Every day I talk to women and parents who are tired, stressed, burned out, depleted, and feel like they are on a never ending hamster wheel they can’t get off of. They are often trying to juggle multiple responsibilities at the same time and feel a tremendous amount of pressure to do it all perfectly. Everything feels like a priority but they are stretched so thin they rarely feel successful at anything. They feel resentful and overwhelmed, are having problems in their relationships, and feel guilty when they take any time for themselves. I have experienced this too, so when I hear their stories, I feel it in my soul how painful it is! So what can be done? How do we get off the people pleasing, never ending exhaustion, merry-go-round? We learn to have boundaries!
Let’s start by defining what boundaries are and, perhaps more importantly, what they are not.
The word “boundaries” can bring up a lot of confusion. It’s become one of those buzzwords that we hear a lot but can mean very different things to different people. One of my favorite ways of describing boundaries comes from Brené Brown who says that boundaries are “simply what’s okay and what’s not okay.” I like this definition because it’s so straightforward!
So often, when we are stressed, burned out, and overwhelmed, we are trying to make EVERYTHING okay for us and have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and/or others. When we don’t allow ourselves to have limits-whether of our time, our resources, our energy, other people’s access to us, or who and what we are exposed to, we become unhappy and resentful.
Boundaries are also highly individual. What’s okay and not okay for me, or what works or does not work for me, might be very different for another person. This is why it’s even more important that we take time and be intentional about checking in with ourselves. When we try to adopt someone else’s boundaries and make them our own without reflection and asking, “Does this work for me? Is this okay or not okay with me?” we risk losing our sense of self.
In her amazing book Set Boundaries, Find Peace (2021), Nedra Glover Tawwab defines boundaries as “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships.” I love this reminder that one of the essential components of having boundaries is having clarity about what your needs are and how you experience a sense of safety in your life.
So many women are burdened with cultural and social expectations that place the burden of the mental and emotional load of motherhood squarely on their shoulders. To learn more about the mental load, I highly recommend Emma’s comic “You Should’ve Asked.” One of the many results of this constant pressure is that we are so busy that we don’t take the time to check in with ourselves to ask these questions and feel clear about our wants and needs.
Another barrier women encounter when they start thinking about their boundaries is a common belief that bringing attention to their own needs and asserting themselves is “selfish.” There is a pervasive cultural myth that exists that says that mothers should be martyrs who give tirelessly of themselves without complaint, no matter what the cost. THIS IS A LIE. But it’s one of the hardest obstacles for many women to move beyond. This is again where I love Brenė Brown’s work in this area because she shares that when we are clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay, and communicate that to others, we are actually being compassionate and kind.
Have you ever been in a situation where you asked someone for something and they said yes, but you could tell they didn’t really want to and maybe they backed out at the last minute, or made comments that indicated they had negative feelings about your ask? How did it feel? Were you fooled or did it become clear to you that the person had overextended themself or was resentful about saying yes?
When we say yes, but mean no, it doesn’t just hurt us. It ends up damaging our relationships and can hurt those around us. It also hurts us and our self-respect. When we say yes to everything, and everyone, all the time, chances are that we might find ourselves in situations where we are actually being unkind in our efforts to avoid “selfishness.”
When I teach clients about boundaries, I often share the idea of the interpersonal triangle with them. This visual helps to describe the way that our boundaries (or lack thereof) can affect not only our ability to get our own needs met, but also can affect our relationships with others and with ourselves.
Notice that all three branches of the triangle are necessary and important. When we are being skillful with our boundaries, we have a better chance of getting our objectives (our needs and wants) met, in a way that also respects the other people and relationships involved, and in a way that we feel good about.
Here’s a real life example to illustrate how this works:
I have had a busy day at work and I’m tired. I check in with myself and decide that what I really need (my objective) is to go home and put on my jammies, fuzzy socks, and relax on the couch for the night. But my husband texts me and says, “Let’s go on a date tonight!” Now I have a decision to make. I have some choices:
Ignore my objective and say yes to my husband even though I’m tired and don’t want to go. I can try and force myself to go but will be angry and resentful the whole time. This option means I don’t get my objective met, I might say or behave in hurtful ways that negatively impact my relationship, and because of that I probably won’t feel great about myself at the end of the night.
Honor my objective and boundary by thanking him for the thoughtful gesture, letting him know that I need rest tonight, would love to plan a date another night, and schedule it together. This means I maintain my boundary, but do so in a way that is respectful of the other person involved, still demonstrates that I care about the relationship, and I feel good about myself as a result.
CHOOSE to change my objective by checking in with myself and asking what I need most in this moment and situation. If I can wholeheartedly say yes to the date because I want to go and feel like I genuinely have the energy to go and have a good time, then it’s okay for me to change my mind. Because I’ve made an intentional choice to change my mind, taking into consideration my needs and previous objectives, I feel good about it.
Hopefully it’s clear in this example that options 2 and 3 are more workable than option 1. In option 1, I say yes, but really mean no. This is often a default response for many women. We feel guilty saying no, so we say yes all the time! Instead, try saying no a lot more often. It will feel really uncomfortable at first, but there is a big difference between saying yes to everything and saying yes with intention. If you can’t give a wholehearted “yes” then the answer is “no” or “not right now.” And as option 1 demonstrates, saying yes when we mean no is not actually kind or compassionate to the other people involved, or to ourselves.
Self compassion is a vital component of having boundaries. When we are able to be kind to ourselves, we are more likely to let ourselves off the hook for unreasonable expectations we might have for ourselves and others. My clients often come to therapy with goals and expectations for themselves that are simply not workable, possible, or reasonable. These might look like expectations that if they are just “better” somehow that they can create more time and energy to continue saying yes to everything they are currently doing.
Time and energy are finite resources. They are not limitless. We cannot expect to be able to give of ourselves non-stop without any limits. Very often, we blame ourselves for “failing” to meet goals that are not realistic or possible. We do not expect newborn babies to walk. It’s not possible for a newborn baby to walk! Having boundaries that are very loose (or non-existent) OR very rigid (don’t ever allow for any flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances) creates situations where we are trying to work towards goals that don’t work for us, or don’t work at all.
Take some time to reflect on your needs and wants. How do you experience safety in your relationships? How do you choose to spend your time and energy in ways that feel meaningful and impactful to you? Where are you giving away your time and energy to people, things, or places that do not serve you?
This is a big topic.
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