“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
~ Audre Lorde
It’s hard to say exactly when it started and what all the contributing factors are, but it seems that living a busy life, with a demanding job (and bonus points if it’s high paying with a prestigious title), a picture perfect social media presence, and well behaved children (or dogs, cats, etc.), all while also pleasing others and remaining even-keeled, are basic expectations in “winning” at life. Sounds like a tall order, right? And also so incredibly unrealistic.
“Our expectations help us think about what our boundaries are, and our boundaries inform our expectations.” (via loveisrespect.org)
There’s a lot of buzz these days about boundaries, with Brené Brown leading much of this current-day discussion and spearheading and strengthening a much needed movement. When we stop to consider what matters to us, what makes us feel happy, healthy, content, and secure, we might find that our list looks a little different than the list above. So why is it so hard to do the things that ultimately make us feel good, content, and “successful” in our own right – or even just the things that we would say are ok (versus not ok) for us?
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
There are layers of obstacles that people can encounter in trying to set boundaries or do what is or feels best for them. There are external, situational, or societal barriers that can (often unfairly or intolerantly) stop us or slow us down in this pursuit (for example: discrimination due to race, gender/identity, sexual orientation, and more, socioeconomic status, illness, trauma, and the list undoubtedly goes on), while some of the barriers might come from within and stand between us and creating the life that we actually want (not the one that looks good for the benefit of others).
Short-term discomfort versus long-term goal or benefit. Too often, many of us feel the need to make choices to avoid someone else’s response or spare their feelings, versus embracing the courage it takes to make choices that are best for us in the long run (knowing that it very well might elicit an adverse response from someone – maybe even someone we care deeply about). There’s no doubt that it requires courage to set a boundary – it can be extremely difficult, bring up guilt or self-doubt, and involve tolerating distress and discomfort while holding our ground (or – our boundary – the healthy line that we’ve drawn to discern what we will accept and what we will not).
Worrying what other people will think. Have you ever hesitated or wavered with a choice because you worried what someone else would think of it, or that you would be judged? I think it’s safe to say that we have all likely found ourselves in this boat – maybe we even feel like we’re living on the boat. It takes courage to understand what you need and what is good for you, and to take steps to make that your reality, knowing that it might ruffle feathers or come up against someone else’s “stuff.” How freeing would it feel to do it anyway? This doesn’t mean to act with malice, but to prioritize yourself over someone else’s response to you.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway!”
~ Susan Jeffers
Admittedly – or better yet – to be fully transparent, I’ve made many decisions in my life driven by my desire to avoid discomfort, someone else’s response, or perceived conflict. I’ve faced the fear of the decision and what it could bring, and swiftly moved away from it with a choice that ultimately did not serve me or my overall well being. I’m still here to tell the tale, but what it did was establish a pattern where I put others before myself, where I let fear win and then doubted my ability to withstand the fear, and it reinforced the idea that boundaries could (or even should?) be loose and variable. The good news is that with self-awareness, courage, support, and mindful choices, the pattern can be broken down and a new path can be created. I’m on this journey myself and see it as such an important – and ongoing – goal. And while it is a different thing to own this process for myself than it is to support my clients on their own journeys with it, it feels equally as important to me as a clinician.
The topics of boundaries and over all self-care come up endlessly in sessions. Discussions range from reframing self-care as selfish to a deserved necessity (the whole “oxygen mask” example from flying on an airplane – adults need to apply their own mask before helping children), defining what self-care looks like, and discussing boundaries with self, family, friends, spouses or partners, at work, or really anywhere. My hope is that in these sessions, it gives clients the chance to explore – without judgment – their patterns, what has reinforced or impacted them, and what it would feel like to create a shift and go down a new path. It can be freeing and liberating when we start to focus on what is ours to hold, and that alone, and establish healthy boundaries with others. The lines can certainly feel blurred at times and it’s not always easy to figure out where the cards fall – but here is a space where I hope we can all be patient, gentle, and also persistent as we strive to care for ourselves through a lens shaped by self-compassion rather than clouded by perceived selfishness or fear of judgment from self or others.
“The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”
~ Tara Brach