“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who were benefiting from you having none”On Instagram several times a day!
When I think of the word ‘boundary’ I have to say the connotations that come up for me are universally wary and cautious. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about boundaries. For many people setting boundaries can feel deeply uncomfortable.
I actually on some level disagree with the quote above. Change is difficult, it’s difficult for us as individuals to gain the self-awareness to change and then to action this outwardly. Often when change does occur it can lead to those closest to us feeling unsure, skeptical or even angry. It’s not a black and white situation of ‘us and them’, it’s nuanced and complex. I think this is why a lot of people avoid setting boundaries in the first place. This is especially true for those of us who are recovering people-pleasers or sensitive souls. It can mean exerting a lot of emotional energy and the possibility of some tricky conversations.
Many of us as children are encouraged to be polite above all else. We are taught to do as we are guided; to trust other’s to layout what the road map of our boundaries will look like. Sometimes this is done in a collaborative way, sometimes these boundaries will feel enforced.
Setting boundaries isn’t a check-box exercise that we can then put away and forget about. It requires us to notice ourselves and then on some level to demonstrate that externally.
So why bother with boundaries in the first place?
Without them, you’re going to burn out. The universal truth that must be acknowledged here is that you cannot be all things to all people. Without some boundaries you will be overwhelmed and over-stretched. A helpful reminder that I sometimes tell myself when setting boundaries is this:
‘By saying “No’ to [X] I am able to say “Yes” to [Z].’
For example, perhaps for you spending time with your family and friends might feel more important to you than fulfilling a request on your time that makes you sigh. Your time is your most important asset, it’s your most valuable currency. You have a right to have some say in how it is used… you only have so much energy to give.
Here’s a little scenario to illustrate this: A friend of a friend has a son who wants to pick your brains about how you got into university over a coffee. The only time he can do also happens to be when you’d planned to meet with your Mum for a much needed catch up. In this scenario, your boundaries are being tested. Should I be polite and go out of my way to help this person who is a friend of a friend? Should I do what is nourishing for me and meet my Mum? Should I try and fit in both and feel stretched and stressed? It’s not that easy is it? Our ‘should’s’ gets all muddled up with different people’s expectations and agenda’s and can leave us spinning!
One way I’ve found helpful for setting boundaries in my life since becoming a therapist is by understanding my ‘why’. If I can understand my ‘why’ for saying no then this can really help me establish boundaries that I can feel good about.
I do this by first establishing some of my key values. This helps me feel anchored and strong when setting up a border between myself and everything else. I identify my values in some key words that I keep in my journal to remind me. Psychologist Barb Markway defines values as: ‘the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity.’ One of my key values is ‘Home’ to me this means to be a base for good things to grow and to nurture my community; to show hospitality to myself and to others.
So when I’m considering when a boundary needs to be set I look at my value key words in my journal to root myself and then I ask myself: ‘If I say ‘No’ to this, what does that free me up to say ‘Yes’ to? Usually, one outcome will be more aligned with my values and the other will tend towards the fear of letting people down and my ‘should’ thinking.
These two practices help me make difficult decisions that may feel tough or uncomfortable. Yet at the very root of this growing boundary are my values and the opportunity to be open to something I would rather say ‘Yes’ to.
Setting boundaries can be incredibly hard, so go gentle with yourself. I believe that to be liked by everyone and to please everyone we have to water ourselves down. This can prevent us from forming deep connections but also over time stops us from being authentically ourselves. At some point we all need to step off the frantic spinning hamster wheel and make choices about where we want to put our energy and with who.