Boundaries: The Basics

If you are a woman who struggles to set boundaries, understand that your difficulty is connected by an invisible thread to generations of countless women who came before you and also doubted their own value.” Terri Cole

If you prefer to listen

Last session, we talked about self-care being the deliberate choices you make to maintain your health and wellness. One of the more straightforward self-care tools is to create a nourishment list, keep it in a place where you will see it, and do the activities on the list.  Note I said simpler, not easy.  It is not easy for some of us to savor the good or take time for ourselves. We don’t have time because we are too busy taking care of everyone else’s needs. This is especially true for women raised in my generation or before.  We were taught to take care of others before taking care of ourselves.  Saying no to a request was viewed as selfish. We think that to belong and feel connected to others, we have to fulfill their wishes. That leads us to exploring boundaries today.

“Living a connected life ultimately is about setting boundaries, spending less time and energy hustling and winning over people who don’t matter, and seeing the value of working on cultivating connection with family and close friends.” BrenĂ© Brown

Each time you say yes when you want to say no to someone who does not matter, you either say no to someone who matters or to yourself. Looked at in this light, saying no to an acquaintance’s request to help them move or a co-worker’s request to help them with a project is not selfish.  It is honoring your priorities.

“When someone asks you if you can do something, and you feel that little pinch inside that recognizes it would be at your own expense, your mind is focusing on what saying ‘No’ would lead to. We fear that saying ‘No’ would be hurting or disappointing the other person. It might flow to the idea that saying ‘No’ would cause the person to be upset with you, threatening your sense of belonging. It’s no wonder most of us end up saying, ‘Sure.'” Elisha Goldstein

That is why many of us have unhealthy boundaries. Terri Cole, the author of Boundary Boss, says to ask yourself:

Do you ever say yes when you want to say no?

Do you prioritize other people’s needs or desires above your own?

Do you often feel like you should be doing more in all areas of your life?

Are you overly invested in the decisions, feelings, and outcomes of the people you love?

Are you so resistant to asking for help that you end up doing most things yourself?”

If you answered yes to more than one of those questions, you probably have unhealthy boundaries as I do.  Our boundaries are unhealthy because we take on responsibilities that are not ours. I spent much of my career fixing problems my co-workers never asked me to fix, making people who didn’t matter so much matter. Because I got burned out, I switched companies every 3-5 years for most of my career.  It seemed the more I did, the more I was asked to do, and the less appreciation I received.

As a former “fix-it-all,” I often tried to fix problems for my kids; luckily, as they got older, they let me know that they did not need or want my help.  One of my sons told me, “I just want to be able to vent to you; you don’t have to try to fix it.” That was valuable advice on my journey to recover from being a “fix-it-all.”

There are two types of unhealthy boundaries: porous boundaries and rigid boundaries.

Porous Boundaries

If you have too porous boundaries, you might overshare your personal information, say yes when you want to say no, find yourself taking on or overly investing in the problems of others, put up with disrespectful or abusive behavior.” Terri Cole

If they exist at all, your boundaries are too lose because you are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or being rejected. You end up being the go-to person at work.  You are the first one friends ask when they need help. In the words of clinical psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner, you become an emotional service station to others.”

Rigid Boundaries

If you have too rigid boundaries, you might not ask for help when you need it, avoid close relationships to minimize rejection, be perceived by others as detached or cold, tend to isolate yourself. Contrary to popular belief, super inflexible boundaries are not healthy since they are driven by a fear of vulnerability and can inhibit open, healthy relationships and experiences.” Terri Cole

A sign of rigid boundaries is the thought, “I will never (fill in the blank).” We draw our line in cement instead of sand, so even if circumstances change, we won’t even consider a thought or activity.  We have put up a defense so strong that nothing can permeate it, not even things that may contribute to our well-being.

Bad boundaries are exhausting. They create dramas that suck our time and energy. As you likely already know, it takes a lot of effort to keep putting out fires in our personal lives. When we’re caught up in our bad boundaries, though, we often don’t realize that we’re the ones who are inadvertently lighting these fires.” Terri Cole

If you are like me, just thinking about setting boundaries causes anxiety because I live in a “What will people think?” world. But as I align my life with my values and begin to set boundaries, I find my anxiety is reduced because I am spending more time in the “I am enough” world.

We have to believe we are enough in order to say, “enough!” For women, setting boundaries is difficult because the shame gremlins are quick to weigh in: “Careful saying no. You’ll really disappoint these folks. Don’t let them down. Be a good girl. Make everyone happy.” For men, the gremlins whisper, “Man up. A real guy could take this on and then some. Is the little mama’s boy just too tired?BrenĂ© Brown

If you have not dug for your authentic self, uncovering what is important to you and setting your North Star, you are more likely to accommodate others, even at a significant cost to yourself. We end up giving to get, which results in us feeling unappreciated and resentful. As long as we believe that we have to be nice and helpful to be worthy of love, we will do too much while thinking that we didn’t do enough.

Resentment and other negative feelings are going to crop up as part of any sustained practice of doing for others what they should do for themselves. Which is why over-functioning can only lead to one place: bitterland.” Terri Cole

Setting boundaries helps us live a more connected life.  We have time for ourselves and cultivating relationships with the people who matter. We choose where to focus our attention, as that is where our energy will flow. While we will always veer off course, we have our North Start to point us in the right direction when we begin again.  Next session, we will discuss how to start setting boundaries that respect both our needs and the needs of the people who matter.