Over the past year, I’ve found myself to be in a consistent position of “advice provider.” This advice transcends generations, from my millennial friends to my middle-aged relatives and curling aunties, as well as scenarios, including both professional and personal dilemmas.
Having spent my professional career in human resources, I am used to people coming to me for guidance on navigating the tortuous process of job applications, interviews, and contract negotiations. What I was not prepared for was the similarity of advice I was giving to be a “copy and paste” across individuals and situations. It often comes down to this: “You don’t owe them anything.” Below, I present a handful of situations I’ve given this advice in to showcase how to set and maintain personal boundaries without triggering feelings of guilt, wasting your time, or doing things just because you should.
Situation 1: Dating
I’ve somehow found myself acting as a sounding board for a lot of my single friends. Having not spent much time without a partner, I’m not sure how I’ve become a dating expert, but I digress. In the age of swiping, ghosting, and a constant exchange of messages, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the obligation to respond to, meet up with, or continue to communicate with people you’ve connected with online.
Except you don’t owe these people anything. Swiping right on someone’s profile indicates interest, the same was as making eye contact with that hottie across the bar. It does not indicate you must respond to their advances. An invitation to get a drink is just that: an invitation. You do not need to say yes if you are busy, or if you are just not that interested. Have you gone out with someone and didn’t feel a spark? You aren’t obligated to continue to see that person or message them. You don’t owe them anything.
This is what I continue to repeat to my friends: these people are strangers on the internet. If you change your mind about wanting to see them, or find yourself too busy to spend your valuable time or emotional resources hearing about why someone is still single despite the fact that they are “over six feet tall and a dog dad,” simply tell the person you are no longer interested. You don’t owe this person anything. That dog dad probably can’t tell you apart from the other fifty girls who like beers and hikes they’ve messaged this week, anyway.
Situation 2: Job Offers
A common situation I find myself discussing with those in my life is competing job offers. Evidently, I associate with individuals who are desirable in the workforce. They ask me how they should respond to the organization they are not interested in. Feeling guilty about having participated in the selection process through interview, reference check, and offer stage, they feel a sense of obligation to provide a lengthy explanation as to why they have decided not to accept the offer. Typically, this because they had a competing offer, and used the less desirable offer as leverage in negotiation.
I always advise that they don’t owe the organization anything. Just as they were exploring multiple jobs in their job hunt, the organization was exploring multiple candidates in theirs. Simply informing the organization that they thank them for the offer but have decided to accept another offer is sufficient. Having worked in recruitment for many different organizations, it is not uncommon for candidates not to accept an offer at the final stage in the selection process. I do caution, however, not to be rude in declining an offer, as you never know where you may encounter those recruiters or the organization again.
Situation 3: Social Obligations
We’re all busy, and we wear the word busy like a badge of honor. Some of us, however, need some time away to recharge. Some of us may have other obligations others are not aware of. For instance, in the age of the sandwich generation, not only are people caring for themselves, but they are also often simultaneously acting as a caregiver for their children and ailing parents. But you don’t need a specific reason not to attend social events that serve no purpose for you.
I consistently find myself hearing from my peers that they attend events “because they should,” or that they maintain friendships that don’t bring them any joy, drain their emotional resources, or take up their time. Relationships should be reciprocal. In the instances that they are not (say it with me now), you don’t own them anything. Informing someone that you appreciate their invitation but need to take some time to yourself to recharge is enough. You don’t need to provide a lengthy explanation about how your workplace sucks and you’re putting in too much overtime and can’t find the time to shower.
Situation 4: Health Issues
It’s amazing how, when you age, you quickly develop more and more health issues. I used to laugh at my “old parents” when they complained about sore joints, bad eyesight, or stress. Now that I’m closer to 30 than I am to 20, I find my conversations with my millennial friends mimic those with my curling aunties: they are focused around health concerns. Don’t even get me started on the mental health issues as a result of graduate school plaguing some of my nearest and dearest.
When it comes to health issues, people can be nosy. They want to tell you what you should be doing to make yourself better (as if you haven’t already been trying to drink more water and sleep more). When it comes to disclosing your health issues, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Feeling too depressed to leave the house and play soccer? Your response shouldn’t be received any differently than having sprained an ankle. “I’m sorry, I’m not feeling healthy enough to play tonight, I’ve found someone to sub in my place, best of luck!”
This is especially true in the workplace. Health issues can oftentimes be hidden, be a chronic pain condition that makes sitting all day horribly painful, or debilitating anxiety triggered by the asking of when you’ll have the next draft in. Where I live in Canada, you do not have to disclose your health issues to your employer — you simply can ask for an accommodation to improve your situation, or at the very least, mitigate your concerns.
But remember: Setting boundaries is not an excuse to let your personal life and career suffer.
As a final note, I don’t want to discourage anyone from being open and communicating about their health issues, emotional support they require from friends, or to be honest with prospective employers that they are entertaining multiple offers. What I am trying to communicate is that what might seem like a big deal to you, may, in fact, be but a blip on someone else’s radar. It’s important to maintain healthy boundaries with others as a mechanism to protect your own emotional health.
Kelsea is a reality TV junkie and recovering overachiever from Canada with an affinity for knitting. You can follow her plight to save struggling plant parents on Instagram by following @kelseaknits.
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