I have a problem setting boundaries. I know this, and I’m working on it, but it’s still a problem. The thing is, I like helping people, and that sometimes gets in the way.
Part of it is altruistic – I like seeing others benefit. Part of it is selfish: when I feel like there’s so much I can’t do in my life, it feels so good to do something that others find useful. But whatever the motivation, I have limitations, just like anyone else. I have limitations of time, ability, and energy. But on top of those, I also have limitations because of my health.
Lately this has come up a few times, and I’m handling it poorly. I know I could do better, but I’m not sure how.
We all have differently limitations and abilities, and that includes those of us in the chronic illness community. One person has more energy, another can climb stairs, another can walk more, another has greater cognitive function. It’s easy to forget that those abilities don’t preclude other limitations. I’ve been guilty of it myself. I see someone who walks a lot, and I forget that while they don’t have fatigue, they do have pain, for example. And now I’m on the receiving end of that.
I’ve been volunteering to help people in my chronic pain support group with a few things. I want to help, but I also have to be careful of my own limitations. I try hard not to commit to doing more than I can reasonably handle. The problem is, sometimes people ask for more. And that’s where the boundary issues come in.
Several times lately, people have assumed that I would do more than I had offered to do. I think they see me having certain abilities, and they forget about my limitations. Then when I say no, they ask why.
I offered to teach an informal class on using Facebook. There are so many great Facebook groups for people with all sorts of chronic illnesses, and I’d even set up a Facebook group for our support group. I knew a lot of people struggled with it, so offering a lesson seemed like a good idea. The problem was that several people said, “I can’t make it to that lesson, so when else can we meet?” I was stunned! I couldn’t give private lessons to everyone! Just that one class was exhausting. I didn’t leave the house for two days after that. But no one saw that part.
Finally I sent around an email saying that I’d be happy to give private lessons on a schedule that worked for me if people wanted to pay me. That ended most of the discussion, though one person still said she couldn’t afford to pay me but still wanted to meet because she needed help. I get that. I often need help that I can’t afford to pay for. So I don’t do it. I simply can’t help so many people. It’s not within my abilities.
I’ve been doing a lot of other tech support for the group. One person asked me to do some things and I finally said no, but that I’d be happy to show her how to do it. She asked why I couldn’t do it. I finally was direct: “Because I also have chronic illnesses and I don’t have the energy for it.” She said she’d find someone else to help.
I wasn’t trying to be rude or difficult or uncooperative. But I think people forget that doing seemingly easy things, like typing into a computer, can be downright exhausting for some of us. It can be painful for others. For some, it’s both. And just because I can do 10 things, doesn’t mean I can handle 11. Just because I can leave the house for 1 lesson doesn’t mean I can handle 5.
Many of my friends with chronic pain and chronic illness have visible illnesses. Mine isn’t visible unless you really look. You might notice a wince, a limp, or a stumble, but most of the time, I look just fine. So in some ways I understand why people forget and expect more of me.
Then again, when it’s someone with a chronic illness who asks me why I won’t do something extra, I just want to shout: BECAUSE I HAVE CHRONIC ILLNESSES TOO! JUST LIKE YOU!
Do you encounter this? How do you handle it? Please comment and let me know your experience!
I actually don’t have many people around me with chronic illnesses (or at least severe enough that they require a different or extra kind of help), I’m the odd one out. It doesn’t stop me from helping out when I can, and like you because my illness is relatively invisible people sometimes forget I have limits to how much I can do at a time, or some things being completely off limits. The worst part is, I hate having to use my illness as an “excuse”, it makes me uncomfortable and usually that means I try to push too far and regret it later. In the end the only way I need to handle this is get over my issues with admitting being ill means I can’t do everything and it’s ok to tell people that.
I hear you, Ms. Mango. It’s important to communicate our limits, but so hard to do. Good luck. I hope you can find a way of doing that that works well for you.