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The Hard Truth About Boundaries And Self Care

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

“There is always more to do. I constantly feel like I am letting people down.” This statement could have been made by almost any of my clients: Dirk, the VP of engineering at a tech company; or Sheena, a surgeon in a major clinic who also has two young children at home; or Jess, a fifth year big law associate swamped with client work and hoping to make partner in the next three to four years. They all work demanding jobs with long hours and they always feel as if they have not done enough. Tell them that they need better boundaries and they respond with a frustrated eye-roll, as if to say, “Yeah, right.” Like so many workers, professionals and caregivers, they feel trapped by their many obligations, none of which seems optional. Far from being empowering, the idea of setting boundaries hits them like just one more thing to do. One more thing they are failing at.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you. You are overwhelmed and exhausted, just barely holding it all together. But you feel unable to set a boundary for fear that things will fall apart, that you will damage your career or harm your relationships. Perhaps you have tried to set boundaries and it has not gone well. Boundaries can seem like magical thinking. Might as well wish for a fairy godmother.

The truth is that boundaries are hard to set and hard to keep, and they don’t fix things overnight. But they are also an essential piece of health and sustainability, what psychiatrist and author Pooja Lakshmin calls real self care. In her excellent and easy to read book, Lakshmin asserts that real self care is not about a quick fix bubble bath or yoga retreat. She taps into self-care’s black feminist roots, rejecting the current fad of productized “faux self-care.” Instead, her approach to self care is a consistent practice, rather than an escape. Real self care involves getting grounded in your values, treating yourself with self-compassionstepping into your power, and setting boundaries.

A boundary is a limit we set to protect our property, our time, or our emotional, mental and physical well-being. Boundaries, when clearly drawn and respected, create space for us to operate and to meet our own needs in relationship with others. Sadly, many people will not set a boundary, continuing to push themselves until their body sets it for them. They throw out their back, come down with pneumonia, hit a physical wall or have a breakdown. But we should not have to collapse for us to pay attention. So here are some hard truths about boundaries:

Boundaries have a cost. Saying ‘no’ to a request or setting a limit usually involves disappointing someone or not meeting their expectations. Depending on the nature of the relationship (boss, co-worker, spouse, family member, friend), you may experience consequences and costs from setting a boundary. You may feel guilty. Your boss or co-worker may express disappointment and anger. Loved ones may be hurt. Setting a boundary requires that you are willing to face this initial reaction, tolerate your guilt, and work through it to get to a better place. Be patient. Allow others to scramble a bit to fill the gap (after all, you have probably done your share of scrambling for others!) If you are a manager, your direct reports may be accustomed to you solving their problems for them, and they may struggle initially. Resist the urge to jump back in and fix things and try coaching them instead. Your boundary has an initial cost, but it will pay off.

Power and status affect your ability to set boundaries. There are some situations in which your power to set boundaries may be extremely limited. When you are in a very junior role, or have a caregiving responsibility, or you belong to a marginalized group, setting meaningful boundaries may be very difficult or even impossible, and it will almost certainly feel risky. But you can still do something. Start small. Lakshmin describes her own moment of empowerment when, fresh out of residency (where she was expected to carry a pager and respond immediately when paged), she learned that she could let her calls go to voicemail, and then listen to the message. This boundary created a space for her, a pause in which to reflect, consider the request and choose her response. Start by identifying your zone of control and see if you can create a space. Give yourself three deep breaths between calls or ask for help with a task rather than shouldering it alone. Set a mental boundary, as in, “I’m not going to think/worry about that now.” Be opportunistic and rest when you can. In the words of Nap Ministry founder Tricia Hersey, “Rest is resistance.

No one is going to give you permission or approval. When colleagues, friends or family members are used to you always being there and saying yes to their requests, they are likely to be surprised, taken aback and even angry when you set a boundary or say no. Do not expect the co-worker who asked you to cover for them to be happy when you say no. Or your sibling to be cool with it when you say you need help managing your parents’ health insurance claims. Like it or not, you have allowed them to become dependent on you. Prepare for a phase of discomfort, conflict and disequilibrium when you set a boundary. Maybe you worry that setting a boundary and prioritizing your needs is (or will be perceived as being) “selfish.” It will be up to you to manage your own feelings of guilt (hold firm!) and address any conflict that may arise as a result. Grounding yourself in your values may help you overcome your worry that you are being selfish. And don’t over-explain—it just gives the other person something to argue against.

You have to let some balls drop. When you are juggling an overwhelming number of tasks, obligations and projects, setting boundaries will mean letting some things drop. Lakshmin advises that the key is to figure out which balls are glass and will shatter irreparably when dropped, and which are rubber that will bounce. (Best-selling author Nora Roberts is often credited with saying that some are glass and some are plastic, but I like the rubber ball metaphor better.) When under stress, it can feel like everything is of equal importance—it’s all glass. Step back take inventory of your obligations to identify critical tasks and tasks of lesser importance that can drop, or can be picked up by others. Seek guidance from your manager to help prioritize. Make a conscious choice and communicate about which balls you are allowing to drop, so that others will not be surprised.

You may be your own worst enemy (but you could be your own best ally). Often our inability to set boundaries is an unwillingness to be the person who says “no.” Perhaps we have a cherished identity or self-image as the “go-to” person, the hero. Maybe we harbor deep feelings of unworthiness and are constantly trying to prove that we are good enough. If you experience serious internal resistance to saying “no,” or feel panicked at the thought of letting someone down, consider whether you may have what Harvard professors and researchers Bob Keegan and Lisa Lahey call competing commitments to do exactly the opposite of the behavior change you say you want. Their “Immunity to Change” framework can help identify these commitments and the assumptions that drive them.

Another way that you may work against your own best interests is by having an overactive inner critic. Most people have an inner monologue of thoughts running constantly throughout the day, and one study found that women criticize themselves on average eight times a day. If your self-talk tends toward negativity and self-criticism, you will likely have a harder time sticking up for yourself or taking care of yourself. However, it is possible to cultivate a more encouraging, self-compassionate inner voice—the kind you would use with a friend. Instead of an inner drill sergeant yelling at you, “Work harder! You’ll never be good enough!” develop an inner ally encouraging you, “You’ve got this. You’re enough. Take a breath.”

Start somewhere. Burnout is on the rise. Many acknowledge that the real solution needs to happen at an organizational, cultural level. But because the pace of systemic change is glacial, much of the responsibility for preventing burnout lands on the individual. And yet, change must start somewhere, and movements start with a few individuals. As Black feminist poet Audra Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”