First, I want to let you know that this post is longer than I anticipated, but I promise you it will be worth the read if you are looking to understand more about setting healthy boundaries. Secondly, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this post and being committed to setting healthy boundaries in your life.
As a child growing up, I didn’t know that I could have boundaries. I didn’t know about boundaries. Thinking back now, I remember there were boundaries all around me. Boundaries my parents or teachers put on me, but I was never taught to have boundaries of my own.
As I grew up, I was unable to say “no” to friends and family, and authority figures, because I was never taught that. So, I said yes to the requests others made of me. What happens when I am unable to say no?
I didn’t know how to think about my own needs. I didn’t give time to listen to my emotions. Ultimately, I felt suffocated with all the needs of the people around me. The people that suffered from the consequences of this were my family. When I felt suffocated, I would get upset and react with anger. I didn’t know why I was angry especially when the other person wasn’t doing anything wrong (and that’s because I didn’t know how to reflect on my feelings and get to the cause of what I needed). Afterward, I would feel guilty and say “yes” to any request made. I didn’t understand what it means to have boundaries and how to set them.
I grew up hiding what I really felt because I couldn’t express them, at least not in a healthy way – and then I blew up (as my fiancé would say it, “you went from 0 to 100”). I didn’t, but because it’s been building on the inside and I held onto it, my emotions popped like a balloon.
The one person in my life that asks me for help the most is my mother. She doesn’t read, write, or speak English so whenever there was mail, I had to read through it all. Whenever there was an appointment, I had to be next to her. Whenever she needed to return something to the store, I had to go with her. I would have to change my schedule around to fit hers. I didn’t know how to tell her no because when she asks me for assistance, they were important. If I didn’t help her, who will?
That was and still is my way of thinking, but along the way to adulthood, I’ve met people who taught me the importance of having boundaries. I’ve learned about setting healthy boundaries with the people I love, not always for my benefit but for theirs.
Setting up boundaries is not something that happens right away. It takes time and you move at your own pace. Baby step by baby step.
The first thing I did was tell my mom “no” when she made a request to help her return items she bought but no longer needed. That’s a simple task that she can take on herself. This helped her take a risk, but also become somewhat self-reliant. Little by little, she doesn’t ask me for help as much if I just direct her to another resource. I am there for her when something major happens and she truly needs me, otherwise, she can fend for herself now.
(You’ll have noticed that I lived a life of co-dependency with my mother. It went on for years until the need to breathe became greater than I could bear).
I’ve done a little more research before writing this post so I wouldn’t just be handing you a whole page of my experience or what I think about setting boundaries.
Boundaries is you stating what your values are, where your priorities are, so that you can take care of what matters most to you and that is you, then those around you. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first.
Boundaries is you saying “yes” to yourself when you say “no” to others. It’s not because you want to say “no” to them, but rather because you need to fulfill your needs first (whether that’s space so you can relax or so you can go out and have fun).
Boundaries is you declaring that you are an individual with needs that are different from your significant other or your friends or families. It is you setting time to explore the various facets of yourself without others interfering. It is you demanding others to respect your need to be you. This does not mean that you do not have time for friends, family, or your partner; it just means you need space to nourish your talents, find more hobbies, or simply enjoy your own company. It is important to find individuality in a relationship so that you don’t feel consumed by the other person’s needs and desires, goals, and dreams, and feel like you are always supporting them. This can drain you and while you’re happy for that person, you are unfulfilled because you are not meeting your needs and dreams. Maintain your individuality as not to lose yourself.
Below are steps I found on another site that I believe presents the order better than I could. I will share with you my personal experience in each step and why it’s important:
- Know how much you can handle. What are your limits?
Know how much you can fit on your plate and still have room for (dessert – wink, wink) the things you want to do for yourself.
I like to have a to-do list for pretty much every day of the week and if I can add a time frame to my list, I will be ecstatic. My weekend to-do list is filled with chores from sun up to sundown, with Saturday’s list looking like: morning laundry, noon grocery shopping, after that cleaning the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living room, cooking a late meal, then food prep. By the time I have completed my to-do list, it’s 8 pm and I’m exhausted. I should feel accomplished, and I do, but there’s an incomplete feeling because the next day’s schedule is on my mind and all I want to do is breathe a little. I wanted to have time to take a walk, do some research on photography and graphic designs… but my chores seem to have a tight hold of me. I find myself leaving the bathroom clean-up for the next day or food prep for Sunday to allow myself time to enjoy part of Saturday. I’ve learned to sometimes simply forget about the household chores I have and just soak in a bathtub. I deserve it.
- Listen to your feelings
Take time to reflect on your emotions and find out why you feel the way you do. Be honest with yourself, be completely naked honest. Face that truth.
Remember my earlier retelling of saying “yes” to my mom all the time. I didn’t listen to my feelings of anger and frustration; I didn’t take the time to analyze them. When I realized why I felt the way I did, it was because I was in another town, far from my mom and her demands, and I started to realize how liberated I felt without her. I could finally hear my own thoughts and make my own decisions. Coming home for the holidays, my mom would ask me to help her with a bunch of applications and making phone calls for her – and I’d gladly said yes. Why? Because it wasn’t an everyday thing, it was just a few days of the week and then I was away again. That’s when I realized that I needed space away from my mom to love her the way she needs to be loved, and to help her. Equally as important, I was able to love her in a way that I am proud of. My “yeses” were no longer because I felt guilty, but because I truly understand her needs and still satisfy my desire for freedom because I formed healthy boundaries.
- Be direct.
Be clear about your limits. Clearly state your boundaries. The best way is to say it in a simple way: “I need time for myself right now,” “I can’t go out to lunch with you, I need this time to finish my project (or research on self-improvement, or time to reflect on my life),” “I’m sorry, my plate is full right now” etc.
I know this is easier said than done. Trust me, I know. I beat around the bush quite often in my past and even to this day I have a hard time being direct. In fact, just last night, I wanted time to focus on writing this blog but my fiancé wanted to spend time together. Instead of telling him what I needed, I responded: “You had time to play your videogame but I can’t do the same thing and have a moment?” Well, dang! Where did that come from? I was direct for sure, but it was not the best response I realized that quickly after. That kind of response has no love and all it does is push people away because it kind of says “stop asking me to be with you.” The correct response would’ve been: “I need a moment for myself before we hang out.” That’s it. But my response sounded like I was annoyed that he wanted to spend time with me (hello, Vangelina, you should be glad your fiancé wants time with you). Mental note to self to respond better next time with my directness.
- Give yourself permission
Allow yourself to say “no” and feel no guilt that you need time for yourself, to do things you want to do or because you don’t want to do what is being asked of you. There will always be things others will want you to help with, it’s never-ending. Give yourself room to breathe by saying no. Make room for yourself by pushing away things that will hinder the kind of growth you want for yourself.
I always felt guilty when I say “no” to someone who invites me out or asks me for help and I make up some lame excuse to get out of it. It wasn’t because I had a lot on my plate and can’t fit them in. No, sometimes I simply want a weekend cleared of any activities. I needed a break, regardless of how great my week may have been. I just wanted to sit down and do nothing all day long. Seems selfish? Yes, it seems that way and for the longest time, I felt guilty about saying “no” just because I wanted lazy weekends. However, these lazy weekends allowed me to simply enjoy life, take in the fresh air, and relax. I felt renewed after my lazy weekends and felt like I can tackle anything. Saying “no” for my lazy weekend is not selfish, it is me providing myself with self-care.
The biggest permission I gave myself is saying “no” to my family whenever they called and needed my help. I spread myself thin for my family and loved ones and I felt guilty when I didn’t help them. The truth is, when I’m not around, they somehow survived. They don’t need me as much as they made me think. It gets easier after 50 “noes” and standing my ground on my noes.
- Practice self-awareness
Hold onto the boundaries you’ve set. It’s easy to slip back into the same routine, so when you start to feel the same way you felt before and disliked it, take a step back and speak up and hold your ground about the boundaries you set.
I start to slip when I see my mom suffering because I didn’t help her with her needs. I hate to see her suffering. My heart hurts to see her like that. What is stopping me from helping her? She asks me to go against my morals, against who I want to be and refused to accept the option I offer her. I do not want to bend my morals to help her because I know I would keep bending my morals for her and in the end, I’ll lose who I want to be. She didn’t want to take the kind of help I can offer, so just like me, she chose her boundaries. It’s important for me to keep going in the direction of the person I want to be and I won’t sacrifice that.
- Consider your past and present
The role you played growing up impacts how you set boundaries. If you always took care of the family, it’s hard for you to set up boundaries and start focusing on yourself (that would be abnormal to you). Maybe you were the dependable friend who was always there and knows everything – it’d be hard to start knowing more about yourself than about your friends and their needs.
I am the eldest child of 9 children and was the caretaker of my whole family. At the young age of 10, I was cooking for the family, going to appointments and interpreting for my parents, filling out applications, cleaning the house, and babysitting. I was expected to know the way of life, to know what to do. The expectation scared me but I thought it was normal – that I was supposed to know it all. I was supposed to know it all and take care of my family (the same expectations were not placed on my younger siblings).
And so, when my parents split up, I was smacked in the middle interpreting when the cops arrived to take my dad away. I witnessed the abuse and heard her testimony first hand. It was a traumatic experience… I was then stuck with taking care of my siblings and a mother who misses the man who was abusing her. She was depressed for a long time.
Those traumatic feelings were brought out again after more than ten years when my sister was mentally abused by her in-laws. I helped her leave that place and fought hard to make sure she never felt the stress, the strain, of the struggle. And then she found herself a mentally controlling man.
This time I said “no” more to helping her. No more going in and trying to straighten out her life. If she wants to escape, she’ll have to call 911 herself and have the cops save her. I will not go riding in and try to pull her out like I did before. It took a toll on me, I lost so much sleep and neglected my health while I help sort hers out.
I said “no” not because I don’t love her and don’t want a good life for her, because I sincerely do and I continue to pray for her, her safety, and salvation. I am simply saying “yes” to taking care of myself, “yes” to keeping myself out of abusive situations and reliving the traumatic time of my youth. I am saying “yes” to keeping sane. I am saying “yes” to continually seeking healing for myself first.
- Make self-care a priority
Fuel yourself first so that you can keep fueling others. If you do not fuel yourself, how much longer can you care for the people around you?
I love my fiancé and sometimes I make him the first priority. I run around in circles to keep him happy (even though he didn’t need a single thing and would be happy just to see me). In the end? I became angry and resentful because I saw him doing things he loves and growing in a direction that I could not. He was doing things that kept him as an individual and at the same time also does things with me so we remain a couple with similar interests. However, for me, I was waiting on him and neglected to nurture the things I enjoy that set me apart from him. I felt no personal growth and was resentful of his. It was wrong of me to feel that way because he had done nothing but encouraged me to also do what I love.
I have to put boundaries on myself! I need to fuel myself with the things I enjoy doing so that I can better love my fiancé.
- Seek support
Talk to a friend you trust about the boundaries you want to set and about your reasons or goals for doing so. Your good friend will support you and remind you of who you want to be. Maybe there’s a mentor you look up to and can ask for advice and support as you start your journey on setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.
My greatest support is my fiancé. He knows about my past and about how much I want to be free from the stress of taking care of all my family members but myself. He also knows how deeply I care for my family. He reminds me when I faltered about the boundaries I set and reminds me of how my boundaries are not only for myself but for my family members. See, I start to fall back into what would be co-dependency… maybe my need to be of service and their need to let me handle all their issues. I have to let my family make their mistakes and learn from them, but I can be on the sidelines and cheer them on and help when it is crucially necessary. I live a less stressful life because of him and I started to see that my family can fend for themselves.
- Be assertive
If someone is not respecting your boundaries, speak up and let them know. Unspoken boundaries are no boundaries at all. Speak up about what your limits are so others know and can choose to respect it.
My fiancé is a jokester and I am a pretty serious, mellow person. Sometimes his jokes are just too much for me. I asked him to limit the amount of “playing around” he does when he’s around me because I can only take so much. Sometimes all it takes is a simple reminder and he’ll cease, other times I have to be firm and insist he stops because I’ve had more than enough.
- Start small
Start small. You don’t have to do a complete 180 overnight. It could be saying “no” to meeting that friend who asked you out, but instead, offer another time that works for your schedule. It could be sharing with others your preference.
If you’ll recall, earlier in this post, I mentioned how I started off telling my mom “no” to helping her return items she didn’t want back to the store. That’s something that is small with no high risk of making mistakes. It’s small, but it gave me the space I needed to breathe and focus more on my schedule. It was the kickstart to me becoming comfortable with setting boundaries.
I want you to remember something important about setting boundaries: boundaries are meant to be an anchor for you in the midst of chaos, boundaries teach others that you respect yourself, boundaries is you telling yourself that you love you.
When I started learning about boundaries, I found that even though God loves us unconditionally, He has boundaries. When He created Adam and Eve, He gave them one rule (limit/boundary) and that is not to eat from the tree of life (Genesis). Adam and Eve disregarded His command so He sent them away from Him. It didn’t mean He no longer loves them. No! He loved them and was upset at the situation, but He needed people that will listen to Him.
There are many examples throughout the Bible that show how God sets boundaries. Moses and the Israelites in the desert: He promised them a land flowing with milk and honey with the condition that they obey Him and listen to His commands. Sounds easy, right? But they forgot about Him the moment they no longer hear from Him. This made God furious because He brought them up out of Egypt but they so easily cast Him off. What happened after that? He made them wait for the promised land.
You’ll notice that God is disciplining the Israelites as He sets boundaries on them. This is the same way parents should set boundaries on their children. Take care to set boundaries with your children, but lovingly and they will learn. Be patient like the Lord was with the Israelites.
Another biblical example of setting healthy boundaries is this:
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
This sounds harsh, right? I would be hurt if my brother said something like that. But! Looking more in-depth to what Jesus said, he is truly saying that his first priority is bringing God’s people back to God. There is no time to spare and speak privately to the family he was born into. Jesus has his priorities straight and knows his mission. He makes no apologies for the necessary steps he has to take to fulfill God’s plan.
In the same way, let’s set our own priorities straight, make no apologies for the things we have to do for our own good. The time we have is ours and we have to use it wisely to live a healthy life. Respect others’ boundaries, maintain yours, and separate yourself from negative people who just want to suck the life out of you.
Friends, be kind to each other, to your friends, know their boundaries, respect and support their boundaries, and live by yours.
I truly hope that this post helps you start building boundaries or improve on the ones you have.
Until next time, remember to respond with love and practice self-love.
(For more information how on to say “yes” to yourself and “no” to things that frustrate you, download Alison Cook’s free e-books here by signing up for her e-newsletter. I am directing you to her site because I found it extremely helpful. I do not know her or affiliated with her in any way).