boundaries

I had an embarrassing moment my first day of work 4 years ago as Dean of Students at NYU Stern, and I’m not even talking about the practical joke that HR played on me. (Let’s just say it was April Fools Day and it involved asking me on a conference call if I would agree to supervise the students as they wrapped a thousand NYC shrubs in Stern-themed tree-blankets.)

No, I’m talking about the other thing.

My first evening at work, I decided to meet as many students as possible. So I went downstairs to the Thursday evening Beer Blast, as it is called – a weekly tradition where students hang out with a few kegs and decompress from the week.

I had already been announced as the new Dean of Students over a school-wide email, so of course I figured everyone would know who I was.

They didn’t. That’s because MBAs don’t read emails. They read case studies and financial models and they read Instagram and nothing in between.

Instead, what they got, that Thursday evening at Beer Blast, was some random dork in a suit waving to them and shaking hands with every person that walked in like he was running for 5th grade class president.

I cringe thinking about it.

But I also learned a lesson. Wearing that suit, which I had intended just to be an occasional thing when I had meetings or presentations, had an interesting effect: It had created an obvious and dramatic separation from our casually-dressed students. It was an easy-to-spot boundary between us. Which was useful, because when I shave (as I had that day), I look pretty young. (I also look like a newborn piglet.)

From that day on, I wore a suit every day. It allows me to be casual and joke around with the students – in other words, to be myself – but to also to be The Adult. The administrator. The high school vice principal.

I want our MBAs to have fun. I just don’t want to really be a part of their fun. I don’t want them to get too informal with me. Like the photo above, I want to be together, happy, bonded with the students, but with a healthy moat of separation between us.

My suit gives me my Work Boundary.

Liz and I first learned about the concept of Boundaries early in our marriage. (All credit to Dr. Henry Cloud.) Boundaries have saved our marriage, conservatively, about thirty thousand times. They have saved my personal sanity at least as many.

They have kept me focused on the important things by fencing out everything that I don’t have the capacity to deal with. Not because those things are not worthy, but because they would suck the energy I desperately need for my wife and kids, my work, and my church community (and also Game of Thrones, because that show is straight up addictive).

Boundaries keep out the noise and keeps me focused. When God rested on the seventh day, I imagine that’s one of the things He was telling us: Boundaries, people!

We have to protect our rest. I don’t know about you, but if I’m not protecting my rest? Then chances are I’m not protecting my family. I’m actually doing the opposite. I’m getting stressed and overwhelmed and then who am I taking that out on? Lizzie, Finn, and Lucy.

But here is the big problem I’m having. You ready?

I thought figuring out the boundaries was the hard part. I thought the saying-no-to-people-and-outside-commitments and the telling-your-boss-you-won’t-work-weekends would be the hard part.

It wasn’t, not for me. The hard part was actually this:

After working so hard to create those boundaries, to summon the courage and the willpower to have hard conversations with the rest of the world, to risk disappointing friends and others, I discovered that I was, in fact, doing a terrible job of caring for the very people inside those boundaries: Lizzie, Finn, and Lucy.

I will carve out time to be with the kids, and then I can’t get off my phone, reading stupid junk on the Internet.

I carve out time with Liz, and I will find myself doing something around the house that I tell myself Absolutely Can’t Wait and will completely ignore her attempts to connect with me.

Our Sundays, our days of rest as a family, I’ll decide that I need to go to Home Depot to check out leaf blowers. Just for a minute! A minute of leaf-blower research! And soon the hours have slipped away and Monday is fast approaching.

Friends, I am gifted at offering brilliant, helpful advice to others while systematically ignoring it myself. That’s how it is with Work-Conor and Home-Conor.

Work-Conor seems to have a lot figured out. He’s efficient, he has set those clear boundaries and he maximizes his talent in the workplace. Great job, Work-Conor!

Home-Conor is defensive and doesn’t take his own advice. He does not maximize his time as a husband and a father. He is tired at the end of the night and while Liz is reading to the kids, he is often running around doing stuff that could easily wait. He is distracted.

I am acutely aware of this. How am I aware? Because in the times I get it right, when I slow down for Family Movie (4 pm every Sunday!) or sit with them while Liz reads to the kids or take my time putting Finn and Lucy to bed and listen to everything they want to tell me, well, it feels very, very right.

Sometimes I am bringing that suit of armor – so effective in the workplace – home with me. That doesn’t work for me. And it sure doesn’t work for my family.

The house needs to be the boundary. The house needs to be my suit of armor. Walking back inside I want to leave everything else out outside and protect what’s inside. Because what else am I doing all of this for if not to grow together in faith and love and understanding with my family?

So in honor of my suit I wear every day, I present to you…

The Top Five Outfits I’ve Worn in my Life that Have Gone Terribly Wrong.

1. Blue T-shirt (2nd grade) “I’m going to be President…As soon as I’m old enough to cross the street!”

It had a photo of the White House on the other side of the street. I loved that t-shirt. It was royal blue which I used to think was my color and now I realize it made me look like a Benjamin Moore paint swatch. I wore it all the time, until my friend Chris asked me if I owned any other clothing.

2. Giant Box over my Torso Painted to Look like a TV (3rd grade)

This was Halloween. The screen was drawn with “The Conor Grennan Show!” and the two “o’s” in Conor were the eyeholes. It was hot and brutally uncomfortable and harkened back to Halloween of yesteryear when a.) costumes didn’t have to be at all attractive and b.) they were often staggeringly dangerous view-obstructing hazards.

3. Sweat Pants (5th grade)

Let me tell you something about sweat pants: For being called “sweat” pants they are awful around water. I got caught in the rain and suddenly my legs weighed about a thousand pounds and I dripped gallons of water down the school hallway. They should be called Sponge-Pants of Terribleness.

4. Woman’s Shirt (9th grade)

We had a dress code in my magnet public school: Shirt, tie, blazer of our choosing. I was putting on a white button down that felt oddly snug, and something was off about it. It took me until I was walking to school to realize it had buttoned on the wrong side. Which is WAY TOO SUBTLE an indicator that a shirt is meant for women. Women’s shirts should read “This is a Woman’s Shirt!!!” in red letters across the front. (Sorry, women friends, but you’ll just have to get used to it. God created men and we may be dumb but we are here to stay.)

5. Slippers (40 years old)

I was running for the commuter train into NYC and had triumphantly leaped on at the last second when I realized I was wearing a suit with slippers. I threw myself off that train like Keanu Reeves at the end of the movie Speed, just as the doors closed. I went home to change, and wondered what that that whole scene must have looked like to everyone else watching. I never sat in that train car again.

If you haven’t read Henry Cloud, if you haven’t studied boundaries, do yourself a favor and get on that. It’s only half the battle, but it’s a pretty good half. Also, if you’re looking for a quick and simple way not to look stupid, do a mental check every day to make sure you’re wearing actual shoes. 

By | 2018-05-17T08:38:41+00:00 May 17th, 2018|10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Marcy Prager May 17, 2018 at 9:00 am - Reply

    It is SO hard to have those home boundaries. I, too, spend too much time on the computer, doing laundry, rushing to do a chore…My children are adults now, and when they come over, they demand my attention. My daughter, especially, knows how to get me to stop and be part of the family scene. The family is where the greatest love is. They have your back. You have to have theirs. All else can wait and will be done in a timely fashion. Writing “to do” lists helps, then leave it somewhere where you will find it later.

    • Conor May 17, 2018 at 9:29 am - Reply

      I think that’s my thing – if I actually write out what I want to do and decide whether it can wait, it’s hugely helpful. And I always feel like a rock star dad when I put those things away to spend time with the kiddos and LIz. And I like being a rock star dad.

  2. Crista Mathew May 17, 2018 at 9:50 am - Reply

    Yes! I love in Ps 16 when David looked back on his life and reflected that “The boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places.” I used to be like “what? boundaries and pleasant in the same sentence??” Henry Cloud is great – the whole boundaries series, and also “Changes that Heal.”

    • Conor May 17, 2018 at 10:10 am - Reply

      Tell me about it. I didn’t realize it was a concept until Henry Cloud. But it’s amazing stuff. Good old David!!

  3. Amy May 17, 2018 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Oh, how I needed this today. I took an extended weekend off from work this week and on the first day (yesterday) I made the mistake of checking my email. Of course there was an email about the very topic I’m trying to de-stress from and now I’m carrying that around on my “vacation”. I’m going to write myself a note about it, shove it in my purse, and let it go. I hope.

    • Conor May 17, 2018 at 11:30 am - Reply

      I think I need a tattoo on the back of my hand, reminding me constantly. Is that lame?

  4. R. Adams May 18, 2018 at 2:23 am - Reply

    Conor, I know this may be kinda unrelated to your actual post but it made me think of this! http://www.lifeinjesus-ministries.com/THEUNPROTECTEDAREA.html I love your blog and your story!

    • Conor May 18, 2018 at 10:28 am - Reply

      Not unrelated at all. I love the armor! I’d never read that before – so good!

  5. Denise May 24, 2018 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    Yes! This especially: “I am gifted at offering brilliant, helpful advice to others while systematically ignoring it myself. ” Let me know if you ever need a volleyball coach for the kids. I retired in 8th grade after a solid career of benchwarming, but I can set up a team rotation and strategy like nobody’s business. 🙂 I have enjoyed these posts, so thanks to both you and Liz for sharing!

    • Conor May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am - Reply

      That’s awesome! Thanks Denise! And thanks for reading!

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