Vanessa de Souza
Boundaries are not Black and White
It’s the end of a busy work week and you’re about to unwind by watching the newest episode of the Last of Us. As you make some popcorn, your best friend calls and asks you to come over to help her watch her kids because her sitter fell through…again. This is the third time she’s come to you in two weeks. You feel frustrated at first as the image of you relaxing on the couch disappears, and then you feel extremely guilty for wanting a night to yourself. You say to yourself:
“She needs me. I have to say yes, otherwise I’m a bad friend.” and just like that, you are out the door and headed to her place.
Does this sound familiar? Like you’re being stretched too thin but it seems like everyone needs something from you and you have to say yes or take it on? You’re definitely not alone. So many people struggle with taking on more than they have capacity for, usually because they’re feeling guilty if they don’t. But if we break down what the emotion guilt tells us (that we are acting out of sync with our values and doing something we consider wrong). Is that what’s really happening? Obviously, we love our relationships, or even care about our jobs and the other commitments we’re juggling. However, in order to show up in all the places, spaces and relationships we value, we also need to love and care for ourselves. One way to do that is to set boundaries and learn how to say the big scary word: “No”.
Sounds terrifying right? "If I say no, then I'm a horrible person and everyone would hate me." That simply isn’t the case. Especially if we understand why we are saying no and how we say it. Setting boundaries can sometimes feel like a superpower gifted to only a few people. These “select” folks seem to know how to do it intuitively and gracefully, leading happy, healthy lives. Yet, here you are, maybe consumed by people pleasing, avoiding confrontation and/or feelings of guilt and shame so it seems impossible to stand up for yourself. The reality is that boundary setting takes practice – a lot of practice. It can be a harder skill to learn for those of us who come from cultures where guilt and shame are essentially “love languages”; aka tools of communication that tell us if we’re accepted, loved, or belong. Serving others beyond our capacity is therefore expected – an honorable duty even.
But how does this story end if we’re continuously pushed past our limits?
A silent rage starts to burn within us, which can turn into resentment or a reluctance to spend time with the ones we’re going above and beyond for. It becomes a challenging cycle because you’re angry that they’re angry at you for changing your behavior. Then you're angry at them for crossing your boundary and feeling burnt out as a result. And then even angry at yourself for not setting a boundary to communicate how you’re feeling in the first place. Also, you might be ashamed of feeling anger at all. You can see how complex this quickly becomes, especially if you’ve never vocalized what you’re feeling, or even worse, are made to feel guilty for how you feel if you do express yourself. The messaging we receive from loved ones might reinforce the guilt, claiming that there is something wrong with us for not being able to be everything to everyone or able to put them first. This is an example of poor generational boundary setting – it has become a cultural expectation that everyone has to do in order to keep the status quo afloat. You’re not supposed to question it or challenge it, which can be extremely difficult when we are living in another part of the world where we have limited time and resources.
“If I say no, then I'm not being a good friend. It’s not like I had plans anyways”...what if it’s not so black and white?
We don’t need to extend ourselves to the point of burnout in order to be accepted and loved. This, of course, is easier said than done. Culture plays an important role in how we come to understand and set boundaries. Western culture tends to focus on “hard” boundaries: “this is my boundary and you better respect it”, or “No, is a full sentence”, or “I’m going to tell you what I want and expect you to do that” etc. While these boundaries are necessary in some contexts, they aren’t that effective when we’re wanting to foster healthy communication in relationships.
Boundaries are not black and white.
We can create boundaries that suit our needs and the type of relationship we have with the person we'd like to set boundaries with. There are different types of boundaries. It’s not just about setting a boundary or not setting a boundary, but rather, catering the boundary to your needs and emotions. If we center our needs and emotions when thinking about boundaries, we are taking responsibility for ourselves. We aren’t leaving the responsibility to the other person to give you what you want (and probably be disappointed). We also aren’t taking responsibility for their needs and wants. As adults, we are personally responsible for ourselves. At the end of the day, we cannot live someone’s life for them and vice versa. I empower you to show up for yourself and start to get to know what it is that you’d like to change in that relationship.
Getting to know yourself first can pave the way to next steps in boundary setting. If you’re feeling guilty about setting boundaries, it can be helpful to reflect on if this is your feelings of guilt or is this, in part, a reflection of how you’ve been raised? Is it a cultural or family expectation that’s been passed onto you? It can be helpful to work through our feelings and come up with a plan on how to navigate our boundaries with a therapist. This can look different to each person – it’s not a one size fits all situation.
Boundary setting can be more covert than overt or “hard”. We don’t need to scream our feelings and thoughts from the rooftops but rather make small intentional changes on our end to relieve some of the pressure on ourselves. Choosing the degree of the boundary depends on your needs as well the dynamic of who you’re hoping to set them with. For example, we can choose how much access someone has to us if we feel like we’re doing too much for them. I’ll give a specific example that I often hear from my South Asian clients - your Mom calls you every day and wants to speak to you for hours because she’s recently retired and unsure what to do with her time. You get frustrated and irritated because you don’t have the time between work, your commitments and having some “down time”. Then you think to yourself that she’s probably lonely and wants to connect so you start to feel guilty about not wanting to talk to her. A more covert boundary could be not picking up the phone every single time and reminding yourself that it’s ok to focus on your current priority (work, the dishes, working out, etc.). Or maybe you decide to let her know that as much as you’d love to chat, you don’t have a lot of time so you’ll call once a week so she can have your full attention.
Setting boundaries in relationships improves our self-esteem and how we view our identity. If we were raised to be the non-confrontational people pleasers and caregivers, our self-esteem and identity are based on what we can do for others. We might also take responsibility for others’ needs and wants because we’ve been so attuned to others for so long. This could make us reliant on others for our self-worth because we are only as worthy as we are helpful. Working with a therapist can provide a safe space to reflect these possible consequences to poor boundary setting. We feel empowered when we respect and name our needs, even if just to ourselves. As expressed earlier, if we don’t have an open relationship with a loved one (especially family) we don’t need to express ourselves transparently.
Honoring our needs through action or inaction (such as not answering the phone call or text immediately) is a powerful tool when navigating boundary setting. Give it a try next time you're noticing a desire to change how you show up in relationships.