HCT March 2021

HCT Column March 2021: Boundaries

This month’s column focuses on setting and maintaining boundaries in our lives. While many of us have probably read columns advising on the best ways to say “no” to others without sounding mean or rude, I would like to expand upon this notion of setting boundaries in other settings. In particular, I will discuss strategies for how to effectively establish boundaries with regards to time, requests for help, and handling unsolicited personal questions.

Even if you are retired, we all have a lot of demands on our time from family members, volunteer commitments, and other outside interests. Balancing all of these demands can be a challenge, especially if eight hours or more are spent in a work environment where your time is tightly controlled. I have a set work schedule that allows for just a few hours a night for other commitments and interests. This year, I have resolved to set boundaries with my time for my non-work commitments to no more than an hour a day during the week. This time is set aside to go through personal emails and answer questions or issues that have come up. In the past, I felt like I had to answer personal emails right away until I reminded myself of a few things: these are volunteer commitments and I am not getting paid to reply immediately; the requester is usually not expecting an answer right away; and that my replies are more thought-out when I am “off the clock” and not trying to send out a quick reply during a break. Whatever your work/life situation is currently, I recommend setting aside dedicated time periods of the day to handle certain tasks. Further, I also advise to turn off as many notifications on your phone as possible, including email notifications. That way, you can control when you want to look at emails, rather than your phone telling you what you have to look at at that moment.

None of us like to feel taken advantage of or feel like we’re being used. At times, it can be hard to tell when that line of helping and being generous has been crossed, especially if these are close family members or friends. Perhaps this example can shed a light on when requests for help have gone too far and how to re-establish boundaries when lines have been crossed: 

My husband and I live in a condo and are friends with an elderly couple who live in the same complex. We go over to their house a few times a year for dinner and we have become their de facto IT support for minor computer-related issues they have. In the past, they would ask for assistance and tell us to come over when we could. However, in the past year, these requests have increased in frequency as well as the time when they expect us to fix their problems. Last month, I received a phone call on a Sunday morning while I was away from home stating they had an issue with their new TV remote. I told them I could come by in about 45 minutes when I was back home. They were not satisfied with this arrangement and called my husband (who was home) who did not answer the phone. The wife then proceeded to come over to our house and ring the doorbell. My husband finally called her back and went over to help solve the problem. When I got back home, he was still trying to connect their new remote to their sound system. I also could not fix the problem. After about 20 minutes of this, the husband told us not to worry and revealed to us that their old remote still worked. He then demonstrated that it was still functioning: it just had a crack in it after being dropped recently so they had bought a new remote as a backup. 

To say that my husband and I were miffed at this episode would be an understatement. When we got back home, we both resolved that we would never immediately come over any time they had some non-emergency issue. There have been a few requests for minor help since this incident and I have responded that I will come over in a few days to look at it. We both felt we had to re-establish boundaries with this couple because they were increasingly becoming more demanding and pressuring us to drop everything and help them for small matters. As the popular saying goes “you teach people how to treat you” and I feel that if we did not put the brakes on this relationship, their expectations on our generosity were going to keep increasing.

I also would like to speak briefly on requests for help when it comes to money. Some may have had to handle financial requests from friends and family. This can be a delicate and uncomfortable situation for both parties and usually the requester states they will pay back the amount. I would suggest only lending out money if your financial situation is strong enough that it would be okay if you are never paid back that amount. It would be inadvisable to lend out an amount of money that you would need returned in two weeks to pay the rent/mortgage. I would also suggest having a signed agreement stating when money would be paid back, especially if it is a large amount. In any instance, I would advise making decisions regarding loaning money based on your own financial health, the closeness of your relationship to the requester, and the requester’s trustworthiness.

Finally, I would like to address how to establish boundaries when it comes to handling being asked personal questions by strangers, acquaintances, and co-workers. I walk in my neighborhood every day and every few months I will have an uncomfortable encounter with someone on the street, usually someone who I perceive to be homeless and/or mentally ill. The encounter usually begins with a “Can I ask you something?” question and I am never sure if the request is for money, directions, or something else. Because I do not want to be seen as rude, I will entertain this initial question and see where the conversation is headed. A few times the encounters have devolved into them asking me about my marital status, religious beliefs, and my job. I try to be as vague as possible and remove myself from the conversation. After the latest uncomfortable encounter I had with someone on the street, I vowed to not let the conversation get too far by stating something like “I do not share my private information with someone I do not know” and to keep walking and not look back. They may (and probably will) yell something after me but I’ve come to realize I’m not being rude. If the roles were reversed, they would most likely feel the same way if some complete stranger started peppering them with personal questions when they were out and about.

Similarly, you may have had such encounters before with complete strangers. Or, you have had co-workers who have tried to engage with you on topics of politics or religion or family matters. It is up to you with how much personal information you are comfortable sharing. You are under no obligation to divulge any of this information and simply responding “I do not talk about private matters or my personal beliefs at work” is acceptable.

In summary, setting and maintaining personal boundaries regarding your time, requests for your help, and divulging your personal information are important for your own mental health and well-being. If interactions with either friends, family, or strangers start to feel weird or uncomfortable, reflect on what is making you uneasy and come up with strategies to change that from happening again. Focus less on if they perceive you as mean or rude and focus more on making sure your time and well being are being respected by others.

Madeline Sims, Member of the HCT