A friend once told me that she thinks of her life as a boat with a limited number of seats on it. Every person who is allowed on board is given priority access to her time and energy, so she is careful about who she chooses as a passenger.
Although this analogy could be interpreted as mean spirited, I find it to be quite wise. The reality is we are all have a finite amount of resources to allocate each day. When we are tapped out, both emotionally and physically, there is nothing left to give: so it is important to be mindful of what we are giving and to whom.
I like to think of my own life as a series of concentric circles, with a small handful of priority people nestled at the core (my “boat”), and other friends and family members placed in wider and wider circles of importance, which ripple out from my centre point.
There is enough love, time and energy for everyone who falls within my radius, but the amount that I allocate, and how often, varies upon their proximity to the source. This works for me; and it helps me to prioritize what I say “yes” and “no” to in my life.
People and relationships are complex. The brain naturally seeks to sort things into black and white categories: good and bad, right and wrong. This simplistic view is almost never accurate. There are too many shades of grey in the world. It really boils down to interpretation and personal preference.
We all have the ability to be both generous and selfish. Thoughtful and thoughtless. Both. And. The level of acceptability boils down to your personal boundaries and values. Over time, it is possible to learn to navigate the complexity of the grey: to choose the people that you bring in close and those you purposefully keep at a distance. To do this skillfully requires a willingness to both see and accept people, with all of their layers of complexity, not just a simplistic version that you create.
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When I was little, I was taught that love is defined through sacrifice and service. You give everything to others and meet their needs first. You agree to any request that is made of you (unless it is unsafe or dangerous). You do not put yourself first, as tending to your own needs is inherently selfish.
As I lived the first part of my life following these rules, I gave without limits. I said yes when I meant no. I tried to be the “perfect” friend, daughter, wife and colleague by being accommodating, generous and helpful. I gave and I gave and I gave; and it led me to a place of resentment, exhaustion and burn-out. I was an empty shell and I had nothing left.
Over the last few years, I have been exploring the importance of establishing healthy boundaries. A boundary is most simply defined as what is ok and what is not ok for me. It is about understanding where I end and you begin. It is not about building walls or creating separation from other people; it is simply about establishing and maintaining respect.
As Dr. Brené Brown discovered through her decades of research, people with the strongest boundaries are the most compassionate: as true generosity cannot exist without them. When they say yes, it is a true yes. When they say no, it is a true no. In considering a request, Brené asks herself: “What boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in my integrity and make the most generous assumptions about you?”Empathy is not feeling for somebody it is feeling with them. Empathy offered, along with boundaries, is infinite and sustaining. If you have done your work, and set clear boundaries, you can tread water forever.
Not sure if you have weak boundaries? Here are a few of the tell-tale signs: sharing too much too soon; feeling responsible for other peoples happiness; possessing an inability to say no for fear of rejection and abandonment; having a weak sense of identity; basing how you feel about yourself on how others treat you; feeling disempowered and allowing others to make decisions for you. This can lead to feeling of total powerless and a victim mentality. A red flag for crossing your boundary is using the word “should”. For example, “I should let my sister borrow my car, as my dad expects me to.”
There are two kinds of boundaries:
Physical: Protecting your body and your sense of personal space.
Emotional: Protecting your self-esteem and your ability to separate your feelings from another person’s feelings. An emotional boundary allows you to be impacted by other peoples thoughts, feelings, actions, while still maintaining your own unique beliefs, behaviours and sense of responsibility.
The process of learning to set a boundary is iterative. You do not master it in one day. It takes time, patience and practice. It also requires a lot of courage. It is scary to say no. In our society, we are encouraged to worry about what other people think of us and we generally want everyone to like us. This mind set, however, comes with a hefty price.
To set a boundary, state it clearly, calmly and with with as few words as possible. Do not justify your response or apologize. You do not need to convince anyone of anything. It is important to remember that you are not responsible for how the other person reacts to you setting a boundary. Acknowledge their feelings but do not take them on. Brené Brown suggests choosing a mantra. She personally uses: “Choose discomfort over resentment.” A mantra reminds you that you are making a choice that is critical for you well-being – even if it it not easy.
As I practice setting boundaries more and more in my own life, I am getting clearer on what I can give, while still remaining in my integrity. This feels really good. Learning to set boundaries is truly an act of love: both for myself and others. It is not easy work but it is important. I am committed to practicing this new skill set so I can continue to give with my whole heart for many years to come.