September 7, 2021

Setting Boundaries is Not Burning Bridges

Matches: one burnt, one showing promise
Credit: Tangerine Newt via Unsplash

Two weeks ago, I had to back out of a work commitment. Last year, I had agreed to teach at a workshop for a very small honorarium. And I do sometimes do that because I understand the value of community and connectedness. But as the date drew near, the workshop organizers were asking me to teach three classes and appear on two panels. Between travel and babysitting, I would have lost money. Not to mention the Delta variant and that masking and being vaccinated was being encouraged, but not required at the event. The decision making moment came, when our sitter texted me to tell me she was sick.

I communicated with the organizers weeks before, when I had concerns about the labor load and teaching expectations and was told to attend one of a series of Zoom meetings, which were scheduled in the evenings when my kids have homework and dinner and sports practice. I declined and then when our sitter told me she was sick, I canceled.

I don’t believe in burning professional bridges. Not always. What I believe in is setting boundaries. My philosophy of networking is that everyone is somebody, so treat them well. I’ve seen interns get hired as editors, who later published me. I’ve seen mom bloggers become best-selling authors with hit podcasts. I’ve seen social media managers get hired to run prestigious magazines. My philosophy is to treat everyone with respect and be a good human first. This means I go through great effort to be thoughtful when I have to say no. 

As a woman, people are more willing to cross professional boundaries with me. And as a woman, I sometimes have a hard time discerning that gray area of when to stand firm and when to be flexible. I have friends who work as a sounding board, who let me know if I’m being peevish or protective of my time. And having their feedback for so many years has helped me to learn to trust my intuition that if the job seems like a mess, it probably will be.

I don’t know if I always manage that line correctly. But I can tell you, the older I get the more I understand that the people I want to work with, the people who will be good to work with, are the people who will treat you with similar respect.

The conference organizers responded to my cancellation request with a series of emails that essentially demanded I try harder to make the conference work. Telling me I’d inconvenienced them and well, suffice to say, I knew then, I’d made the right call. 

Often the people who demand the most of you without apology are the people who don’t compensate you. And still more often, there is a correlation between the lack of pay and the entitlement to your time. Saying “no” is not burning a bridge, it’s a boundary. Burning a bridge is what I didn’t say in response. What I didn’t say was, “Don’t shame a single mom or anyone for canceling an event in a pandemic.” “Don’t try to make me feel guilty for taking care of my kids.” Instead, I just hit “Delete.”