How to stop apologizing for reasonable boundaries (sorry, fellow Canadians!)
Plus pop culture shout outs to a song I didn’t love and to a children’s classic book that I adored.
Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.
When I was 31, I was at the top of my game. I was working in a career I found exciting: I travelled a lot, I talked to important people, and I worked on things I cared about. I was in the best shape of my life, running with a club and increasing my speed and stamina. I was feeling pretty damn good.
And then one morning I woke up and couldn’t feel my face. Unlike The Weeknd, I didn’t love it.
Weeks later, my husband and I sat in a neurologist’s office to learn that I had multiple sclerosis (MS). We learned that my immune system was attacking my nerve fibers and that my brain and spine had numerous lesion areas over which nerve impulses could no longer pass. We learned I might end up with vision damage, or live with debilitating fatigue, or eventually need a wheelchair. My neurologist, upon seeing my distress, tried to get me to focus on the bright side. If I purchased my new expensive medications at Safeway on the third Tuesday of the month, he told me, I would receive bonus Airmiles! “Some of my patients have been able to go on very nice trips,” he reported.
Two decades later, I am grateful that MS has not taken my mobility or my vision. It has instead given me something: a clear warning system for when I am doing too much. If I get overtired or overstressed, my body lets me know in no uncertain terms with symptoms like dizziness, blurred vision, slurred speech, digestive and bladder issues, issues with walking and balance, indescribable fatigue, or (my least favourite) paresthesia, which for me presents as a horrible tickling sensation that feels like bugs crawling under my skin or like a numbness that erases whole body parts.
I will do a lot to avoid paresthesia.
Happily, I have found that putting boundaries on my energy and time go a long way in keeping me well. I maintain limits on when I work, the number of evening activities I attend, and the amount of travel I do. I am careful about the amount of “extra” stuff I agree to do and I negotiate reasonable timelines as much as possible. I used to make apologies as I did this. Sorry, I can’t do a breakfast meeting. Sorry, I can’t add that event to my calendar. Sorry, I can’t take that on like a person decades younger with perfect health and no children. Sorry I am who I am.
I don’t apologize anymore. I stopped apologizing when I realized that saying sorry for protecting my health and well-being is ableist bullshit. In the words of Sonia Renee Taylor, the body is not an apology. I refuse to apologize for having MS. I refuse to apologize for having family responsibilities. I refuse to apologize for being a person in addition to being an academic employee.
Life provides many good reasons to apologize. You did something shitty or thoughtless that hurt another person. You were judgmental or disrespectful or insulting. You didn’t do something you said you would do, you didn’t do your fair share of the work, you lost or broke something that you were responsible to care for, you fucked up in some way. Apologize for those things, and do so sincerely.
But enforcing reasonable boundaries on your time and energy? This does not call for apologies. Apologizing implies you have done something wrong and risks reinforcing gendered, racialized, and ableist assumptions about workloads. No thanks.
If you agree with me about this, today’s small thing to try immediately encourages you to stop apologizing as well.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: The Two-Week “No Apologies for Reasonable Boundaries” Challenge
This two-week challenge encourages you to get out of the “sorry” habit and unapologetically claim your space in your own calendar and life. Here is how it works:
1. Look at your calendar and identify the date that is two weeks away. These two weeks are your “no apologies for reasonable boundaries” period. Add them to your calendar so that you don’t forget.
2. Decide what your reasonable boundaries are for this period. The point here isn’t to get out of doing your share of important work or to make everyone bend to your schedule. “Reasonable” means fair and appropriate. So what is fair and appropriate in your context and relative to your position? You need to figure this out for yourself. Write down three boundaries on your time and energy that seem fair and appropriate. Here are some ideas to spur your imagination: Work forty hours per week between specified hours. Do your fair share of department service relative to your career stage and other assigned responsibilities (e.g., teaching load), and no more. Complete one to three journal reviews for every article that you currently have out under review.
3. Identify why you want to keep reasonable boundaries in your life - and why you don’t want to apologize for doing so. Why do you want to keep unapologetic reasonable boundaries? Your motivations might be to have more time to devote to your personal or work priorities and to set an example for your colleagues and students while doing so. Your motivations might be a principled desire to do your fair share of work and to quit reinforcing unconscious gendered attitudes about service duties. My own motivation for reasonable boundaries is to avoid losing feeling in my legs and my motivation for not apologizing is that I want to reinforce to myself and others that taking care of ourselves as people is important.
4. Decide in advance what you will say instead of “sorry”. There are many respectful ways to say no without apologizing. “Thanks for this opportunity. I am not able to take on this commitment at this time. I wish you all the best with it!” “Wow, this sounds so interesting. I must decline the invitation but I appreciate that you thought of me!” The key, in my experience, is to respond early so that the other person can move on to finding someone else.
If you wish, you can provide a reason for your decision. (E.g., “I agree that the Bylaws Committee is important, but as I am already serving on the Undergraduate Committee and the Research Ethics Review Board, my schedule doesn’t allow for me to participate.”) But you shouldn’t feel obligated to. You can take the lead of Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White and simply decline “for secret reasons.” Alternatively, you can take the lead of a friend of mine, who when pressed to explain why she is saying no to something always states that she has a pap smear scheduled at that time. People never ask her twice.
5. Be prepared to be surprised at how often you catch yourself apologizing. As a woman and as a Canadian, I have been socialized to apologize a LOT. Once I decided to stop doing so, I discovered that it was my default mode. I still find myself rewriting things, and “sorry” is often replaced by “thank you.” “Sorry for the delay” is rewritten to “Thank you for your patience” (unless the delay was truly unreasonable, in which case I apologize). “Sorry for the typo” becomes “Thanks for catching that!”. “Sorry to bother you” is transformed to “I appreciate your assistance.”
After the two-week challenge is up, you might find that not apologizing for reasonable boundaries works well for you. If so, I encourage you to keep going. Your well-being matters, and it is nothing to be sorry for.
Until next time…
What is the most ridiculous thing you have apologized for? Mine is easy to remember: I once bumped into a streetlight and apologized to it. (This was before my MS diagnosis, but not before my MS-related balance issues.) To the best of my knowledge, the streetlight forgave me and we are good. 🙂
Stay well, my colleagues.
P.S. Back to the Safeway Airmiles: Eventually my family did cash in with a trip for four to Florida. We visited the Everglades, kayaked among the manatees, and toured the Kennedy Space Centre. So I guess my neurologist was correct after all.
Want to help support my chocolate habit? You are very sweet. Buy me a coffee is a site that allows readers to show their appreciation for the unpaid labour of writers, artists, and other creatives. Check it out!
Loleen Berdahl, Ph.D.: I am a twin mother, wife, runner, cat lover, and chocolate enthusiast. I spend far too much time binge-watching television and my house could be a lot cleaner. During the work hours, I am the Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. I am the author of University Affair’s Skills Agenda column and my most recent books are Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science.
Full disclosure: some of the links in this newsletter are affiliate links, which means that if you use the link and then make a purchase, I may make a small commission that I will use to support my chocolate and book-buying habits. The cost is to the corporation and not to you, but you don’t want to use the link, no problem: just search up the item again without using the link provided. Better still: support a local business and source the item(s) that way!
If you are interested in having me lead faculty success and/or graduate student success workshops at your campus, please contact me by replying to this email!