Along my journey to practice a more wholehearted way of living, one thing has become glaringly obvious--I am terrible at setting boundaries. I don’t want to beat myself up over this, but there is definitely room for improvement. You may be wondering if you too, have a problem establishing boundaries. It wasn’t until I started to take stock of the symptoms associated with this issue that I realized I indeed had a problem. Lately, I’ve been feeling emotionally drained, and I noticed that because I’m so quick to say “yes” to everything, I usually spend a lot of energy trying to make excuses to get out of something I’ve committed to, or I feel resentful that I have to actually “do” what I said I would do.
If setting boundaries in my relationships is so integral to my emotional health and happiness, why do I have such an aversion to establishing them in the first place? For me, avoidance results from two factors: self-imposed guilt and an unwillingness to engage in having a difficult dialogue. How do people know what we want if we don’t tell them what we need? As an example of how this plays out in my life I need look no further than my daily interactions at work. As a teacher, I’m constantly strapped for time in the classroom. My students have lots to contend with, and they inevitably want some of my one-on-one attention to help them work through their problems/questions. As a result of this, I often spend a healthy chunk of my break time and an additional 45 minutes after class talking to students. I end up feeling resentful, and take it out on my class by being terse, or at times, rude with them. I’ve been teaching adults for 22 years now, and I’ve never been able to figure out how to address this issue that leaves me feeling drained and stretched for "me time" to recharge my batteries to get back in front of the class. Now that I’m thinking about boundaries in my life, I thought I should put some of this theory into practice, so earlier this week, I had that awkward conversation with my students. I explained to them that I was starting to feel burnt-out, and that I needed to wrap-up my teaching day on time. I also explained to them that I would start allotting time each week for students to come up to my desk with their questions. It’s never easy to feel like you’re letting someone down or that you’re not able to do everything. Ultimately by doing this, I will be a better, less resentful teacher, and the communication between us will become more authentic.
Before asking for what you need in a boundary, it’s helpful to think about the following questions: (1) What is my “line in the sand”? What will I not allow someone to do? (2) Do I want a relationship based on authenticity or one based on people-pleasing? (3) What do I need to ask for in order to protect my time and energy? Once you have answers to these basic questions, be careful before you initiate conversations with people about your new-found boundaries. I’ve found it helpful to work through the conversation in my head before saying it aloud to the intended recipient. Another strategy I’m starting to rely on to avoid taking on too many commitments (that I inevitably try to back out of later) is to ask for some “time” before getting back to the person. This allows me the space to react after careful thought and the chance to weigh whether or not I really want to take on other commitment. If you’ve been a people pleaser for years, this may initially cause you some anxiety, and I’m sure the person you’re speaking to might be uncomfortable with your newly-displayed reticence. I think that’s OK because it’s much better than building resentments or weaseling out of a commitment.
The greatest obstacle to setting boundaries is the ugly face of guilt. By articulating your need for boundaries, you are admitting that you need to look out for “you”. We live in a society that from the perspective of consumerism, tells us that we should buy, eat, or own everything we want that makes us feel “good”. At the same time, we’re are fueled by the desire to be everything to everybody. I’m sure you’re familiar with that little voice in your head chanting: “You need to be a better parent.” “You need to be a more dedicated worker.” You need to be a better spouse/partner.” “You need to be skinnier, smarter, funnier…” By making the decision to set boundaries in your life, you are making self care the priority in your life. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown discusses that in her research on worthiness and wholehearted living, she discovered that “compassionate people are boundaried people. It’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting us or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.” If the concept is so simple, why am I having such a difficult time adopting it? I guess it's a good thing life is "a journey" not "a destination".