I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries lately: why they’re important — and yet why so many of us struggle with setting them.
I was talking to a friend in the US a few weeks ago. She was telling me how overworked she is and how she doesn’t have time for some of the things that are really important to her — spending time with her family, traveling, working on some creative projects, taking time to just relax and enjoy life. Even some parts of her work — the parts she finds most meaningful and satisfying.
The problem? Emails. Requests. Invitations to give workshops and presentations, to sit on committees, to write book chapters.
What struck me during our conversation was how my friend doesn’t feel like she can say “no” to anything. She doesn’t seem to see setting boundaries as an option. She really feels like every request must be met. (All this despite being a tenured professor!)
And yet she feels so much resentment. The requests just keep coming, and she can’t keep up — let alone find time for the things that are most important to her.
And — surprise, surprise! — she’s starting to feel burnt out.
Talking to my friend, I tried to suggest that she could actually say no to some things, that she doesn’t have to agree to every request. That she could give herself permission to prioritize. But she adamantly disagreed.
It’s just not possible, she says. You just don’t understand.
Ironically, she’s afraid that the invitations might stop coming if she turns a few down. She thinks, Who am I to turn down these great opportunities?
What’s more, she looks down on her colleagues who do choose to set some boundaries and suggests that they aren’t as dedicated to their work. They’re lazy, or they aren’t true scholars.
She even seems slightly irritated at me for suggesting that setting some boundaries is even an option, even though I’m advocating for taking care of herself — for making more room in her life for what actually matters most to her.
Clearly I just don’t get it.
And because she isn’t asking for my advice, I let it go.
But my friend isn’t the only one struggling with this issue. Whether it’s taking on too much at work or bending over backward for friends and family until we’re at our breaking points, a lot of us could learn to set some healthy boundaries — not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of our relationships too!
Why Are Boundaries Important?
Boundaries are necessary for self-care. Without boundaries, we feel depleted, taken advantage of, taken for granted, or intruded upon.
Whether it’s in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout — as in the case of my friend.
Boundaries help us take care of ourselves in two ways.
First, they give us permission to say no to things, to not take everything on. They help us hear requests as questions — to which one potential answer is actually “no” — rather than as demands.
Second, boundaries draw a clear line around what is ok for us and what is not. While some behavior clearly crosses the line for almost anyone, we all have different comfort levels when it comes to everything from intimacy and privacy to lateness. When someone behaves in a way that doesn’t feel ok to us — that crosses our line — we need to take care of ourselves by letting them know and making that line a bit clearer. If we don’t, we’ll either start feeling resentful or we’ll eventually shut down and withdraw from the relationship.
But Won’t Setting Boundaries Make Me a Bad Friend?
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” —Brené Brown
No! Believe it or not, boundaries are actually good for relationships!
Without boundaries, relationships break down. People get overwhelmed. We come to resent one another. If we can’t set boundaries — or if boundaries aren’t respected — we feel hurt and angry.
Boundaries are good for both individuals in a relationship — and for the health of the relationship itself. As I mentioned before, without clear boundaries, we eventually shut down and withdraw. Clear boundaries allow us to remain connected — and communicating these boundaries shows our respect for the relationship, because we’re willing to put in the work to ensure that the relationship stays strong and safe.
If we’re not sure what someone’s boundaries are, we can wonder if we’re asking too much, not trusting that they would really let us know if we crossed the line. Or we can feel like we’re tiptoeing around, unsure of whether we’ve upset them.
Or, we can feel blindsided when we’ve been assuming everything’s fine and then one day things blow up in our face and our friend is upset about something that wasn’t even on our radar as a potential issue.
How much easier would it be to ask a friend a favor if you could be sure that she would actually say no if she couldn’t handle it right now?
With my friend, for example, if I gave her a call and asked if she had some time to talk, I don’t know if I could trust that she’d tell me if she was too busy. I worry that she might spend the time talking to me, but it might stress her out. And more than once, that’s made me choose not to call.
And, honestly, that’s too bad.
Boundaries make things clearer and less complicated for everyone, which ultimately makes relationships stronger.
That doesn’t mean that setting boundaries is always comfortable or that people won’t push back if you say “no” to some things or try communicate your needs more clearly. People may try to test your limits, to see how serious you are about drawing the line. Or they may be used to you responding in a certain way (agreeing to take on everything), and they may push back when you try to make some changes. That doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong. It may just mean that you need to be clear and consistent until people adjust to the new norm. (But more on that in a future blog post!)
6 Tips For Setting Compassionate Boundaries:
1. Check in with yourself and establish your priorities.
The first step to setting boundaries is figuring out what you want, what’s most important to you, and where you draw the lines.
Take some time to observe what gives you energy and what drains you — what brings you joy and satisfaction and what makes you annoyed or resentful.
Recognize that every “yes” you say is a “no” to something else. Are you making room in your life for the things that truly matter to you?
If you take on this one more responsibility, what will that keep you from being able to do?
2. Make room for a pause.
When someone asks you to do something — or pulls for you to say that something is ok when it really isn’t — give yourself permission to pause before responding.
Check in with yourself to see how you really feel.
Ask yourself, am I really ok with this, or am I just afraid to let this person down or make him/her uncomfortable?
Resist the pressure to give an immediate response. If you’re not sure how to respond, you can always say, “I need to think about that,” or “I’ll have to get back to you.”
3. Be direct — and don’t be afraid to say “no.”
It can be helpful to keep in mind that directness and honesty is in service of your relationships, even if it’s not the most comfortable thing in the moment.
This person might be disappointed now if you say no, but they’re likely to feel even worse if you say yes and then come to resent them for having asked.
Remember that a request is a question — and one (totally legitimate) response to that question is “nope, sorry!”
4. Resist the urge to over-explain.
When you give yourself permission to set boundaries, you don’t have to justify yourself.
In some situations, an explanation might make sense. In others, it might just invite the other person to argue or push back.
Remember, “no,” can be a complete sentence.
Or, if that seems too abrupt, you can always say, “You know, I have a lot on my plate right now, and I know I won’t be able to give this the time or energy it deserves. But thank you for thinking of me.”
No further explanation required.
5. Check your guilt.
One ninja tip for avoiding the guilt is to remain humble. Keep in mind that most people can survive without you.
If you say “no,” they’ll find someone else. Really. It’s ok.
For most of us, it can actually feel quite comforting to realize that we’re not completely indispensable in most situations.
For some people, however, this thought is not comforting at all. Unfortunately, some people equate being indispensable with being valued. They may think that if other people can’t get by without them, that means that they’re important — and that can make it especially hard to set boundaries. Some of us actually work pretty hard to make ourselves indispensable for this very reason, only to then feel resentful that everyone expects so much of us or doesn’t seem to appreciate how much we do for them. (If this sounds familiar, stay tuned for a future blog post on this very issue!)
Remind yourself that, just because someone asks something of you, this doesn’t automatically make it your responsibility, so you don’t have to feel guilty.
6. Say “yes” to other stuff — and mean it!
So what do you do with that new-found space in your life that you’ve made room for by saying “no” to some things?
Say “yes” to other things that align with your priorities and bring you joy and satisfaction!
Spend quality time with your loved ones.
Make room for activities and pursuits that nourish you rather than deplete you.
Allow yourself to be fully present in the activities and tasks that you do take on, so you can fully appreciate them.
What would you like to say “yes” to today?
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