Striking a Balance Between Boundaries and Sacrifice

By: Tim Elmore



I see a problem today more often than I’ve seen it in the past. It is a collision between mindsets, both of which are essential. They‘re illustrated in the following story.

Several faculty and staff members were asked to participate in a special project at their school. They were to plan a celebration of the decrease in COVID-19 infections on the campus. The school had experienced no infections (in students or staff) for the entire semester. The administration felt this milestone should be rewarded with a party and some prizes. Initially, everyone involved agreed with great excitement to help make this happen.

One week before the celebration, however, the wheels came off the wagon.

Three of the staff members who had significant responsibilities withdrew from participation. They dropped the ball and failed to follow through on what they’d committed to doing for the rest of the team. When the others asked why they all preached the same sermon of “I’ve got to stick to my boundaries,” they went on to say that their mental health had to be priority one and doing too much on this project would compromise their mental health. Drop the mic. There was nothing anyone could say in rebuttal.  After all, don’t we want everyone to stay well?

Herein lies the collision I mentioned earlier.

A Collision Between Healthy Boundaries and Healthy Teamwork

When someone plays the boundaries card, it is a trump card. What can anyone say to a person who declares they need to guard their time and mental health? Today, we all believe in boundaries. Psychologist Henry Cloud even wrote a book on it. On the other hand, those who walked away from the team left others shorthanded, requiring extra work to pull off the project. One group had made a commitment and then dropped it. The other group violated their own set of boundaries to fulfill it. Needless to say, while the team smiled and relieved the quitters of any guilty feelings, those who stayed and made extra sacrifices resented the others who had quit.

So, how do we navigate this dilemma? Both boundaries and sacrifices are noble.

We are living in strange times. People are quitting jobs at an alarming rate. Often, it is the right thing to do. The pandemic forced many organizations to layoff millions of employees and now that the need for workers has increased, many organizations have fewer workers attempting to complete the same amount of work. As millions of team members are requested to make special sacrifices, it becomes a race to see who can erect boundaries first. Or they just quit. In a sense, quitting is another kind of boundary. I don’t blame anyone for the problem, but it is a problem.

Neither extreme is healthy. You don’t want to make sacrifices to the detriment of your own health, family, and finances; but you also don’t want to erect boundaries that require everyone else to make a sacrifice while you don’t. Below are some ideas you can implement with others to balance the need to sacrifice with the need for boundaries.

Navigating the Strange Time in Which We Live

1. Plan ahead. Determine your limits upfront if you can.

You can prevent some of this problem by preparing for it. Once you know your

boundaries and you set them, you can give yourself fully to your commitment.

2. Have people communicate their boundaries ahead of time.

A great rule of thumb is “not equal contribution, but equal sacrifice.” Some will do more than others, but everyone should declare boundaries and capabilities.

3. Recognize that any valuable endeavor will require sacrifices.

We must always remember that history is full of people who made stunning sacrifices for the betterment of a worthy cause. Talk about how this is normal.

4. When at your limits, invite others into the problem-solving process.

When you can do no more, don’t impose your boundaries, expose them. Invite others into the process of helping you finish well but share the load.

5. Remember that balance doesn’t mean “equal,” it means to ebb and flow.

A balanced life is a myth if you feel it means equally distributing your effort all the time. Great projects require big investments, then a time of withdrawal afterward.

6. Consistently clarify what is not your job and what is your job.

This may be most important. Check out the two columns below the next time you

sign up for an extra project. It will enable you to sacrifice and keep boundaries:


                    This is My Job                                                This is Not My Job

  1. To fulfill the commitments I made                    1. To fix others who fail to do so
  2. To make sacrifices with other staff                    2. To maintain boundaries that are fair
  3. To go the extra mile on my work                        3. To go seven extra miles out of guilt
  4. To add value that complements the team        4. To make up for everyone’s weaknesses
  5. To see and act in light of the big picture           5. To own every mistake made by others
  6. To be responsible to teammates.                        6. To be responsible for teammates.

Probably the most vivid example of this balance are teens like Jamese Logan, Yanica Mejias, and Azariah Baker. They are all black, female high school students who’ve been called upon to not only perform well in school, but to care for grandmothers, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews. Sometimes, it’s due to a divorce between their parents. Other times it’s because of a stroke that a grandmother just had, and still other times, they must sacrifice because they have a single mom who’s working two jobs.

“Black girls were on the front lines of racial justice movements, they were essential workers and they were primary caregivers,” said Scheherazade Tillet, the executive director of A Long Walk Home, an organization that empowers black girls in Chicago. “There’s no other group that was all three of those things at once.”

What I admire about these teens is that each of them serves willingly, knowing that their circumstances require a sacrifice. They know that now is not the time to complain but to commit. They are also learning balance and boundaries as adolescents. One said, “There is no time right now to be a child.” My hope is they can build healthy boundaries as they make sacrifices and carry both abilities with them into adulthood.

Below is the link to the New York Times article about Jamese Logan and the other teens.


Pandemic Population by Tim Elmore

Striking a Balance Between Boundaries and Sacrifice