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Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should

I’m hoping not to let this post get snarky.

If I let it, then that will be the takeaway. That will be the takeaway instead of it being about expectations, and boundaries, and valuing ourselves…but wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. This needs some background to get where it’s going and it starts with work.

I’m pretty much solo in the work I do. I mean, I am on a “team” of people that have my job, but we all cover different areas so our paths don’t cross much day to day. The person I do cross paths with most often has a very different background and a very different job, but we cover the same area so that’s how we overlap.

One thing to know about this person is that he’s a nice guy with an incredibly complicated personal life. He has a lot of personal things demanding his attention so that, quite often, he just doesn’t have the capacity to put his attention on work.

Can you guess what happens?

Yep, that’s right. People/I cover for him. People/I pick up the slack. People/I do parts of his job that aren’t ours to do. We do it because we want to help, we want to be considerate, we want to be reliable. He’s a nice guy in a tough situation after all.

And then can you guess what happens?

I can only speak for me, but here’s the gist: the more I do for him, the more he comes to rely on me. He knows I’ll be there. He thinks we’re a great team. And the more he relies on me, the more resentful I grow. I do not want to be there. I do not think we are a great team.

It’s a simmering resentment for a while, and it starts out easy to blow off. It gets a little harder over time, but still, it’s manageable. Then something big breaks down the road and all of a sudden that resentment moves from simmer to rapid boil.

At this moment I am the opposite of helpful; I am the opposite of considerate. I become the person I tried so hard not to be. And I feel selfish about that.

I know some of you can relate to this, so what can we do with this awfulness?

Well, if I were texting you, this is where I would insert a shrug emoji because I am working through that very question as we speak, and the answer does not appear to be simple.

Maybe the obvious first step would be to communicate your expectations - I expect you to do your job and not rely on others to do it for you - and set clear boundaries - if you don’t do your job, I will not do it for you.

But doesn’t it depend on the person? What if it’s an acquaintance rather than a work colleague? What if it’s a work colleague in a job that’s dragging you down anyway? What if it’s a significant other? What if it’s a family member?

What if that other person is someone who, if given an inch will take a mile so that you’re always expending great energy to maintain your boundaries? What if that person has no idea what boundaries are in the first place and won’t hear you even if you do speak up?

You see how this can devolve into quite a dilemma.

So, how about instead of starting there, first adopt the motto “just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.” This motto serves to put the focus on you. This motto says that your needs are worth it too. This motto says that you are valuable and that you get to decide.

This motto says that if you can’t give someone your energy at all, it’s ok. This motto says that if you want to communicate boundaries and to work to maintain those boundaries, it’s ok. This motto says that if you know communicating boundaries will be one-sided so you need to distance yourself and protect your energy, it’s ok.

This motto is not selfish, it is healthy. And we cannot show up for others if we are not healthy.

In my case, I decided to speak up (which was hard) and say the situation was not acceptable (which was awkward). I spoke to him and to my boss and to his boss (which felt harsh) and I suggested a plan (which felt pushy) to make things better. And with each step of the process, I’ve become a little stronger and it’s all gotten a little easier.

I know he’s trying too. In fact, just this week he thanked me. He thanked me for shaking him up and reminding him what he was supposed to be doing. He thanked me for being an example of how he could set better boundaries in his own work.

And while I can’t promise it will always work that way (wouldn’t it be great if I could?), I do think that by sticking to our motto we’ve got the best shot at the best outcome most of the time. Which are actually pretty good odds if you ask me.

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