I can not do it all.
I can not accomplish anywhere near the number of things I accomplish without carefully created concentric circles of support. My support system is deep and strong. Truth be told, I don’t think I much deserve it, but there it is. For some reason, there exists a network of people who work with me to achieve my goals.
That is not by accident.
Through painful trials and egregious errors, I learned the lessons of establishing and maintaining boundaries.
This has been a recurring theme for me lately. This week in particular, as I combed through notebooks and files, research articles, and books to pump out the next blog, I found myself coming back to boundaries.
It was like a pebble in my running sneaker.
This week, more than most weeks, I have felt my boundaries being pushed and tested.
A family member cut my son’s hair without my permission. I agreed to social outings that took away from my writing time. The Squad has taken turns waking up in the middle of the night, throwing off our sleep schedules. Seasonal allergies, COVID, and ear infections have swept through the house in force.
All of my neatly drawn lines, detailing routines, and behaviors, charting the boundaries I need in place to keep this family functioning and to keep myself sane almost eroded.
The balance within my support system pulled me back to the center. My boundaries and support system are the major components of my mental health. They help me embrace my Strong Black Woman identity while reminding me of my very human and totally valid needs. They help me walk the line between asset and liability.
What do you do if you discover the biggest part of your identity is also your biggest liability?
I was raised to take care of others regardless of how I felt. I was raised to respect others regardless of how they treated me. I was raised to be grateful in every circumstance. I still argue that each value is a good one. I also admit that each conceals a clever psychological weapon. Disregarding how I felt led me to incredibly self-destructive habits and behaviors. My gratitude has been manipulated to serve the interests of others. I did not realize any of this as disaster after disaster played out in my life. I was frustrated by being exactly who I was raised to be and so utterly miserable.
I could accomplish so much for others and not much for myself. My time, talent, and treasure was spent manifesting the dreams of others, while mine remained deferred.
There were no boundaries in my life. I answered work calls and emails at all hours. I swallowed flagrant acts of disrespect at work in the name of being a team player. I just told myself I was demonstrating strong character.
(BS, by the way, turns out I was just letting assholes get away with murder)
The shift came with motherhood. I physically needed rest (oddly something I never thought about in my twenties). Saying no was infinitely easier with a newborn. I also realized I wanted to actually spend time with my children. This made my 24/7 work style less manageable. I first established boundaries simply so I could work and parent. Then it became something more.
Strength took on a new meaning for me. Strength was less about how much abuse I could withstand and more about how much good I could unwaveringly unleash in the world. The former attitude was internal, the latter, external. I have found peace and joy in the latter.
Time, Talent, Treasure
Black women, I observe, spend an awful lot of time making other people’s dreams come true. In the roles we have been allowed to play in this society, we have made waves in our communities and in our nation. Mostly unrecognized, of course, but we know this to be true. We know this to be true because of the overwhelming push to highlight Black women in every industry. We have always been here, just not seen.
There has been a wave of Black women who refuse to remain or join the ranks, of the unseen. A universal theme that comes up in those success stories is boundaries.
So how do you start building them? I found it helpful to start with time, talent, and treasure.
Time I have previously mentioned tracking your activities for a week. An hour-by-hour description of what you do. Setting up boundaries for my time was my first step in establishing boundaries in my life. Consistently limiting the amount of time I spent on activities for others opened up a wellspring of time for my own creativity and growth. Try giving yourself cutoffs. What is the worse that will happen?
Talent If no one told you today, you are so gifted. You are equally gifted, if not more so, should you choose to pursue your own ideas. I have not always believed this. I have worked in many environments that use the same psychology as an abuser. “You are only good here, no one else would value you the way we do” Of course, I wasn’t being valued, but I also did not know what that felt like professionally. For a very long time, I shot down my thoughts and killed any notions of pursuing my dreams because they were mine. I played a part that was a fraction of me because I thought it was the only way to get anything done. After I started limiting how much time I gave to others, I started to limit what talents I gave to others as well. I like to think of myself as generous. I also like to think of myself as realistic. In American capitalism, money is made based on supply and demand. I adjust my giving accordingly, just like every white man in this country.
Treasure It’s not always money. What we treasure can sometimes keep us captive. Whether we want to protect it, increase it, or share it, we have to be intentional about where we keep it and how we handle it. I was not always careful with the things I treasure. I have lost a great deal because of it. The next boundaries I learned to develop were around what I treasure. I started to limit access and availability, which made it more valuable.
Having peers that understand my need for boundaries is critical. These are my friends who will remind me when I start to cave. They nag me until the email is written, the grant submitted, and the grad application complete. They give me confidence when I doubt. They help me objectively look at work situations and brainstorm the next steps.
They have been cultivated for just this reason.
I have a wide variety of friends. I have a wide variety of interests, so it tracks. Yet my friends ALL have growth mindsets. Whether they are older or younger, darker or considerably paler, they all want to be their best selves. Each has concluded that a healthy emotional state is the only way to do that.
That’s what I mean by like minds. Folks going in the same direction as you.
An uncomfortable truth about boundaries is that they may repel people we love. Not everyone we love is good for us. Some loved ones have no respect for our boundaries. And though we love them, it is even more important for us to maintain strong boundaries with them. This is strength, true strength, to me. Lovingly explaining to a family member the need for a specific boundary. As terrifying as it is initially, I have only ever experienced it work out in the end.
Being surrounded by like minds begins with understanding our own. Take some time this week to identify what you need to limit for you to allow more time for your growth and creativity.