By Nancy Hoag
Setting boundaries may sound simple enough on paper, but what if it’s a family member insisting on more of your time than you can part with? Something has to give. For me, both my emotional and physical health became endangered. I ended up in the emergency room where I overheard the doctors say my blood pressure was soaring and my EKG did not look good. They would soon discover, however, that it wasn’t my heart at all: it was stress. All because I hadn’t said no, and I literally dropped in a crowded store.
Years ago a family member had insisted that she spend an entire week in our home—even though I’d signed on to teach at a local writers’ conference. While this family member was present, I hid out far from home for the better part of each day and took my breakfast and lunch in fast-food restaurants in order to prepare lesson plans. Eventually, with my nerves frayed and my stomach in knots, I sought advice from a Christian counseling friend.
Soon after that first meeting with my friend, I began to practice setting boundaries. “I hope you’ll understand, but I won’t be able to critique your manuscript,” I now tell fledgling writers. Or, “I’m sorry, but the timing doesn’t work for me to make another commitment,” I recently explained to a woman who insisted I’d be the best one to chair an annual summer program.
I’ve learned that saying no or sorry doesn’t make me a wicked person; I’m simply protecting myself and even my marriage. I’ve also learned to take thinking walks and to pray before I respond to unreasonable or poorly timed demands.
Dr. Phil said, “It is your job to put up a boundary. It’s also your job to build a gate in that boundary, so people that love you in your extended family can come in and out appropriately.” On the downside, because I am a Christian, I have on occasion suffered a relapse and said yes when I longed to say no.
Does a “Good” Christian Say No?
“Christians often focus so much on being loving and giving that they forget their own limitations,” explained Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
I confess there was a day when I believed God would love me more if I said yes. I suppressed my frustration by telling myself, “I’m the only one they can turn to.” When I heard about a woman who told her son she wasn’t up to caring for his four children and that he needed to hire a nanny instead, I longed to be like her—but what if I made my grown child upset? Would I no longer be welcome in her home?
When my first marriage ended in divorce and only one of my three children decided to live with me, I feared if I said no once too often, my youngest would return to her biological father and stepmother.
When we aim too high in an attempt to please others, we raise our anxiety level. I reminded myself that God’s Word says, “So do not fear . . . I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). Frequently rereading this Scripture, I renew my vow to allow God to strengthen and sustain me.
Making a Plan and Sticking to It
Though I studied to become a professional counselor, there have been instances when I couldn’t seem to wisely counsel myself. I’d grown up in a seriously dysfunctional family; I married at age 17 as a way of escape; and I ended up divorced 17 years later, which resulted in feelings of inferiority and having been so much less than what my children had needed. Damaged by past emotional hurts, I frequently felt not only rejected but discarded. My childhood had negatively shaped my view of myself, but if I simply kept saying yes then how could anyone find a particle of negative evidence against me?
“You can’t go on like this,” a prayer partner firmly offered. “Ask God to help you be kind but honest.” If it hadn’t been for close friends and a godly counselor, I might still be struggling and agreeing while my stomach and head continued to be full of fear and trepidation. In prayer with my straightforward friend, I made up my mind to change.
Several years ago I landed my first major book contract, and I was not only grateful to God but amazed that a well-known publisher would want anything written by me. I’d worked on this book for more than a year; I’d prayerfully come up with a title that seemed a perfect fit. But when the editor called to say she’d be changing the title—and not just slightly but completely—I asked for time and then I called my agent. “Please, can you do something?” I pleaded. “This new title does not belong on this book; the readers will never put it together with what I’ve shared inside.”
My agent refused; this editor sent her a great deal of business, and she didn’t want to risk losing the additional well-paying work. Writer friends suggested I find another agent. But did I listen? No, because I didn’t want either woman to be upset with me. When the book was taken out of print after having been on bookstore shelves for only one year, my agent told me, “I knew they killed your book when they changed the title.” That very day I wrote a letter that ended our working relationship. But wouldn’t it have been better to have held my ground from the very beginning?
“Sound boundaries give you the freedom to walk as the loving, giving, fulfilled individual God created you to be” (Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend).
Breaking the Cycle
Some days, while writing or gathering the laundry, I rehearse what to say should a request come that I cannot consider, given my temperament and schedule.
Just like baking or playing the piano, practice makes perfect. Practice saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t”—and before you know it the yes cycle will be broken. Repeatedly remind yourself that both you and God know who you really are and why you were created. Which means you and I must prayerfully manage our own time, cease fearing, and keep our physical and mental health a priority. This is not selfishness.
Traveling with a pickup truck and fifth-wheel trailer, my husband and I have served as Habitat for Humanity volunteers for just over five years. When we first signed on, I could climb ladders, frame, put up siding, lay flooring, and run both a chop saw and drill. Today, because of a back and neck injury (and the aging that comes whether we want it to or not!), I paint. At first I hesitated to say I could no longer do what the others were doing, but now I do what I can safely do so I can continue to help deserving families desperately in need of decent, affordable homes.
Today I ask if God would love me more if I could do more. And I say to myself, “What do you think?”
Nancy Hoag is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana.