A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with shingles. The week before that I had strep throat. A few weeks before that my children started a new school year and the church program year began. A few weeks before that my mother died of dementia.
I’m an achiever, extrovert, parent, full-time lay minister, friend, volunteer, and have a tendency to people-please. I am sure that many of you are a combination of these things as well because you are reading a Christian parenting blog and hoping someone can speak a word to you about figuring this life out.
Please stop reading if you are looking for answers. I have zero things figured out. God has been trying to teach me the same lesson for the past thirty years: YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL. While that lesson is still hard for me to fully master, a new pattern of what God is revealing to me has begun to emerge that is even harder for my ego to take: YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT.
This isn’t said in a self-deprecating way. I believe that I am a beloved child of God with a universe of love and light surrounding me. I know that I have important gifts to share with the world, but I am starting to take a hard look at the boundaries I set to keep myself feeling beloved and to insure those gifts are not being leveraged against my inner peace.
Some of you have read about the journey my mom and I took as we traversed her illness; what it has been like to be sandwiched as well as experiencing the angst that comes with being a person in the world. Since my mother’s death on August 1st, I have begun a new journey of figuring out where I fit in this space since my axis, my safest person, my home base is gone.
Throughout the ten years I have been in ministry I have been accessible. I’ve had my email on my phone (and checked it almost compulsively- including on my days off). I have completed student references someone forgot to ask for and the deadline is NOW while in the car with my family on summer vacation. I have returned non-emergency text messages on nights and weekends. I have bent over backwards to make life easier for others at the expense of my own peace and rest. None of this falls on other people; it all falls on me. It falls on my own lack of boundaries. It is rooted in my own insecurities and concern that if I don’t do it all I will be found out for what I am… barely holding it together and making it up as I go.
My mother’s death coincided perfectly with the two weeks I planned to take off for family vacation. For the first week of ‘vacation’ I sat at my mother’s bedside as she slowly died and for the second week I did all the work that no one tells you must be done after someone close to you dies. Then, as if the most earth shattering thing had not just happened… I returned to work.
No one forced me. No one asked me to. No one insisted or even mentioned I return. And yet, I did.
For a few weeks I was in such a haze that things trucked on as ‘normal’ then school began and strep throat materialized and shingles spread.
My body told me what my mind didn’t want to believe.
You need rest.
You need to feel.
You are entitled to grieve.
You taking time off will not immediately make others’ lives better but in the long run you will be better for it.
It is a slippery slope when it comes to being needed and feeling important. It can make you feel like you are a worthy human because of what you do and simultaneously make you resentful that you have to do it. My mom used to tell me that ‘no’ was a complete sentence but I somehow lost that knowledge along the way or didn’t believe that it served me. I believed that the right thing, the holy thing, the Jesus-like thing was to always put myself last and make the lives of others’ easier.
The thing is…
- It was egotistical of me to believe I held that much power.
- I sold the capabilities of others short.
- Jesus never taught me that.
Jesus was the perfect example of pouring himself out, while also asking for what he needed and taking time for himself. He often retreated to pray, asked his friends to do things for him, and fled away from crowds. God incarnate ‘needed a minute’ when things got overwhelming or loud or too much. Even before his most selfless act of dying he retreated to pray, asked his friends to stay awake with him (they failed miserably but he did ask for what he needed), and pleaded to the Father that if there was another option, it be offered to him.
In ministry. In friendship. In families. With children. It can be easy to think we have to be the one to keep the boat afloat. We have to be the one to do all the things or it will fall apart. I am slowly learning the hard lesson that people are extraordinarily capable and that other people’s lack of planning is not my emergency. I am not that important.
To be the best minister, friend, spouse, and parent I can be it means that I must draw a line. I have begun taking email off my phone when my day off starts on Friday and not turning it back on until I’m in the office Monday. I have said no to being on the school PTO because one more night away each month when I already have lots of night commitments for work makes me feel bitter. I have left text messages unanswered for hours and *gasp* even days because there was no emergency and other things needed my attention. Turns out, no one is mad. No one really notices and if they do they certainly don’t care. I, on the other hand, feel lighter. I feel more present when I’m at work and more present when I’m at home.
I am certainly not the boundary queen (insert hysterical laughter of those who know me), but I am starting to be intentional about setting them and holding them. It’s a spiritual exercise for me. I am facing my deeply held belief that if I don’t do enough for others, they will not love or approve of me. I am leaning into the knowledge that I am enough no matter what I do or don’t do.
Jesus did, in fact, teach me that.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Flickr]
Where do you draw the line?
In what intentional ways do you observe boundaries in your life?
Lois Shelton says
Thank you Emily, I just happened on your blog. I relate so much and I am 80 years old. I have just begun to set my boundaries. It is very hard to do when you love what you have been doing but the stress can be more than one can bare. Like you I had several weeks of ill health different thing happened, a non invasive spine operation, then a broken ankle, then more back pain each going for 4 to five weeks at a time. finally after the last spinal procedure, I began to realize I probably needed all that stuff back then. I began to pray and pray a lot asking God for some enlightenment. It has begun to come slowly, I need to slow down. I need to learn how to say no. And believe me Emily, I am finding so much peace and feeling less stress. Yes sometimes I take a guilt trip or two but I know This is where I need to be. Just a big thank you, because if I had not read your blog I would not have realized I am where God wants me. Thanks again. Lois.
Emily Rutledge says
As the week begins I feel so grateful to read about your story and for your transparency. Sometimes I assume everyone else has it figure out. Prayers for you as we walk this path!
This is really excellent. Very well expressed and so true. If only I had done that years and years ago. I could have, I see that NOW. Alas, I didn’t back then. I wonder what our lives would have been like if Bill and I had both learned to set reasonable boundaries where we worked. I’m still saying yes to church commitments even when they impinge upon other things that are so much more important. And then I feel terrible about it. Over 40 years in church work you’d think I’d learn. Good for you, Emily!
Mary Lee WIle says
I suspect your heartfelt message will resonate with grandparents as well as parents — the “How can I say no to….?” doesn’t go away with age, but remains a constant battle. Thank you for naming it so articulately, and blessings on your courage to recognize and name the need for boundaries.
Emily Rutledge says
Thank you! I am grateful for those who walk this boundary path alongside me.