Setting Boundaries Has Been The Most Important Self-Care Action I’ve Ever Made
And there was me thinking that to be a nice person you had to do things to make other people feel better, you needed to put other people first, you needed to consider other people, you needed to be thoughtful or solve other people’s problems.
I may have taken those lessons learned as a child (about how to be a kind and considerate person) a little too far. Maybe I was too literal in my interpretation of those lessons. Maybe I placed so much emphasis on ‘being nice’ that I totally missed the lessons on how to take care of yourself.
I mean, I talk about self-care and wellness on this blog precisely because I’m on an adult journey to figure out how to successfully to take care of myself whilst being a productive and meaningful member of society.
Tis quite the challenge!
I have struggled with self-care over the years. Instead of taking care of myself I have often prioritised the needs of others, often to the point of detriment to my own mental health, or life.
Sometimes I’ve been so caught up in the lives of others that I have simply burned out, been left totally wired, or even sick.
But why have I been focusing on the lives of others? Who are these others?
The answer to this question is still to be fully investigated and will take some time to unpick in my own mind.
However, my guess is that I assumed a ‘carers’ role quite young and as such I continued to assume that role whenever I needed to. Whether that was taking care of a family member, or being the Agony Aunt to my friendship group, I would take it upon myself to try to problem-solve and figure out people’s problems. I would want to make them feel better.
As a result, over a time, I started to attract people in my life that wanted to be taken care of, or who wanted someone to solve their problems. You could say some past friendships and relationships were ‘needy’, but others would say I just liked the role I assumed in our friendship – the ‘Mom’.
Thinking about it, and looking back, those titles were thrown my way on numerous occasions – ‘Mom’, ‘Agony Aunt’, ‘Nanny’, even ‘Wife Material’. These are all terms that conjure up an image of being a carer, someone who is nurturing, a person who figures things out, or even matriarchal.
Do I like being a nurturing person?
Yes, in some ways I do. It feels natural to me, and I do get joy out of taking care of people (and cats!).
Yet I find myself in recent years pulling away from relationships that require me to nurture. I don’t want to be the nurturer in every area of my life. I’ve found that when I nurture others a pattern forms, and when a moment comes up where I might like a spot of nurturing I find I don’t have that support in return. To that person, that isn’t the pattern or arrangement that’s been formed previously in the relationship.
The result is that I felt hurt, or worse – used, in these relationships. It felt like I put a lot more into a relationship than I’d get in return.
Likewise, I felt unloved and unsupported by people I cared about.
In the worst case scenarios I do think that by being nurturing I did attract not so genuine people who would be happy to zap my energy or allow me to do things for them with no intention of balancing that relationship. I have had some rather upsetting situations from that kind of relationship.
What does it mean to set boundaries as a form of self-care?
I came to realise that being a nice person doesn’t necessarily mean being nice to EVERYONE no matter what.
Being a good person doesn’t mean you have to constantly be self-sacrificing or putting your life on hold to meet the needs and desires of other people.
In fact, it could be argued that trying to be so darn nice can almost have the opposite effect. If you’re running around trying to please everyone you might just spread yourself so thin that you overlook the most important people in your life (not withstanding yourself).
And this is where I came to.
In order to take care of myself properly I had to set boundaries.
What are boundaries?
Setting boundaries means having the self-awareness to know what I need and having the courage to say yes or no when necessary.
It’s about understanding what is healthy for me physically, mentally, and emotionally, and then being able to communicate that with the people around me.
It’s about establishing over time to those in my life what I can do, and what I am not able to.
Setting boundaries means I can still be the nurturing and caring person, but on my terms.
Rather than jumping to the needs of others when they demand, I can assess first what works for me. Of course, moments of crisis and emergencies are different but for the most part it’s about taking a moment to prioritise.
When I set boundaries and say no, when my previous default was always to say yes, it means I have the space to grow and become a better person. It means I’ve freed up time for myself and my closest relationships. It means I am more focused than ever before.
One of my dreams in life is to make a difference, but I’ve spent so much of my adult life caught up in the lives and dramas of other people that I’ve lost focus of what I can do. If you want to make a difference to the world you need the space to think.
You also need the space to be healthy. How can I change the world if I am a mess? How can I make the world a better place if I am mentally or physically ill? I need space to heal, to breathe, to think, to grow, to move forward, to make a difference.
Do you have examples of setting boundaries?
For the longest time I didn’t really grasp what it meant to set boundaries. It was not something that came naturally to me, so I had to learn by reading about it online, watching others who do it well, and with a bit of trial and error.
It’s taking practice and I’m not sure I’ve quite found the balance, but I’m working on it!
Example #1 – somebody makes you feel uncomfortable/sad/anxious/angry
– you can respectfully remove yourself from that situation and say ‘this is not for me right now’.
For instance, a family member consistently made me feel bullied so I set the boundary by standing up to them and removing them from my life in terms of no further contact. I set the boundary that I was no longer willing to put up with that behaviour. I drew a line at what was unacceptable behaviour.
Example #2 – somebody asks you to give up your time to do something for them
– you can respectfully decline the favour and say ‘I have prior commitments/not able to do this for you.’
For instance, I was asked to take care of a family member during my working week. As a freelancer/working-from-home type it is quite common for people to ask for your time during working hours not necessarily understanding that you’re not ‘off’ just because you are at home. My response is simply to say that I am working. I set the boundary of the time I was willing/able to use.
Example #3 – somebody asks you to work for free / work outside your set hours / work beyond your scope
– you can respectfully say ‘these are my fees/hours/scope of work and I’d be happy to discuss how we can work to them.’
For instance, I have been asked to reduce my fee for work by 50% (or more). My response is to reply with ‘my fee for this work is £xxx, let me know if you’d be happy to go ahead.’ I keep it short, to the point and clear what my boundary is. If they are unable to meet my fee I simply tell them that the project is not for me this time and wish them well.
How to deal with the fall-out to setting boundaries
Of course, if you begin to set boundaries with people when there weren’t any there previously, you might experience some negative responses. Often this is because the relationship has changed, or expectations are no longer being met.
The hardest part of setting boundaries is maintaining them.
But I have found that over time the people around you will adjust to your new boundaries. Those that don’t? Well, the boundary setting is probably a good way of finding out how willing people are to listen to what you know is best for you.
My top tip for dealing with the fall-out is to be firm and focus on the purpose for setting your boundary. If you know why it’s there it makes it easier to communicate with others.
And remember to say to yourself, you are setting these boundaries for self-care, to make improvements to your wellbeing and to move forward with your life. Stay focused on that.
Tips for setting boundaries
Most people probably have different boundary types in different areas of their lives. And they might be effective at setting boundaries in one area of their life but so great in others.
For instance, they might be great at business boundaries but not so effective with establishing relationship boundaries.
The key is to start listening to yourself, establish what boundaries do exist in your life that work for you, and where you have gaps.
To set boundaries you can simply say no, you don’t have to go into details or justify yourself.
Or at least, you don’t need to over-explain. Just offer a simple explanation and move forward.
I find it best to be short, to the point, and politely firm.
If you struggle with this maybe consider switching your language to be about your needs (rather than saying ‘you need to stop calling me when I’m working’ you say ‘I need time during the day to concentrate on my work’).
Be clear on your boundaries, and know the goal your boundary will achieve. For example, saying no to extra work commitments will free up time to take up a new hobby / read / study / volunteer / write a book / spend quality time with your partner / create a side hustle / simple relax and recharge.
Here are 6 types of boundaries:
Physical boundaries – personal space and physical touch.
Intellectual boundaries – thoughts and ideas.
Emotional boundaries – feelings.
Sexual boundaries – sexuality.
Material boundaries – money and possessions.
Time boundaries – how you use your time.
In general, the key to setting boundaries is to:
Figure out what you want – what is the goal?
Set a boundary based on this goal
Be clear with yourself about this boundary
Communicate in a clear and firm manner with other people
If your boundary is not being respected have the courage to either restate the boundary or move away from that person
I found this resource useful in understanding types of boundaries, and the difference between rigid, porous, and healthy boundaries.
I hope this post helps you figure out if you need to set boundaries to improve your self-care. It’s making a huge difference to my wellbeing already, and I’ll keep you updated if I figure out any other ways of dealing with boundaries effectively.