Recently I had to tell my sister Lisa that I couldn’t come to a party celebrating her recent graduation from seminary. I had been out of town for a week, and it was scheduled for the same day as my son Isaac’s birthday. Saying yes to Lisa’s party would have been saying no to Isaac. I really wanted to say yes to Isaac and Lisa, but it was impossible.
So I told Lisa I was really sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to go to her party. Her response was so gracious. “Steve – I am 100% in favor of having good boundaries around family and self care.” We are scheduling a different time when just the two of us will celebrate this big milestone.
How aware are you of your limits? You can’t do everything. You can’t attend everything – even all the good things that you really want to attend. And you can’t do everything – even the things you really want to do. Most likely, you attempt to squeeze more onto your to-do list than is possible to actually get done, which makes you feel like a defective human being.
Anybody with me?
Several years ago, when I was painfully aware of some of the ways that I was failing at tasks and people, my friend Becky looked me in the eyes and told me, “You’re feeling your edges. And that is a very good thing.”
Are you in a season right now where you are feeling your edges? Are your limits are making themselves painfully obvious? How does that show up for you?
- Do you get really irritable with those you live with?
- Are you more aware than ever of your exhaustion?
- Are you indulging more than normal in your numbing behavior/addiction of choice?
- Is there a simmering anger just below the surface that feels dangerous and explosive?
The worst part about it is that we keep waiting for someone else to give us permission to have limits. We get irrationally angry at emails that demand responses. We load passive aggressive comments into the chamber and squeeze the trigger, aiming at those closest to us. We sigh and stomp around with heavy heel strikes, while our kids wonder if we are chasing something, or if we are being chased.
You’re not defective. You’re just trying to run your life at a pace which is incompatible with being healthy.
Here’s the thing: Only you are responsible for setting your limits. Nobody is going to set them for you, because it will inconvenience them. And when you set your limits, you are not responsible for how people respond to you. I know very few people who will will thank you for setting limits. Almost everybody will expect you to keep giving them what they want. But if you do not set limits, you are building a prison of resentment for yourself, and locking yourself in.
Here’s what I’m learning about setting limits:
- Be Kind. It’s okay for people to be disappointed when you say no. Lisa was disappointed when I told her I couldn’t go to her party. When people are disappointed, don’t try to fix it. Be kind, say you’re sorry, and reach out to that person when you have some space and time for relationship.
- Be Honest. It’s tempting to make up an excuse for why you can’t get that thing done, or attend that event. But when we do that, we are simply propping up the lie that we can do everything. Wouldn’t it be a gift for some of us to shatter the myth that everything can be done? “I’d love to go to your party, but I just can’t.” “I really want to hang out with you tonight, but I’m exhausted and I need to get a good night’s sleep.” Once when I was in a conflict with someone, I offered to take him to a baseball game. He simply said “No thanks.” That wasn’t his jam. It stung a little, but I respected him for not trying to make an excuse, and also for not pretending that the conflict would get better by watching nine innings of boring baseball.
- Be Consistent. I am a pastor, which means that there is always someone to meet with. But I’m also an introvert. So my limits include never setting meetings with anyone in the mornings on Tuesdays, Thursdays, or Fridays. I need those mornings to write messages, read books that nourish my soul, and get work done that only I can do alone. When I started Genesis (the beautiful church plant that is now two years old), I decided that I would give one night a week for church meetings. I have three young boys, and being home with them for dinner and when they go to bed is very important to me. And with a very few exceptions, I have held to that for two years. This may change when my kids get older, but for now, one night a week is a good limit for me. I also never, ever work on my sermon on Saturday. Saturday is the one day of the week that our family can work together and play together all day. Sometimes that means I get up very early on Sunday to finish it. But I’d rather cheat my sermon than cheat my family.
- Be Reciprocal. When you set your own limits, it encourages others to set some for themselves, which will sometimes inconvenience you. Give them the same grace you hope they will give you.
Setting limits also means being OK with certain things just not getting done, and not working on getting better at everything all at once. If you know me, you know I’m terrible at returning phone calls. This may change someday, but for now, I’m just deciding that’s one of the things I’m not going to work on getting better at.
I’m convinced we’ll be better at loving ourselves, God, and others when we honor the limits of our humanity. We’ll allow others to set limits, and we’ll enjoy each other that much more when we’re together with an honest and resourced yes.