by Pilar Yoho, MSW, LCSW, LSCSW
As a mental health therapist, I often work with clients who come to me feeling overwhelmed, emotionally depleted, resentful, and frustrated. After a bit of time exploring the origin of these common feelings, I often find that at the root of their experience is a lack of healthy boundaries. They often complain of giving too much of their attention, time, and energy to projects, people, and requests without considering if they have the physical and emotional capacity to manage what is being asked of them. Many clients admit that they “give too much,” and have no idea how to set appropriate boundaries and not feel guilty about it.
*Spoiler Alert* Most clients cringe when I tell them that it is nearly impossible to begin setting healthy boundaries without feeling some sort of guilt about it. The fact that they struggle with setting boundaries tells me the internal messaging behind saying “no” goes very deep, and is greatly influenced by how the other person(s) will respond and perceive their character. Especially if they self-identify as a “people-pleaser!”
The first thing I always say to a client who struggles with people-pleasing and a lack of healthy boundaries is, “When you’re constantly saying yes to everyone and everything else, you’re saying no to yourself.” Their needs and capacities are placed on the back burner repeatedly, and that is usually a perfect recipe to breed resentment, overwhelm, depletion, and frustration as most of the time they get little to nothing in return to replenish their own emotional reserves.
When exploring further, I find that the dominant belief around why most struggle with setting boundaries is because others have told them that it is selfish.
Yet there is a stark difference between taking care of oneself (mentally, emotionally, and physically), and being “selfish!”
I tell clients that in order to be present for those in their lives who depend on them, they must be present and dependable with themselves. That involves protecting their energy, time, and attention with the assistance of healthy boundaries. A person cannot live authentically if they are consumed with meeting the needs of everyone else while their own capacities to meet their own needs are depleted. I reframe the difference between self-care and selfishness as this: self-care promotes sustaining one’s own mental health and well-being. Whereas, selfishness promotes draining others to get what they want.
I remind clients that setting intentional boundaries does not mean they begin saying no to everything, only to things that create an uncomfortable, sometimes distressing, internal response. It can be done by practicing flexible “baby-step” boundaries–it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” here.
It is also important to make space for the reality that boundaries are complex and individual. There are no “cookie cutter” molds for how someone needs to implement and maintain healthy boundaries. What works and is needed for one to accomplish a sense of peace within their personal boundary-setting, may not work for another. Boundaries are typically experienced through the “lens” of self-protection, and not everyone needs to be protected in the same way or from the same thing. However, if a person or request often leaves someone feeling emotionally and physically drained, then that is usually a time to evaluate if a boundary could be helpful to sustaining their capacity and well-being in that relationship dynamic.
Here are three ways I work with clients to begin implementing healthy “baby-step” boundaries.
- Build awareness around when personal boundaries are being pushed/violated. It can start with examining how this project/person/request makes them feel internally. Do they get tense, nauseous, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, resentful at the mere thought of taking on this request? Usually the first indicator that a boundary needs to be placed is when the body physically reacts to the request. Our body will always tell us if we have the physical/emotional capacity to take on a request, we just have to pay attention to the sensations it is trying to communicate to us.
- Practice with a “safe” target. I say this because most of the time if a client is being gaslit to people-please, it is not within the context of an emotionally safe relationship. If a client finds it difficult to set boundaries with an intimate partner, I might suggest starting with setting boundaries with a coworker, or an acquaintance. Baby-step boundaries might look and sound like this: A coworker repeatedly asks them to cover an extra shift. After exploring if they have the emotional/physical capacity, they decide that their mental health needs a day of rest, and they need to decline. They tell the coworker that they will not be able to take on that extra shift, and will let them know when their schedule will allow for extra shifts in the future. No other explanation or details are necessary.
- Implement/enforce consistently. The one complaint I hear often when a client is first implementing boundaries is that “no one listens,” or “they do not work.” After more exploration, we usually find some mixed-messaging happening. A client might verbalize a boundary, but then struggle to implement or enforce it. I have to gently remind clients that they have no control over if the other person will respect their boundary, but that they do have control over how they will enforce it. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone who was faced with a boundary respected it with no questions asked? And yet that isn’t realistic. I find that those who will give the most push-back with new boundaries being placed, are those who benefited the most with a person’s lack of boundaries. People with healthy boundaries tend to respect the boundaries of others. Boundaries are not meant to exert power and control over others; the focus is more so on how the person implementing the boundary will respond if their boundaries continue to be disregarded or not respected (i.e., end the conversation, limit interactions, not take their phone call, etc).
It is important to remember that boundary-setting is a process, and no two individuals will experience it the same way. Although it can feel overwhelming in the beginning, especially as one begins to build awareness around how a lack of boundaries has impacted their overall wellbeing, in time it will get easier the more it is practiced! Ultimately, the goal(s) with mastering consistent boundary-setting, are to increase a sense of empowerment, a sense of safety, feel less depleted, create more space and capacity to cultivate peace, connection, and confidence in oneself, and to be present and available to others!
What an exceedingly powerful ripple effect!
For more detailed information about healthy boundaries, I recommend the book: “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself” by Nedra Glover Tawwab.