Draw the line here...

Are you a people-pleaser? Do you often have trouble saying ‘no’ to others? Then it’s time to set some healthy boundaries, suggests Maullika Sharma

Often your inability to establish personal boundaries stems from your desire to please your belief that it is selfish to do so.

Do you often find yourself saying ‘yes’ to things you would rather say ‘no’ to —  saying ‘yes’ to cooking up a favourite dish for your spouse even though you are exhausted and would rather put your feet up and relax after a hard day at the office; saying ‘yes’ to taking your child to the movies even though you have an important deadline at work that you will miss out on; saying ‘yes’ to loaning a cousin money even though you had an urgent need for the money yourself; saying ‘yes’ to ironing someone’s shirt when really the person should be ironing it himself.

Saying no to yourself

Why are you doing this? Why are you saying ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’? Why are you finding yourself just muttering under your breath about how unfair this is, but are unable to put your foot down and say ‘no’? Why are you allowing yourself to feel like a victim — pushed, exploited, manipulated, coerced, dominated, pressured, overcommitted, et al. Do you realise that saying ‘yes’ to someone or something else means saying ‘no’ to yourself and your priorities?

The answer lies in your inability to set the personal boundaries needed to protect yourself physically, psychologically and emotionally. Your boundaries are your way of letting the world know that what matters to you is important as what matters to others. However, it is really hard to establish these personal boundaries if you do not really believe that you are important, or suffer from low self-esteem and high self-doubt. Boundaries are essentially about your relationship with yourself and your own values.

Often your inability to establish personal boundaries stems from your desire to please your belief that it is selfish to do so. Or it may be the belief that if you are clear about your boundaries, you will become rigid, people will dislike you, your relationships will suffer, and you will be miserable.

Quite contrarily, being able to create strong personal boundaries is empowering and makes you feel more in control of your life — if you can speak up and say ‘no’, you are heard, you are appreciated and valued, you are more in touch with your needs, and you can spend more time on yourself (without feeling guilty). All in all, you have a higher sense of self-worth as you find the courage and freedom to be yourself. Boundaries are your values; boundaries are your friends — they represent how much or how little you respect yourself.

Healthy boundaries can help you define yourself as a person, not just as a part of a group or a family (as Renu, not as the mother of Rekha, or the spouse of Roshan). Healthy boundaries can also help you decide what you will and will not hold yourself responsible for. For instance, ‘I am responsible for organising nourishing food for my child, which does not necessarily mean that I have to cook it.’ Or, ‘I am responsible for giving my child the opportunity of a good education, but I am not responsible for him not getting above 95% in the exam.’ ‘As a counsellor, I am responsible for providing my clients with a confidential safe space to explore their darkest thoughts, but I am not responsible for the choices they eventually make.’

So, how can you go about setting healthy boundaries? The first step is to acknowledge the lack of them. (“I feel inferior for wanting to practise my religion. This is not okay and I need to change that.”) The next step is to decide what is important to you — what you are comfortable with and what you are not comfortable with. (“I am okay that my religious beliefs are not important to my spouse. He need not follow them. But he cannot object to my following them.”) Once you are clear about the boundary, you can communicate it to others. (“I will be praying every morning at 6 am for 15 minutes. You are welcome to join in, or not, whatever you prefer. But this is important to me and I will be practising it.”)

Stay strong

However, knowing your boundaries and setting them are two very different hurdles. The important thing to remember is that you cannot change others, but you can change how you deal with others. So, if others try to break into your boundary (if they make demands of you at 6 am when you have made it clear that is your prayer time), it is important to keep your boundary in mind for yourself and enforce it. People will test, push and disrespect your boundary all the time. Let your behaviour of sticking to your boundary speak for itself (let them know the task will be done after your prayer, and if it cannot wait then maybe they could do it themselves).

The most crucial element here is how clearly you communicate your boundaries. If your afternoon nap is important to you, but the rest of the family insists on making demands on you during your nap time, it is your choice to enforce your boundary (and not feel violated), or to sacrifice your nap to fulfil the needs of others (and in the process feel violated yourself).

Boundary-setting can make others angry and disappointed. Our fear of anger and our ‘disease to please’ do not allow us to stand up for ourselves. As a result, we let our boundaries be violated. We often derive so much of our self-worth from putting the feelings and needs of others well above our own that we are overcome by guilt even at the thought of putting our needs ahead of others. This is what makes boundary-setting so hard.

In the words of Sarri Gilman, author of the book Transform Your Boundaries, our stories are constantly being shaped by what we are saying ‘yes’ to and what we are saying ‘no’ to. Love cannot exist without boundaries, not even with our children. These could be material boundaries (“You are not allowed to open my purse without asking me”); physical boundaries (“You cannot walk into my bathroom without knocking”); mental boundaries (“I am entitled to my opinion even if you do not like it or agree with it”); emotional boundaries (“Your taking drugs is very disturbing for me but I am not responsible for it”); sexual boundaries relating to when you consent to sexual contact; and, spiritual boundaries relating to your beliefs in a higher power.

So, overcome your guilt. Always bear in mind that you have intellectual worth and are entitled to your own thoughts; you have emotional worth and are entitled to your own feelings; you have physical worth and are entitled to your own space; you have social worth and are entitled to your own social activities; and you have spiritual worth and entitled to your own spiritual beliefs. Overcome the resistance by others to you putting your needs first. And get support if you find the journey of reclaiming your boundaries difficult. But do it you must, as it is shaping your story for the rest of your life.

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