When I moved to the city, I swore I would never get back into food service. Six months after I moved here, I was, of course, back in food service. I was auditioning for shows regularly at the time, and restaurant work is flexible enough to accommodate last minute auditions.
The high-pressure, fast-paced nature of a restaurant does not naturally engender itself to healthy boundaries, particularly in someone who already has poor boundaries.* On a given night at the restaurant, I was simultaneously managing relationships with the guests, my fellow servers, my assistant server, the food runners, the bartender, the managers, and the kitchen. In an ideal world, I would also be managing my own personal, emotional, and physical well-being. Like, for example, taking 2 minutes to pee even though it meant that table 23 would have to wait to place their order. And yet, something had to give and for me, it was always my relationship with myself. I wanted to be loving and considerate in all of the other relationships, and I thought that meant never saying no. Love is, after all, sacrificial.
It might seem odd to you that I am using the word “love” to describe these relationships. Maybe it is. I use this word partially due to the nature of my faith, which talks a lot about loving people. In one Bible Study group, I heard a story of a frustrated server who shifted her attitude by silently praying for every one of her tables while she was waiting on them. I never remembered to do this, but it sounded like a nice idea.
I also use the word “love” because the intense nature of the restaurant industry can foster an environment of close relationships among the team. Call it what you want–a family-like environment, trauma bonding–many of the humans I have worked with in restaurants over the years quickly became close friends. We have to rely on each other, learn to trust each other, and work together even when we’re having one of those nights where nothing is going right. I always wanted to be the person that everyone could rely on.
Cut to a series of 14 shifts in a row that started to upend my boundaryless understanding of sacrifice.
A couple of coworker/friends had asked if I could cover their shifts, which was a normal enough occurrence. Wanting to be the picture of gracious martyrdom, I said yes and didn’t even insist that they take one of my shifts in return. I ended up on the schedule every day that week, which wasn’t a big deal. Assuming I had a normal schedule the next week, I’d have some time off then. I thought of all the money I would make and decided I could power through. Besides, one of those days, I was “on call,” meaning that if there weren’t a ton of reservations on the books, I wouldn’t have to come in.
Then, the next week’s schedule came out and I was assigned to work every day that week as well. The manager had copied and pasted the current week’s schedule and had not noticed (or possibly had noticed and didn’t care) that I was now scheduled to work 14 days in a row.
This would have been a great moment to reach out to my friends/coworkers and see if any of them would take a shift or two so I could have some time off. I could have also reached out to the manager and said, “Umm do you think you could do without me one of these days? That’s a lot of shifts in a row.” I did neither of these things, because I thought I could handle it. Part of me has always believed that sacrificing my physical and mental health for the sake of an unpleasant task is somehow noble and loving. Plus, I reasoned, my on-call shift was a random weeknight; there was no way they would need me.
The fateful day of my on-call shift arrived, and I called the restaurant at 4PM to ask the manager if they needed me. He said that they did not, have a great night off. I was overjoyed. The new Star Wars movie had just come out, and you’d better believe I was going to go see it accompanied only by a tub of chemically seasoned popcorn.
Then my phone rang, the restaurant’s name on the screen.
No, I thought. No, no, no, surely not.
I picked up the phone. It was my work husband saying that the assistant server had called out and the manager needed me to come in. “Is this a joke?” I asked. Manager Dude didn’t even have the stones to call me himself. Not only was he asking me to come in, he was asking me to work well below my pay grade and expertise.
And yet, the boundaryless thoughts said, you technically are available. You were on call. You can’t let the team down. They need you. You’ll just have to sacrifice.
Irate, but bound by my own warped sense of duty and the thought of my friends/coworkers under extra stress, I said, “Alright. I’ll be there at six.”
The moment I walked through the doors, my body started to do what my words could not. It said no. I was tired. I was resentful at the manager who dangled a precious night off in front of me, only to use a person I cared about to yank it away from me. What ultimately set me off, though, was how I was greeted. As I walked in, a different manager asked what I was doing saying yes to an assistant server shift, that they really didn’t need me, but if I was there I might as well stay. There was no grateful acknowledgement of my sacrifice. There was only confusion as to why I had agreed to the ridiculous request of the scheduling manager.
I went downstairs to put my things in my locker and my steely resolve began to melt. As I came back upstairs, I was horrified when I realized that tears had started escaping from my eyes. I grabbed a coworker/friend and asked if she had a minute. We went outside and I completely lost it. I sobbed and gasped for air. I tried to articulate my thoughts, to explain and justify my feelings. She said, “Mary B. just go home. You don’t have to be here. We will be fine. Honestly, it’s not worth it.”
“I’m fine,” I lied, “I just need a minute to compose myself.”
“Mary B., find the manager and tell him you’re going home.”
So that’s what I did.
In their book Boundaries, Drs Cloud and Townsend write, “People with poor boundaries struggle with saying no to the control, pressure, demands, and sometimes the real needs of others. They feel that if they say no to someone, they will passively endanger their relationship with that person, so they passively comply but inwardly resent.” I had convinced myself that sacrifice to the point of sacrificing your very self is what love is all about. When my sacrifice was not met with the appreciation and adoration I thought I deserved, I had nothing left but the simmering rage. And on a certain level, I was afraid that if I said no and nothing bad happened, I would lose my value as a friend/coworker.
At the beginning of my shift the next day (yes, you are reading that correctly. I made absolutely zero changes to my schedule after my breakdown), Manager Number Three called me over. He said, “I heard there was some sort of incident last night and you needed to go home. Is everything ok?” I explained what happened, and that I was on the schedule for eight million shifts in a row. He said that that was clearly a mistake that could have been addressed; I should have drawn their attention to it. I said I was feeling much better after my cathartic breakdown and watching Star Wars. I was ready to finish out the rest of my shifts provided my schedule went back to normal the following week.
Looking back, I realize that by “much better,” I meant that I had purged all of those pesky feelings and was ready to once again completely set aside my own personal needs for the good of the team. I couldn’t seem to shake this feeling that everybody, including God, demanded this kind of sacrifice. I told myself that I was doing it all for the sake of love and service. But really, I was doing it to feel important and valued. I realized that my desire to play the hero had nothing to do with true loving sacrifice and everything to do with the affirmation that comes from feeling needed. I believed my value came from the extent to which I was needed, not from who I am as a person created in the image of God.
Even to this day, I have to contrive a really good reason to justify my “no.” My therapist says that I’m allowed to say no for the mere reason that it is not something I want to do. I am not entirely convinced. I mean, I think he’s probably right, but it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around it. What he means, I think, is that “yes” does not need to be my default response, and he wants me to understand that in everything I have a choice. So I can choose to say yes, but I need to get to a place where I also believe that I have the option to say “no” without the world coming to an end. If I were still working in the restaurant, that would mean recognizing that the restaurant will not grind to a halt if I were to take an unexpected day off.
My current challenges are different than they were at the restaurant. There is virtually nobody around to notice and applaud the sacrifices I make here. So that’s substantially disincentivized this habit of mine. I wrote last week about how I am trying to build a loving relationship with you, my readers. I am learning that I can neither serve or love y’all if I don’t also learn to say no to some things. I can’t say I’m especially good at it yet. I frequently fall into the idea that I’m never doing enough. I could get up earlier and work longer hours and take less time to socialize and maybe then I would be able to do it all. But that mindset only keeps me frantic and that model of work is not sustainable. In fact, my work suffers when I don’t pace myself. In order to love and serve y’all in a way that is more about your wellbeing than my need to feel important, I am learning that working more is not the best approach. Maybe sometimes saying no is the most loving thing I can do for both of us.
*A boundary can be physical or conceptual, but basically it distinguishes one person or thing from another. It says, “This is where ______ ends and ________ begins.” So when work thoughts and problems bleed into my time off, that is an example of a compromised boundary.
Picking up what I’m putting down?
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