Boundaries matter

By Caitlin Kelly

For some people, including me, setting and keeping tight boundaries around our time, energy, bodies, and psyche presents a real challenge.

I grew up in a bossy, often angry family that rarely, if ever, asked: “How do you feel?”

It wasn’t deemed relevant. Or I guess they assumed I’d speak up, which I rarely did.

I left my mother’s care at 14 when she was suffering from mental illness and not doing a great job with it. The stress was too much for me.

So I did set a boundary and a major one, early. But every time I hear the Cat Stevens song, Father and Son, it wrings my heart — the father pleading, “Stay, stay” and the son replying “I have to go.”

Sometimes you just do.

But it also matters when it comes to work.

Americans – with the worst/cheapest/nastiest labor policies possible — are used to working like dogs, not taking vacations or sick days, working in “at will” states where you can be legally fired for no reason at all.

So setting boundaries is just very difficult in a culture that expects us to be on and eagerly available pretty much all the time.

Last week, I walked away from a writing assignment worth $1,250 with a new-to-me editor at a major website.

I’m not thrilled about this. I have done this three times in my career, when the stress outweighed the income.

That’s a significant loss of income for us and was only possible because we have savings.

It’s not a habit of mine to bail on work!

But nor is it a habit to work with editors or others who are unpleasant or disrespectful.

I could have stayed.

I could have kept working on this story.

These days, decades into my career, I make my mental health the priority.

Setting and keeping a boundary can mean changing the dynamics of a relationship, or ending it entirely.

It comes at a cost, and has consequences, sometimes those we don’t expect or can’t foresee.

But who counts more?

16 thoughts on “Boundaries matter

  1. Jam Jasper

    Wise words. I’m sure that at this stage in your career you are good at negotiating aspects of an engagement, inso far as that is possible. I’m curious what exactly the editor did that was unworkable. If you don’t want to share, I respect that.
    One aspect of the boundary issue, in the personal realm, that I increasingly watch as I get older, is the question of whether warning signs were apparent early on, and if I responded appropriately. It is an issue with friends and potential romantic partners because we all have flaws and if we expect perfection, if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we will have no people in our lives at all. But for folks like me who tend to overdo the “caring for others” part, it is risky to overlook possible red flags. Obviously there is no one size fits all answer to this, but I find the subject interesting. If it’s a work assignment, unfortunately the editor is most likely to hold most if not all of the cards

    1. So true.

      In 1998 I dated (!) a con man, a criminal. I saw disturbing signs early on…and ignored them. Hah!

      This situation, to me, felt unworkable. I’m very used to being edited, obviously! I’m fine answering questions and filling in reporting gaps. All normal. But I really have lost patience with editing that feels like it’s going to go on and on and on and I’m not getting a penny more for additional time and work. I didn’t trust this person’s judgment and didn’t like seeing my copy shoved around like toys in a playground.

      So I bailed.

      I am not thrilled by this, believe me. But I have reached my limit for additional stress.

      1. Jan Jasper

        I remember your your experience having dated a con man!. It’s hard to say which is worse – the horror he put you through, or the derisive reaction of law enforcement when you sought help. About the assignment you just backed out of, I’m surprised to hear about editing going on and on. That reminds me of what I heard years ago about editing-by-committee carried out at the well-known women’s mags. I would be surprised if many editors do that anymore these days, because it seems like the pace has sped up so much. I’m surprised they would invest that much time when it seems unnecessary. . Of course there’s a difference between worthwhile, appropriate editing and just mindlessly interfering with the process – that sounds like this editor you dealt with recently was doing the latter

  2. sthrendyle

    When the very industry that you/we has transformed into some new kind of crazy-making business model that doesn’t respect the value of its veteran creators, (and can move down the line to abuse younger, hungry writers), then what do you do? You’ve been turning out great work; error free and on time, and don’t get what you deserve. It’s not all that bad of course, but we do work in a highly volatile and unpredictable industry.

  3. Susan Dunphy

    Sorry to hear you had a rough time. I hope an even better (and hopefully more renumerative) assignment comes along soon.

  4. with time, experience, and wisdom gained, you made exactly the right choice, in my opinion. maybe you should write an article about it. not being ironic, it’s such an important and interesting topic, especially from a journalist’s pov.

  5. Edmonton Tourist

    Well done you. I have done that twice in my career and it was hard. It worked out for me in the end and my mental health thanked me for it. I wish you the best in finding a respectful position. Sad that respect is looked at as a luxury.

      1. For me I think boundaries coincides with respect. Your definitely right about our mental health being more important.

  6. What a fine example of self-loving boundaries. I truly appreciated your shining a light on our country’s boundary-resisting culture, as it shed some light on my own struggles with boundaries. Thank you for the excellent read 🙂

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