Edit: I wrote this during lockdown, whilst I was 'lockdown learning' but have updated it for life generally!
Does this sound familiar? It's week 537558 of the summer holidays (read day 3) and I'm exhausted. I'm finding myself increasingly introverted and needing to be solitary and yet...I feel like that's an impossible task. I feel like I get no time to myself and even when I do I feel guilty about taking it. So how do we set and maintain healthy boundaries without the guilt?
We are trying to do it all
I, like many others, am trying to entertain the kids as well as work and make sure we're all fed, clothed and living in a space where we don't trip over pegs/toys/laundry/discarded apple cores! I've asked for help from the rest of the family but at best, it's sporadic. It's not their fault, they are trying but it doesn't always work out.
We're all trying our best, our routines are out of the window and our support network is fractured. Normally I'd be able to call in favours from my tribe to watch the kids whilst I do something else but that just possible right now. But my cup is almost empty, in desperate need of refilling but instead of going to bed early, I'm tidying up the kitchen. Instead of watching a nice film, I'm doing bedtime negotiations. Instead of spending time on me, I'm aimlessly scrolling through Twitter trends. I am in the ‘overwhelmed’ i.e. delete box of the Eisenhower matrix.
It’s time to set some boundaries
When life gets busy we so often prioritise everyone else over ourselves. Let's be honest, many people I speak to (and I too) find it hard to make space for myself, even when things feel 'normal'. We might say that we are helping someone out, or perhaps we are trying to make someone else happy. The reality is though that in doing so, we are making ourselves unhappy and it almost always comes down to a lack of boundaries in one form or another.
What is a boundary?
A boundary is a tool that we use to set limits, expectations, and responsibilities for ourselves and others. They help us establish what we feel is good for us (and stop what isn’t good).
- A boundary might be working your contracted hours and telling your boss you’re unwilling to catch up on last-minute requests on your non-working days because you have other commitments
- Setting age-appropriate responsibility charts for your kids so that they help around the house
Why do we feel guilty when we try and set boundaries?
Lots of people feel guilty when they set boundaries, which feels a bit odd given that we haven't done anything wrong. Many of my clients tell me that they feel bad when they are taking care of themselves when they set healthy limits or they’re facing conflict. In fact, we often find it easier to set limits for others than we do for ourselves! I tell my kids all the time that they would be better to snack on an apple instead of crisps, whilst finding myself doing the exact opposite!
There is a special name for the guilt we feel when setting boundaries, it’s called unearned guilt and it is extremely common. Setting boundaries at first feels good but then self-doubt sets in but this is part of the process of setting healthy and helpful boundaries for ourselves. Self-doubt is like a limiting belief that requires some examination. These negative thoughts are often unjustified and are often a result of what we think others might think of us.
Sometimes, we feel so guilty we break our own boundaries by making exceptions in case someone feels disappointed. For example, if we don’t want to attend an event we might promise to rearrange our calendar. Alternatively, we might be self-deprecating about having poor time management skills for not attending.
For some people, setting boundaries feels like we are rejecting others, perhaps we tell ourselves we are being unkind in their moment of need. The reality is though that it is the act of establishing boundaries that nurture our compassion for others. Why? Because when we maintain healthy boundaries our cup is full and we don’t experience the resentment of overstepping our boundaries.
It’s also important to remind yourself that you’re not responsible for other people’s feelings or comfort level. When we try and take responsibility for someone else’s feelings, it keeps them stuck in victim mode. We can only be responsible for ourselves and we can only empower others to take care of their own needs.
5 tips to maintain healthy boundaries
- Remind yourself that you haven’t done anything wrong Use a mantra to tell yourself “it’s OK to set boundaries” or “just because I feel guilty, it doesn’t mean I have done something wrong”. Remember also to acknowledge and celebrate when you held a boundary, especially if it felt uncomfortable (repeat after me: I am not responsible for other people’s feelings or comfort)
- Set clear boundaries with compassion. Although you cannot control how other people react to your boundaries, you can play a part in delivering your requirements in a warm and clear manner. This means empathising with them and labelling what’s happening, whilst maintaining a firm boundary.
- Use your values to set your boundaries. If and when you start to feel guilty, tap into the reasons why you set the boundary in the first place. Write them down or tell a friend. Reasons might include increasing your self-worth, reducing stress and resentment, strengthening your relationships, or acknowledging your needs.
- Boundaries are helpful for everyone. When we always put others first we feel empty, resentful and our needs are often unmet. But when we set healthy boundaries and communicate them clearly then everyone knows where they stand. In addition, it allows the other person to set their own boundaries with us so that they too don't feel resentful for helping us.
- Understand your limitations. We are all human and each of us has limits on our time/money/energy in differing amounts and on different days. But it’s not just these resources that ebb and flow but also our emotions like how vulnerable or empathetic we’re feeling or how much attention we can give. Consider how much of each of these resources you can give to an activity/relationship.
Finally, setting boundaries is a skill, and like any skill gets easier the more you practice. Each time you set and maintain healthy boundaries you will feel less guilty and the more people will become aware of your boundaries and will respect them (and you) even more.