You’re exhausted after another busy day. So when a friend calls asking you to help her deliver a church donation, lugging boxes at the 11th hour is the last thing you want to do. Yet the weight of those boxes pales in comparison to the heaviness of saying no — just the thought of it weighs you down with guilt. The only “side effect” of your generous spirit is that it often means putting yourself last, leading to stress, self-blame and even burnout. Thankfully, creating loving boundaries doesn’t just protect you, it helps all your relationships flourish.
Far from limiting, boundaries give you the space to show yourself compassion. “They allow you to know yourself and allow others to know you,” says psychotherapist Terri Cole, author of Boundary Boss. “This means understanding your desires and being able to communicate them easily.” Makes perfect sense. So why is it so hard? “Most women were raised to be self-abandoning,” she says. “We learned that being a ‘good girl’ means saying yes when we want to say no.”
Indeed, the biggest myth about boundaries is that they stem from selfishness. “They actually make you more open-hearted because when you assert yourself with grace, love and kindness, you’re being your authentic self and there’s nothing more truly giving than this kind of honesty,” adds Cole. Read on for ways to free yourself to draw lines when you need to.
Feeling resentful? Start With You
You made brunch plans with your sister, but as the minutes tick by, your table for two is a table of you…because she’s late yet again. Though you feel a twinge of resentment, you ignore it. It’s a common reaction, notes Cole, but resentment is also a cue to ask yourself, Do I need a boundary here?
To begin focusing on your needs, take a “resentment inventory,” urges Cole. “Where and when do you feel hurt or underappreciated?” Resentment is a vague emotion somewhere between dull disappointment and red-hot anger. That’s why writing concrete answers gives you muchneeded clarity. “Look over your inventory and pinpoint your preferences, desires and deal-breakers.” If, say, your sister’s chronic tardiness is more than just an idiosyncrasy you can live with, you might tell her, “I love spending time together, but I need you to be on time.” Or you could decide to say nothing at all right now — and that’s okay, assures Cole, who says that simply discovering where you may benefit from a boundary is the first step.
Worried about saying no? Try a Power Pause
Your friends are always asking for last-minute favors, and you feel like you’ve become their personal 24-hour help-line. While you feel drained, you still can’t say no because you’re afraid they’ll walk away from you if you do.
When fear prevents you from protecting your time, define what’s holding you back. “Is it worry over change or the dread of being disapproved of?” says Cole. Focusing on your anticipatory anxiety lets you assess how realistic your fears really are so you can picture yourself setting a boundary. “Visualize it going well — and I don’t mean the person acquiescing to your request — I mean focusing on yourself having the courage to ‘talk true.’” This may mean taking a beat, what Cole calls a “power pause,” to let them know you need to think about it, or saying that you just don’t have the bandwidth right now. “The most profound transformation comes from sharing who you really are and what you need.”
Grappling with guilt? Lean Into Love
Swamped with a million responsibilities, you’re finally able say no to your book club president when she all but volunteers you to host the next gathering. You know that you needed to finally let your voice be heard, yet you can’t help but still feel guilty.
If regret over setting a boundary gnaws at you, take comfort in self-love, encourages therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace (Buy on Amazon, $22.99). “The best way to assuage guilt is to lean into selfcare,” she says, explaining that when we physically do something in our best interest, from gardening to taking a nature walk, it’s easier to do something in our emotional best interest. In fact, saying as much with an affirmation is key, adds Cole, who suggests repeating what will be true even if it isn’t right now: “I treat myself with the same consideration I give others.” Still want to take back your boundary request out of guilt? “Employ the 48-hour rule: Wait two days, and you’ll see that everyone is okay and it is okay that you said no to say yes to yourself.”
Angry or frustrated? Tap the Three R’S of Resilience
You’ve repeatedly told your mother-in-law that her questions about your personal life make you uncomfortable. But she continues to pry. This is the behavior of a “boundary bully,” says Cole. When they continually step over the line you created, you can’t help but feel equal parts angry and bewildered.
To boost your confidence and reassert yourself, just look to the three R’s: recognize, release, respond, she urges. First, recognize what’s happening in your body, be it a tightness in your chest or queasiness in your stomach. Release this feeling by placing your hands on the spot you feel tension and breathe deeply. After you’ve let go of your anger or anxiety, you’ll be able to respond, this time by sharing a consequence, such as, “If this happens again, I’m going to have to leave.” This is often all it takes to get through to most people. “We create the guest list and VIP section of our own life,” says Cole. “And we all deserve to be around people who lift us up. Standing your ground is so liberating because no one knows you or what you need better than you.” In the end, creating positive boundaries is about finding the courage to be you.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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