You can imagine my big internal sigh of relief when every single one of my new neighbours all told me the same thing:
“We’re here if you need us, but no one here will be intrusive.”
Those words were like music to my ears!
I love people. I crave community. I am naturally open, smiling, generous. It’s not fake. I genuinely care. Yet I often find myself fearing situations like this one, like meeting my new neighbours, because I’m afraid that people will quickly want more of me than I’m able or willing to give. And when that happens, as I find it often does, I quickly move to overwhelm and withdrawal.
Not long after I moved in, I was out on a walk where I met a woman walking her dog. I said hello and we chatted for a few moments. But before I knew what was happening this woman had invited herself to walk with me, told me her entire life story, had asked me to look after her dog for a week whilst she was on holiday and had given me her phone number so that I could text her to meet up for future walks. As she got back into her car she shouted out, ‘Don’t forget to text me so I have your number!’
Forty five minutes after meeting her I wandered back up the lane to my house feeling drained, down and a little annoyed with myself.
To be clear, I’m not blaming this woman. She may have acted in a way I wouldn’t have acted myself, but it was my own handling of the situation that was the real issue for me. That said, I’m not blaming myself either. We all have our lessons to learn and one of of my big ones just happens to be expressing boundaries in situations just like this one.
Though I would have preferred to have had the courage to tell her directly in the moment that I was out for a quiet walk on my own and couldn’t walk with her and that I wouldn’t be able to dog-sit for her, or that it wasn’t necessary to give me her number, I did do a couple of things that were just a tiny bit different to what I might have done on another occasion.
First, when she asked if I could look after her dog, which actually wasn’t phrased as a request at all but as an offer, ‘You can look after my dog when I’m away!’, what I told her was that I could certainly consider it. Far from ideal, especially because I knew I wouldn’t look after her dog, it was better than saying yes knowing that I would later have to find a way to say no, which I’ve done a thousand times before. In saying I’d consider it, I created some space.
Second, when she asked to exchange numbers, I found a way to accept hers but not give her mine. Again, it’s far from ideal, but not giving out my number, which I really didn’t want to do, was actually a pretty big deal for me because I’m so used to taking the path of least resistance in these situations just to get through it and get out of there.
Once back at the house I had to face the internal battle of how mean of me it would be and how hurt she might feel if I didn’t text her. (Raise your hand if you’re constantly considering how every single person in a situation might be affected and then put their needs before your own.) But I didn’t. Instead, I started to practise what I would say to her if I ran into her again so that I could communicate my boundaries clearly and with kindness.
To someone who doesn’t have this struggle, practising what you would say to someone like this might sound ridiculous. But the pattern of people-pleasing and saying yes to things I want to say no to is so strongly rooted in me that practising is really helpful. If and when I see her again, I have no doubt that I won’t get it completely right and that afterwards I’ll spend some time feeling bad about whatever I say.
But whether it’s age and the increasing realisation of the limited time I have here on this planet, or finally having reached my limit of feeling like I need to give everyone whatever they want from me, I’m finally learning to be just a little less lovely.
It feels awkward, clumsy and scary but oh boy, does it also feel good!