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Setting Boundaries with Codcakes

I’m always talking boundaries with people. Often this comes in the form of saying no when you want to, rather than wanting to say no but saying yes instead. We often say yes when we don't want to out of fear, mostly fear of abandonment or ridicule. This was my first big NO to someone, after working on my boundaries for a few years.

Quite a few years ago now I used to participate in re-enacting. I was part of a group that re-enacted the Revolutionary War and was in a British military unit as a civilian woman. Women, mostly soldiers’ wives, did follow the British Army at the time and worked in legit professions as laundresses, cooks, shopkeepers, nurses and healers. It was really interesting and fun but also a lot of hard work. As part of the civilian contingent I helped cook meals, answer tourist questions and did period-appropriate handiwork: sewing, knitting, etc. Cooking was the biggest project as we fed about 50 people per weekend. We’re talking cooking period food over an open fire, even in 95-degree weather wearing all period clothing, so hot dogs on a stick here and layers upon layers of linen and wool clothing.

One of the other civilians really liked to cook and had even been to cooking school. He planned pretty elaborate meals for our unit and was our unofficial chef. The elaborate cooking could be fun but it could also be too much. One year we all agreed to cook codcakes as the main dish at an event. The recipe included poaching the cod, cooling it a bit, cutting it up then mixing it with flour, egg, parsley, etc., to create the cake mixture. The cakes were patted out then fried over a hot fire.

It was really hot that weekend and we had a full turn out so about 50 people. There were two of us on cake duty, myself and my friend Ann. We mixed, patted out and fried a ridiculous amount of codcakes and it really sucked. And by ridiculous, we made at least 150 codcakes over three hours, all the while standing in the heat of the hot fire, dripping with sweat, covered with codcake batter. It was really gross and we were exhausted by the end with really sore feet (period shoes are not supportive). Then we had to clean it all up! We agreed: never again!

Fast forward to the next year. Our chef was used to getting his way with these elaborate meals and us front-line work women were getting tired of it. We were going over menus for the upcoming season and codcakes were mentioned as a main-dish menu item. I looked at Ann and she looked at me. “NO!” we said in unison – and it was really scary. The chef tried to get us to equivocate, but only a bit. We wouldn’t budge. We just shook our heads. The chef guy just said, “well, okay then”. He wasn’t super happy but that was it and we all came up with something different, and easier, for the main dish. We had a lovely season that year and had lots of fun, with less work. After that, codcakes became a running joke for the next few years.

I found that setting boundaries, while it could be scary, was also really, really powerful. And nothing bad happened! The sky didn’t fall; no one yelled at me; I wasn’t abandoned and I didn’t become a pariah. Chef guy and I stayed really good friends and had an even better working relationship. He started to ask for my and Ann's opinion first, even before he put things to the group.

When I talk to clients and students about boundaries it’s always fear that stops them. Fear that other people won’t think they’re nice anymore or won’t like them; they’ll be abandoned. If someone abandons you over a boundary you’ve set, they were not fully desiring a relationship with you. People who fully want a relationship with you will respect your boundaries. You may have to re-enforce them periodically but they will be respected. This story is a good example of that. Chef guy and I stayed friends, because we were actual friends. It stopped unrest in our group, too, since quite a few people were unhappy but, out of fear, did not want to set a boundary to the work.

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