Updated: Feb 23
How often do you feel squeezed into doing things aren’t a great fit for you and your family, or worse leave you with a real sense of unease as to whether it’s really right or helpful? I’m not talking about the mundane necessities – doing chores or attending an event you find a little dull.
It’s those times when you are battling your child to do something you’re not even convinced is right for them, and deep down you wonder if it’s doing more harm than good, but you feel you have to. Or the moments when you end up compromising or doing something which feels wrong, but you can’t quite work out why and you don’t want to make a fuss or upset others because “Is it that big a deal really?”
If you’re all too familiar with feeling caught in the middle - that tug of resentment, frustration, guilt and angst when you’re doing something which isn’t resting right in your gut then you’re not alone.
Some compromises are simply about being flexible. However other seemingly small compromises, especially when it goes against your values and boundaries, can be costly if left unchecked. If you are frequently making choices in family life which don’t feel right, it’s like living on a slowly eroding cliff. There is a cost, but you may not see it for a long time - like when your house starts to fall into the ocean.
The difficulty is it can be hard to spot. You probably sense something isn’t right, but knowing exactly what the problem is, whether it’s worth the risk of conflict in a relationships and then trying to find a resolution mean finding a way forward isn’t always simple. It’s especially hard if those around you can’t see or understand it and are unwilling to explore it further.
If you have a child who is a bit more unique and doesn’t fit the mould then the odds are you face these pulls in different directions frequently. It’s easy to say no to something obviously detrimental to your family. It’s much harder to say no to what appears to be positive or is something which others have an expectation you should do.
Take homework (or currently just school work) for example - How many hours do you spend battling your child to do the work which has been set by the school when, at times, your gut says this isn’t the best thing for your child or the most important focus of your energies? How much are you driven by concern about what the school will say if it’s not done or fear of your child failing? How often do you help your child more than perhaps is ideal because getting something done overrides their learning process? How often do you inadvertently slip into encouraging your child to do something neither of you value nor want to do in order to avoid conflict?
What about screens or social activities? Do you set boundaries based on what you feel is best for your child and family or are you too often forced to compromise due to what everyone else is doing? What about bedtimes? Chores? How you handle moments when your child’s behaviour is challenging? There are a million ways your choices can differ from those around you.
If you’re an attentive parent then THIS IS TOUGH. Standing back, working out what feels right and risking the wrath of the school, your child or living with that horrible sense of quiet disapproval from those around you is rarely enjoyable. But compromising our deep seated values is worse.
So how do you set boundaries which align with your values, which keep you true to you without become a rigid, uncompromising individual? How do you deal with the conflict – internal and external - which comes with boundary setting? How do you show kindness to others yet also to yourself?
The complexities of this issue can run deep, but if this is an area you want to move forward in the questions below are a springboard - an opportunity to explore how you can begin to move forward and set boundaries which feel more aligned to you and your values.
Before you dive into them it’s important to grasp the first step is accepting it’s impossible to please everyone. It does take some work to learn how to set boundaries and there will be some conflict – it may not be as bad as you anticipate, but there are times when others will push our boundaries and holding them will feel uncomfortable.
But if you want to raise individuals who live true to their values and can assertively decide when to go with the flow and when to make a stand then it starts with what we model – how we give permission, through our behaviour and choices for our children to be their bravest truest selves.
Grab a pen and paper and see what your answers to the following questions tell you:
1. What are my top priorities?
A deceptively simple question, but this is vital – this is about who or what you want to say yes to. If you can write it down to remind yourself then even better. When you’re clear on who or what takes top priority you have a focus and a benchmark.
If academic success is your top priority then going full on with school work and homework is possibly the route for you. If wellbeing is higher up the list then sometimes you’re going to have to make a choice between the two.
When you can step back and be clear about who or what is at the top of the list then you can see what or where you’re compromising and that awareness is powerful. It doesn’t make tough decisions easy, but it does bring clarity and confidence when you have to make them.
2. Who or what are you saying no to?
This may be the lightbulb moment. It’s not just saying yes to something. What are you saying no to? It may be much more than agreeing to attend that birthday party or someone else’s house for Christmas. You might also be taking your child into an environment they find stressful and challenging and saying no to their desire for something quite and less overwhelming. When you agree to help out that friend you may be saying no to that time you desperately needed to have some space and be in a more balanced frame of mind to handle the challenges of family life.
When we count the cost of our yes’ it can be a real eye opener. Often we’re spending lots of time pleasing people who aren’t that important at the cost of the relationships which are. Do that too often and you’re sending a message you really don’t want your loved ones to be receiving. What is compromising your boundaries costing you and your family?
3. What patterns of behaviour can I see in myself and what do they teach me?
This one and the next point may be emotive. Please take off the “should” and “oughts” at this point and instead step back and observe kindly. This isn’t about judging yourself or beating yourself up. It’s an opportunity just to learn and notice what’s going on for you. Again, awareness is powerful.
Look at the times you’re saying “yes” when you mean “no”. What do you notice about these? The odds are you’re not saying yes to anything dreadful. Often it’s things which seem positive or an urgent request or something very noble. Maybe it’s certain people or situations which you’re more likely to do this. What is going on here? When are the times you’re most likely to overstep your own boundaries? Who or what is influencing that? If you can identify what’s going on that information may be key to making change.
For example if you find yourself changing your parenting approach in the company of certain people that’s a very telling pattern. Seeing the patterns can help you understand what’s going on for you and be really useful in working out how to move forward.
4. What stops me saying no?
Maybe you agree to things which don’t feel right because it feels selfish or unkind to say “no.” Maybe it’s a deep aversion to conflict. But here’s the thing you can’t do everything and somewhere along the line there will be conflict. If you’re compromising your own boundaries then you’ll find a whole load of resentment and internal conflict to wrestle with as well.
As Brené Brown says: “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
Identifying the reasons you aren’t saying no without judging yourself will give you valuable information which is crucial to moving forward.
What is stopping you saying “no”?
5. What do I need to say no to and how could I do this in a way which feels ok for me? – Make a plan
If you know when you’re put on the spot you’ll end up agreeing to something which really doesn’t feel right then plan for the next moment that may happen. If you know what your priorities are, who you want to say “yes” to, when you struggle to say no and what’s likely to trip you up then you have a wealth of useful information you can use to your advantage.
When are the times you’re likely to overstep your boundaries? What would you like to be saying or doing? What would this look like in practice and who or what can help you?
If you don’t have a plan of what you’re going to say or do to handle those tricky moments then the odds are you’ll begrudgingly overstep your boundaries remain high. Preparing yourself for those moments (even if it’s just buying yourself time to think) can help you press pause before you find yourself pushed in a direction you don’t want to go.
Standing strong on who you are and what you believe is great in theory. It’s easy to feel inspired by people who are unapologetically them regardless of the fallout. It’s much harder when you have to do it in practice and you’re bracing yourself for the tut, mutter, or passive aggressive reaction.
Learning to say no is uncomfortable, but the more you practice it the more accomplished you become at doing it and finding ways to say it which are kind, but clear.
And here’s the real crunch – our children are watching. When they get older and we want them to say no to those who diminish them and yes to opportunities to thrive how will they know how to do this. It starts with us.
As Glennon Doyle wrote:
"Brave parenting is listening to the Knowing—ours and our children’s. It’s doing what’s true and beautiful for our child no matter how countercultural it seems. It’s about how when we know what our children need, we don’t pretend not to know."
If you know you could do with a helping hand to move forward in this area e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a chat.
I help parents whose children find everyday activities difficult to tap into their expertise on their child and find ways to best support their child so they can make family life a more positive and happier experience for the whole family.