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Stop Over-Committing Yourself and Learn to Love Your Limits.

How honest boundaries can deepen a friendship.

I just can’t find the flow and focus.

As I typed the words I was worried I was ruining one of my most treasured friendships. She was one of those people who I used to see three or four times a year at various professional events, always looking forward to catching up and, if possible, collaborating with her on new projects.

Someone who, anytime she asked “hey, do you wanna do this thing with me?” I always said Yes!

And now she is working on a new book, and she remembered my sketchnotes from a class I’d helped her teach.

“Would you like to illustrate?”

She asked me if I would be willing to illustrate some of the concepts in her new book — a guide for improving intimacy in your relationships — in the same style.

She likes my work! was my first thought, followed by a rush of opportunity: I could be a real artist, in an internationally published work. My drawings would be legit.

What I didn’t ask myself was: Do you feel ready for this kind of work? Is your practice and skillset at this kind of level? Do you have the time, between starting a new job, selling your house, buying a new house, and moving over the next few months to really devote the kind of time and attention to this project it deserves?

I didn’t ask myself any of those things.

I just said yes. We had a brief talk about the style she was looking for, and I promised to have her some initial sketches within a week.

Then things started, as Robert Frost would put it, to gang aft agley.

Deadlines become dreadlines.

Those other obligations didn’t care what I’d promised my friend.

It’s not that I didn’t have time to draw. It’s that the project was so big, so important — and I already had big, important things taking up my attention and energy.

I drew shapes, I drew faces, I tried a dozen tricks — and I put them away, because nothing felt right.

I could hear Steven Pressfield on one shoulder: Do the work! And Twyla Tharp on the other one: Creatives don’t wait until it feels right. Creators create! And so I’d try to draw, for 15 minutes, a half hour — and then put away the tablet.

The first week passed and I avoided sending anything. Then the second week. The project turned from being a shining opportunity to being a dreaded obligation, and worse, one that my friend was depending on me for.

In the third week I thought I caught a glimmer of what would work — for the first time, the shapes I was drawing seemed to show some connection — but it fizzled. Still, I sent the sketches — all of them — to my friend.

I didn’t want to admit it, but part of me hoped she’d look at them, tell me I wasn’t right for the project, and go find someone else.

That’s called cowardice.

The hard decision was up to me.

She thought those last sketches might hold some promise.

I didn’t tell her that coming up with them had felt like pulling pigment out of my eyeballs. I didn’t tell her about the weight that the project had brought to my creative time. I wasn’t honest with my friend — because I didn’t want to let her down.

I told her I’d have more sketches in a week.

I did it — another sketch, in the same style, and it illustrated the concept adequately.

I looked at it, and thought about what it had been like to draw it, and imagined doing that for an entire book.

Then I texted my friend, and told her the truth.

I need to back out of the project. I just can’t find the flow and focus. I briefly explained why, but all the words felt like hooks in my fingers.

I waited for her disappointment. Her anger. I was ready for it, because I deserved it. I had ruined her book process, I was a failure as an artist, I had let her down.

She replied: OK! Not a setback at all. I’m very much at ground level. :-)

Then she said the best thing ever:

“I love a good limit setting.”

That’s the mark of not just a good friend — but a supportive one as well.

The whole experience just reminds me that even though I’ve taken the workshops, read the books, taught the workshops, written the posts — there are still areas that need work when it comes to authentic responses or responsible goal-setting.

Not to mention the whole idea of play. Y’know, just drawing for the joy of it?

We all have our own particular vulnerabilities when it comes to pleasing other people at the cost of ourselves — whether that’s customers, bosses, friends, family, or just some made-up influencer world from social media.

For me, it’s being too quick to say “yes” when a fun project comes along — and also a reluctance to turn around when I’m heading down a destructive path.

But I’m getting better. And friends like these — who see me as valuable not just for what I can do for them, but just for being in their lives — help make it easier both to spot those paths, and find a way to find a better one.

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Gray is a former Marine dancer grandpa visualist who writes to help adults figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

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Gray Miller

Gray Miller

Gray is a former Marine dancer grandpa visualist who writes to help adults figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

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