Kindness is an essential part of our human relationships and wider society. The most celebrated stories are those in which someone has done, or has been done, a great and unexpected kindness. We are even more deeply touched by kindness which seems to come at a sacrifice to the one extending the kindness, which is freely given in spite of the personal cost. Kindness is a gift that we give to others, not out of obligation but out of the goodness of our hearts. Kindness is a choice.
Kindness and personal boundaries are nuanced and unique to each person and the particular relationships each person has with the different people in their lives. Having said that, a person who rarely says “no” to the suggestions, requests and demands of others is likely a person who is experiencing emotional strain in their own life as a result. A very conscientious or empathetic person may have a hard time with the concept of personal boundaries because they feel that they are not being kind when they say “no” to someone.
How do you know if you need to say “no”, and when, and to whom? It is not enough to simply say “When you know you don’t want to do …”, because there are times when we need to do things we would rather not do. How do we choose which things we will do even though we don’t want to, and which things we will not do because we don’t want to? This question requires a bit of exploration to find the answer.
A good indicator that you may be saying “yes” when you should be saying “no” is the feeling of resentment. When your “yes” is accompanied by feeling used, taken for granted, and feeling unappreciated, that is a signal to examine what is being asked of you, and whether or not you are actually willing to do it.
If you discover that you are not actually willing to do it, why do you say “yes”? There may be some very good reasons for saying “yes” that will still hold true after evaluation of the circumstances. There may also be some very good reasons to change your “yes” to a “no”. Whatever your answer, it is a choice you will have made freely and have decided to accept the consequences of your decision.
Let’s look at a scenario.
Ellen considers herself to be a kind person. She likes that identifier for herself, and she’s good at it. Other people are always telling her, too, how kind she is. It’s her reputation and she cultivates it conscientiously. It’s not that hard for Ellen to be kind, it really does come quite naturally. She has a sunny disposition, has a lot of energy, and can easily anticipate the needs and wants of those around her which allows her to do little kindnesses that are genuinely appreciated. There are times, though, when she’d rather not help out a coworker or neighbour. She has interests of her own and enjoys some personal space once in a while. But these instances do not occur very often, and she is able to push her annoyance aside very easily by reasoning that it won’t take her long, and it’s easy for her to do. She is, after all, a kind person.
Most of the people in Ellen’s life appreciate her acts of kindness, do little things for her in return, and express their appreciation for her in small ways. Most people are careful not to ask too much of her, and are inherently respectful of her time. There are a couple of people, though, who ask things of her much more than they do anything else in their relationship. If looked at objectively, the main underlying reason for these peoples’ contact with Ellen is so that they can receive some kind of service from her. One is her neighbour, Grace. The other is her coworker, Neil.
Grace is a busy person. She cares about a lot of people and takes care of a lot of things for a lot of people. She is really good at delegating to certain people to get the help she needs to be able to manage her large workload, and Ellen is one of those people. Ellen hears from Grace quite often, and Grace always asks about how Ellen is doing, which Ellen really appreciates. Grace’s calls are fairly reliable, as she tends to call on her way home from work. This is a nice thing for Ellen to anticipate most days, something to “welcome” her home as she lives alone. They will review their days at work, and then, inevitably, Grace will ask Ellen to do something, or ask if she’s done the thing she asked her to do the other day. Ellen doesn’t mind, most times. Grace is really busy, and Ellen likes to help out. After all, that’s what friends are for.
Neil is the sales manager at the office where Ellen works. He is one of those guys who is friendly to everyone. He’s quite attractive, to be honest, and Ellen enjoys their chat at work. Neil makes her feel good about herself in a way that other guys don’t. She feels special. He’ll often catch up with her in the lunch room while she’s making her tea and they’ll share a bit about their shared interest: Jane Austin. It’s something Neil doesn’t talk about with anyone else because it doesn’t fit his “persona”. It’s their little secret. Sometimes, though, Neil asks Ellen to do things for him at work that his own assistant should really be doing. Sometimes, the things Neil asks her to do seem a bit “off”, but she can’t really put her finger on why.
Every once in a while, Ellen has a niggling feeling of annoyance with Grace, and sometimes a feeling of her conscience pricking her with Neil. Every once in a while, when she’s had a bad day or is feeling particularly low or lonely, she feels resentment. These feelings are usually fleeting and after a day or so they go away. But lately, it’s been happening more often and those feelings are more difficult to push away. She is less and less satisfied with how she feels in these relationships, and she wishes they would understand how she is feeling and be more considerate of her.
In these two different relationships, Ellen is getting something she needs from the interactions and so are the other two people. Grace gets her tasks done and Neil gets his “tasks” done (whatever those might be). Ellen enjoys reliable contact each day or so upon coming home from work, and she enjoys the feeling of attention from a charming and attractive man at work. However, something is not working for Ellen. There is something bothering her. Is it a question of kindness? Is there an arbitrary, objective way to assess whether this is an issue of how kind a person should be to all of the people in their lives?
What are the issues for Ellen? What is she feeling that is getting in the way of continuing with the interactions with Grace and Neil? What is not working for her anymore? What does she need that she is no longer getting? What are her values? What does she want for herself? Is there a way for her to get that with Grace and Neil? What are the costs to saying “No” to Grace or Neil? What does that say about mutual respect in their relationships? Who is ultimately responsible for the tasks? Who is not? Who will bear the consequences, and what are they?
These questions and others can only be answered by Ellen herself. Ellen decides to see a counsellor for some other issues she is struggling with, and brings the question up in a session. Her therapist guides her through her feelings and thoughts, and once Ellen realizes that she wants to make a change in those relationships, she is referred to a Conflict Coach to work out the details. Let’s see what happened after that…
After a couple of one hour sessions with her Conflict Coach, Ellen had a plan for what she wanted to do next time she spoke with Grace. Neil felt like a more difficult situation to deal with, so she decided to start with her neighbour first. As always, Grace called Ellen on her way home from work, and Ellen answered the call feeling slightly anxious but determined. So far, so good. Ellen really does like the rhythm of this habit they’ve developed with each other. They each went through the highlights of their days, enjoying a light banter and offering mutual support for the struggles. Before she said “good bye”, Grace asked Ellen if she could do her a favour. Ellen listened to the request, and asked a couple of clarifying questions. Ellen was not sure how she felt about doing the task. She had decided that she didn’t want to include any extra time-consuming activities this weekend so that she could start a sewing project that she’d been eager to start. She told Grace that she’d have to think about it and get back to her.
Grace was silent on the other end of the call. She had never heard Ellen say anything but “yes” before unless there was a really good reason. Finally she asked “What’s wrong? What do you need to think about? What are you doing this weekend?” Ellen was prepared for questions and challenges from her coaching sessions, and had a response prepared. She knew she did not want to offer any explanations that would give Grace an opportunity to solve her problems for her or judge whether Ellen’s preferred activities were valuable enough to say “no” to her.
“I’m not quite sure yet. That’s why I need some time to think about it. I can give you an answer later tonight or Saturday morning” Ellen said. Ellen bit her tongue so that she wouldn’t say “If that’s okay with you.” Her coach had challenged that phrase over and over again in their role play prep, and Ellen didn’t want to have to answer that challenge from Grace. Ellen then allowed silence that lasted five seconds, which felt like a lifetime.
“Well, I do need to know tonight. If you are so busy you can’t help me out, I’ll have to try to find someone else. I don’t even know who that would be at this point. I was counting on you. Frankly, I’m surprised that you even need to think about it. It’s not a big deal and wouldn’t even take much time.” said Grace.
Instead of taking the bait and defending herself, or explaining that if it wouldn’t take much time Grace could perhaps just do it herself, Ellen told Grace that she’d get back to her in a couple of hours with her decision. They hung up in not as friendly a manner as they usually did, and Ellen felt sick to her stomach. She thought she might throw up. The first hour after that call ended was spent trying to breathe and stay calm. She almost wished the two hours would pass by already so she could just say “yes” and get it over with. She did the thing, right? She didn’t say “yes” right away. That was the point, right, not to give in so quickly?
The second hour was spent doing the reflection exercises Ellen was given by her therapist to see how she was really feeling, and what she really wanted. This really helped her to calm down and check into what was important to her. Then she weighed the consequences of saying “no” to Grace. That was terrifying, because she knew that Grace may actually not want to be her friend and that she may actually only call her because she wants things from her. Ellen was ready to find out.
Ellen told Grace after two hours had passed that she would not be able to help out with the task this weekend, but is happy to help out with other things when it works for her to do that. Ellen said that Grace can feel free to ask another time when something comes up. If Ellen is able to help, she will. Grace accepted Ellen’s response, with some comment about what she will do now. Ellen wished her well with the issue, and made her good byes.
Ellen did spend the weekend on her sewing project. She felt bad many times over the weekend, also wondering if Grace might see her and wonder why she wouldn’t give up some of her time over the weekend. Ellen also felt very happy that she was into her project, and many times got lost in the flow of it. She was very happy with the freedom she felt to give it all of her attention without having to stop for something that was not a priority to her.
The next week, Grace did not call Ellen until Wednesday. It was the same routine, chatting first with a request at the end. Grace was a bit hesitant to ask, and there was a bit of a sarcastic “unless you’re too busy” tone to her voice. Ellen felt a bit stung, but her kindness prevailed and the task was an easy one for her; much easier than it was for Grace, and she was okay with the time frame. She was happy to take on the task and told Grace as much.
It took Ellen some time to get used to thinking about her own needs. It was not easy to use those boundary muscles when they didn’t get a lot of exercise, but she kept trying. She reached out to her Conflict Coach a couple of other times when she felt the need for more support or a reminder. All in all, she was feeling much better about her relationship with Grace, and was finding more time for the other things she really valued in her life.
Her next challenge is what to do about Neil…
Kindness is a choice. Doing things for people when there is no choice, or the consequence is detrimental to us, is not kindness; it is coercion or worse. It is important to be kind to each other. It is also important to be kind to ourselves. There are different parts inside of ourselves that pull us in different directions and want different things. Some of those things that we want are solving a need in a way that may not work anymore, or never did work well at all. Checking in with ourselves to understand what the different needs are of the different parts of us will give a clue to what we really want for ourselves, and what we really want to be able to offer to other people out of kindness.
Personal boundaries protect the needs and wants of our own deeply important personal selves so that we can be healthy, which allows us to truly offer good things to other people freely, and with joy.