above all else.
This means turning down help that isn’t needed or is counterproductive.
2. Make your request specific.
People often make vague and generous statements like: Whatever you need! This is the perfect time to make a specific request like, doing a load of laundry or walking your dog. Try to keep the task you ask for small and within reason.
3. Be careful who you ask for what.
For example, if you request a meal from your brother who thinks your vegetarian diet is for the birds, you might not be very happy with what you get from him. Ask yourself if the person is sensitive to your needs in an area before asking for their help. Consider what kind of strings might be attached to your request. Will a meal come with the assumption of conversation and entertainment that you will be hard-pressed to provide?
4. Consider negotiations carefully.
If you’re open to negotiating boundaries, ask yourself if you honestly feel up to negotiating a compromise that ensures your needs are met? Do you even have the energy to attempt it? If not, then don’t, even if it ruffles feathers.
5. Use “I” messages.
When you find yourself irritated or losing steam, focus on what you need, rather than what the other person may or may not be doing. When someone’s presence becomes overwhelming, say, “I’m realizing that what I need right now is some personal space.” Or, “I really just need to rest right now.”
6. Avoid giving in to guilt.
Guilt can come from both sides. People’s need to help is often motivated by guilt, and you may feel guilty if you don’t accept. When you’re feeling vulnerable, avoid squandering your limited energy worrying more about hurting others’ feelings than healing yourself.
7. Don’t make excuses.
Be as clear and neutral as you can: “I’m just not up to it right now.” Or, “I have more than enough food thank you.” Excuses often give the other party material for trying to convince you to go against your better judgment.
8. Pick the right mode.
How you communicate is important. If you don’t have the energy to hold your ground over the phone, for example, you can write an email or a text instead.
9. Calm down first.
When saying “no” or establishing any boundary, wait until you’re reasonably calm and in a neutral space. Even if you’re just sending a text.
The bottom line is that when we prepare ourselves to say “no,” or make the choice to put our needs before someone else’s, we don’t know how the other person will react. Because our brains are already wired to expect the worst, our fears may be even more pronounced when we’re vulnerable.
I find it helpful to remember that whatever reaction I fear is simply that: a fear. I honestly can’t predict the outcome. This means that whatever energy I spend trying to anticipate and prepare will likely be wasted. And when I need to stay focused on healing, I don’t have energy to waste.
Take good care : )