Our community improv class had just ended and we all scattered around the make-shift stage, gathering our belongings. I gave a cordial head nod to the woman next to me and a quick wave to the guy who’d been my partner for that night’s class and headed for the door. It wasn’t my plan to make new friends here or give this class more than the hour it was scheduled for. Sharon – at least I think that was her name from the introductions? – had a different idea though.
She appeared out of nowhere standing between me and the door, an eager look on her face.
“So, you have a kid? How old?”
“Oh, she’s 2,” I said, zipping up my coat, “It’s a fun age,” I added, inching closer to the door.
“You live in the neighborhood?” Sharon also moved a step closer to the door.
I answered her, and upon further inquiry, found myself telling her how long I’d lived there and at which crossroads. Just as I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck and opened my mouth for the “well, I’d better run….” she reached into her pocket and pulled out a neatly folded notecard. She held it out to me saying, “here’s my number. We should grab coffee sometime!”
I ignored the invitation to coffee, but I couldn’t ignore the paper in front of my face. I grabbed it, stuffed it in my purse, and heard myself say “oh thanks! I’ll text you my number soon!” as I skirted around her and out the door.
As the door of the community center slammed behind me, I felt a surge of regret. I knew I wasn’t going to grab coffee with this woman. Frankly, I didn’t even want her to have my number. But my response had put me in a bind. If I actually gave her my number like I promised, I would just have to repeatedly decline her offers via text. Ugh, that doesn’t feel good. On the other hand, if I “forgot” to send her my number, I’d feel like a liar every time I saw her in class. I could already feel the urge to avoid her or to keep pretending I’d text her later. That feels even worse.
I eventually got home and threw my purse in the closet, getting back to things much more real: the dishes in the sink, the toddler that needed bathing. Yet I couldn’t shake this interaction which seemed so menial.
The next day, I brought it up to my group therapy class and someone asked the simple question: "Why couldn’t you just be honest?"
I had to think about that. The more I did, the more I realized I do this all the time. Becoming a parent has tightened my free-time and shifted my priorities, now I find myself saying no to things more often. It’s easy for me to know when I want to say no, but communicating it makes me feel mean. Sharon’s eagerness and pre-written note made me assume she was lonely, so I didn’t want to be one more rejection in her life. I instinctually chose this middle ground – no actual commitment, but no actual rejection either – which doesn’t help either of us feel better.
I’m inspired by people in my life who say what they mean and who make maintaining boundaries seem easy. One of my friends made it her goal this year to be more honest in her interactions. This is funny to me, because I’ve always been impressed at the honest way she turns down my invitations. Reasons like “I need a night in” or “I want to get caught up on my laundry” are good enough for her, without excuse or apology. Perhaps “I just don’t have room in my life right now for anything else” could be enough of an answer for me.
Later that week, I received an invitation to grab dinner with a casual friend, who knew I was available. Unfortunately, the invitation was during my only free-time that week. The decision came easily: I’d just recently spent time with her, so I wouldn’t go. No sooner had I made my decision, did the tug to be “nice” start. She did just lose that family member though, maybe she really needs someone in her grief? Beginning to lean in that direction made my boundary sirens start wailing. No! Don’t go! Just act like you wanted to come, but make an excuse for why you can’t.
I pushed aside both feelings and decided to try honesty instead. I typed back how I wanted to spend my free-time alone, thanked her for reaching out, and sent my best wishes. I pressed send and waited for the guilt to come. To my surprise, it didn’t.
And I realized honesty had detached me from the reaction of others’. I had brought my most honest self to the interaction and all I could hope for was the honest reaction of the other. If that honest response came with anger, judgement, or disappointment, so be it. Their feelings were not mine to own, just to continue responding honestly to. And that feeling actually felt nice.
If this spoke to you, check out this great mom-blogger's list of "10 Personal Policies that Make My Life Simpler."