“Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do” – Rachel Wolchin
We live in a culture that values busy-ness. When you ask someone how they are doing, they say something like, “I’ve just been so busy,” and you say, “Oh, man! Me, too!” Then you chat for a few minutes about how busy you are and you promise to get together when you’re not so busy, neither one of you expecting that will happen. Then you go about your busy, unfulfilling lives thinking you are living to the best of your ability. When did busy become so normal? We pile up more and more onto our plates, never taking a break until something has to give. Usually, it’s us. Constantly being on the go is very stressful on our bodies. We require balance, and our bodies will seek out that balance regardless of what we have on our to-do list. It would behoove us to learn about setting boundaries with ourselves and others so we can live a healthy, balanced life.
Many people I talk to have terrible trouble setting boundaries. I mean, what are “boundaries” anyway? Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves and other people. It’s how we allow people to treat us. In our culture, we use verbiage such as, “She puts up a wall,” or “He has no scruples.” Without knowing it, we are commenting on these people’s boundaries. Technically, boundaries are what makes “me” separate from “other”, but they also can be limits we put on ourselves. People can have boundaries that are too tight or boundaries that are hardly there at all. A person with boundaries that are too tight may not interact with the outside world at all. They may be painfully introverted and prone to taking themselves out of society altogether. A person with boundaries that are too porous may put themselves in extreme danger by not being discriminating about who they let in. This person would allow anyone and everyone to push her around with no regard to, or really even a sense of, self. Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. Finding balance is important for good health, and makes us more effective and vibrant people.
When first being introduced to boundaries, it is easy to think about brick walls shutting out the world around us. It seems as though a boundary would be something a cold, unloving person would have, not something we should cultivate in ourselves. However, setting appropriate boundaries is a good thing. For example, a health practitioner needs appropriate boundaries between himself and the people he treats. If his boundaries are too tight he may have a lack of empathy, and may not be as effective. If his boundaries aren’t strong enough, he could let a professional exchange spiral into a lurid encounter.
First, let’s talk about setting boundaries with ourselves. This involves our morals or ethics, our self-control, and how we interact with people around us. We have boundaries around things such as stealing, cheating, lying, etc. We also have boundaries around what we are willing to eat. Roadkill and pets are pretty low on most people’s “what is food” list. For others, meat or processed foods are off the plate. We will go into “what is food” at a later date. Other examples of setting internal boundaries are giving yourself a bedtime and putting limits on electronic use. I do not allow myself to be on my phone, computer, iPad, or any other device past 9 pm. This way, I have time to declutter, relax, and read my plain old paper book before bed.
Setting limits on yourself is healthy when these limits increase your potential such as in the examples above. They become a problem when you are limiting yourself with negativity. Many of us limit ourselves by saying, “I’m not smart enough,” or “I can’t do that until I lose 20 pounds.” These are limiting beliefs and not boundaries. We will definitely talk more about limiting beliefs in later posts. The take home message is to set your personal boundaries to increase your vitality. Boundaries should open up your world, not shut it off.
Boundaries are also how we interact with others or how we allow others to interact with us. We are culturally wired to be nice, help out, not cause waves, and thus allow people to walk all over us. We have a really hard time saying “no”. We want to help out. It is in our nature and in our creed as good people. It is important to set boundaries because we can’t give to others if we don’t have anything left to give. You know the saying about filling your cup before you fill others’ cups? Boundaries are the cup. If there are holes in your cup, most of what you have to give will leak out before you can give it.
Let’s look at some examples. Say you already have a full plate and your neighbor asks you to watch her kids for a few hours. Again. What immediately goes through your head? “Ugh, I have so much to do!” But, likely you say, “sure”, and shuffle your stuff around to accommodate her. But then what happens? A few hours turns into an afternoon, and suddenly you didn’t get half of what you needed to do done. Maybe you feel resentful towards her for ruining your productive day. This happens in families, too. You give everything to your kids and spouse without asking for anything in return and do it gladly. But it starts to get dysfunctional when they stop doing anything for themselves or grow complacent, and you turn into their unappreciated servant. There is also the type of boundary setting that protects you physically. This is knowing when to say “no” to friends who are engaging in harmful or illegal activities.
I’m going to start with this last example first because it is so important and sets the stage for the others. So, say you are hanging out with friends and the night takes a strange turn. Suddenly you are very uncomfortable with how things are playing out. Maybe we’re talking about drugs, or alcohol, or sex, or simply staying out too late on a work night. That moment you start to feel uncomfortable is your boundary. Ta-da! There it is. Now you have a choice. If your sense of self-worth is greater than your desire to please your friends, you are going to exit that scene pronto. You just respected your boundary! Your other choice is to continue to hang with your buddies and be a people pleaser even though your intuition is telling you it’s a bad idea. Best case scenario you feel guilty and remorseful about what you did that night and maybe even blame your friend (“Look what you made me do!”). Worst case, you end up in jail or the morgue. Dial up your self-worth and listen to what your intuition is telling you. Then you can see that your friends aren’t the ones making you do anything. You are doing it all by yourself. You have choices. Those feelings of squeamishness are there to keep you safe. Heed their warning.
Let’s go back to your neighbor and the resentment you feel towards her because you consistently agree to watch her kids when you didn’t have the time. Hold up! You feel resentful towards her because you agreed to watch her kids? If you say you will watch her kids time and time again, that is on you. Same goes when you start feeling that your family is taking advantage of you. You say to yourself, “I give and give and give, and look at how they treat me.” Well, why should they do anything? You reliably do everything for them. You put your needs aside and slave away so they don’t have to lift a finger. Why? Because your self-worth does not outweigh your need to make them comfortable. You are worthy of love and care, too. And, they need to learn to fend for themselves. If you continue to do everything for everybody, people will continue to use you. The PTA wants you to run their bake sale. Your homeowners’ association assumes you will take care of the treasury duties again this year. You begin to feel resentful, overworked, and frazzled. You have too much on your plate. And no one really seems to appreciate it. You ask yourself, “Why does everyone walk all over me?” Here’s some tough love, sweetheart…it’s because you let them!
How do you fix this? Remember the cup that you need to fill in order to help others? In order to start filling the cup, learn the word “no” and believe that you are worthy of using it. If you have an especially busy day, tell your neighbor, “I’m so sorry, but I’m very busy today.” If you’ve helped her out without question in the past you may get a blank look and a promise to only be an hour or two. This is where it gets challenging. You’re going to want to bail and take the kids. Hold your ground. “I’m very sorry, I just can’t help out today. In fact, I have to run or I’ll be late.” Then hang up the phone or walk away. Congratulations, you’ve just set a boundary! This will work for the PTA (“I’m sorry, no.”), the homeowners’ association (“I’ve got too much on my plate at the moment.”), and anything else you really don’t want to do, or don’t have time for, but feel pressured to take on. You will feel guilty at first, but try to relish the freedom and power you have discovered. Also, now you have more time to help out where you really want to. These people will be just as happy walking all over someone else.
Be sure to also set some boundaries at home as well. Hopefully, you already set some boundaries for your kids. Maybe you have boundaries around profane language or how they speak to you. This is a great start, but if you’re feeling harangued, try taking it one step further. If you spend much of your morning picking up dirty laundry it’s time to set some new boundaries. If the kids don’t put the dirty clothes in the hamper, the clothes don’t get washed. Or, for older kids, their clothes don’t get washed at all if they don’t do it themselves. Stick to your guns. It will be very hard to leave the clothes lying around for weeks, but when they want to wear that certain shirt, it will be dirty and they will be sure to comply with your rules. Read the book, Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay (find it here). Those guys are brilliant boundary setters. You’re going to get some resistance to your new rules but stick with it. Kids are great at adapting, and you’re teaching them life skills.
Does this mean you never help anyone out? Absolutely not. I love to help out whenever I can, but I do it on my own terms. I help out when I have time and it’s something I want to do, not something I feel obligated to do. This is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. You will feel guilty, indulgent, sheepish, sinful even. And some people will dislike you. But, helping out because you feel obligated then feeling resentful about it does no one any real favors. You don’t want to be loved for being a doormat. Think of it this way; wouldn’t you rather your friend told you the truth when you asked her to do something? If you asked a friend out for drinks and she said, “I’m sorry, but I have a deadline at work and tonight is just not good for me.” I’m sure you can respect that. If someone can’t respect your boundaries, maybe losing that friend is not such a bad thing.
Set appropriate boundaries so you can regularly take time out for yourself. This way you can help more and still keep your sanity. You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself first. That’s why they say to secure your own air mask before helping others on the airplane. It’s funny that the flight attendants have to tell us that, but they do because it’s counter-intuitive. We want to help others first while sacrificing our own well-being, but how smart is that, really? If you don’t put your own mask on first, you can’t help as many people as you could if you had oxygen flowing to your brain. Setting boundaries makes us more effective as people.
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Lecture by Melody J. Francis, BHS, eRYT 500, LMT, NCBTMB, CBP. Black Hills Yoga School, 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training. Rapid City, SD. June, 2016-December, 2016
Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay. (find it on Amazon)