Hands up who finds setting boundaries slightly excruciating? I know I did. The idea of saying no to people so that I could do something for myself instead, filled me with fear. As such, I’ve spent most of my life running myself ragged trying to be what I think everyone wants me to be. Like so many, I was bound by a need to ‘people please’. For many years I worked far too much in my job and my weekends were booked up for months. Mid-week, I would race from my job in Slough to meet friends in London, always running late, always feeling utterly stressed and guilty. When I occasionally stopped to rest, my mind was whirring with worries about work, what I’d said after a couple of drinks the night before, or how I was going to fit everything in that week. I was drinking too much and rarely had time to cook a proper meal. On some level I think I knew I was betraying myself - I knew that I was less happy because I wasn’t doing enough of the things I wanted to do and I was less productive because I was stretched too thinly. I was resentful of it, but I was also stuck in a cycle that I couldn’t see a way out of.
Two years ago, I was stopped in my tracks - my body said no more and it collapsed. I had ignored it’s signals for too long and so it was forcing me to stop before it was too late. Suddenly, I had to say no, and gosh was it enlightening.
I found that the fear I had felt was unfounded. I suppose that somewhere along the way I have internalised a belief that in order to be a ‘good’ or likeable person, I have to give myself over to others. If I were to say no it might even mean that people would stop wanting to spend time with me. However, when I had to say no, I found that my loved ones understood it completely, and as it happens, they might even have liked me more for it.
You see, when you are scared of telling people how you really feel and what you really want, you end up being a bit inauthentic. That’s not a particularly charming characteristic, right? You might seem ‘polite’ and ‘lovely’ on the surface but the people who know you will sense you holding back. On top of that, when we are in a people pleasing place, we are only guessing at what others want from us, and we can easily get it wrong! I have tried to second-guess my friends wishes too many times, only to find out that from my place of anxiety, I had actually mis-read them.
For the most part, I am now honest with my friends and family about what I need to be happy and well and for the most part, they respect it. They understand that I’m at my best in the day time, that I love catching up over food or a walk and that I am a wreck if I stay up past 10pm! I now schedule time for non-negotiable rest and my husband and I make time each month just for us - something which always went by the wayside in our ‘old lives’. This doesn’t mean I don’t put myself out for my friends and family when it matters, or that I don’t work overtime occasionally, but it does mean that I now have balance in my life, and for the first time in a long time, I feel seen.
Living in incongruence between how we feel on the inside and what we portray on the outside puts the body into a state of stress. It does this because we are suppressing what we want and what we need to be happy. Over time, stress like this, in addition to the likely exhaustion faced by the average people pleaser, will take its toll. Eventually our body will force us to stop and then we won’t be able to show up for the people we care about at all.
"It’s not about me first, but me too". Emma Reed-Turrell.
I've come to realise that setting boundaries is not a selfish act. Boundaries just mean that you can show yourself the same respect and love that you show others. So if you are looking to get started, here are some tips for setting your own:
1. Talk to the people in your life...
...about the changes you are trying to make and why. This helps them have context when you have to say no to something or be honest about what it is that you need.
2. Gain experience in a safe space...
...by being honest with those you trust the most first. I started with my oldest friend Alice and she showed me so much love and kindness in return - it helped me gain confidence and this openness has only strengthened our relationship further.
3. Make a commitment to the days you will keep free
Perhaps you keep one day of every weekend free or you only go out once mid week. Make the commitment and stick to it - tell your partner, tell your friends and mark the days out in your calendar. Then do whatever YOU want to do on those days. Maybe it’s a day to simply rest or maybe you will end up doing something with someone, but only because you’ve chosen to do so.
4. Avoid apologising and making up excuses
This will not only make you feel crappy, it also leaves you open to further invites. Here are some ideas which could help you avoid this:
“Thank you for the invite, I’ve checked my diary and unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it.”
“I'm flattered you considered me, but unfortunately I'm going to have to pass this time.”
“That's a lovely idea, but I'm afraid I have too much on at the moment."
"I really appreciate the offer, but I've decided to spend time with my family this weekend."
5. Have phone-free time every day
In this day and age, we are contactable 24/7 and we can soon end up with every bit of our free time being trampled all over by texts, emails and general requests of our time. I find the easiest way to avoid the temptation to reply straight away is to be away from my phone for certain hours of the day. Leave it in another room while you're eating or relaxing and set a dedicated time each day to reply to people.
6. If you get a bad reaction, pause to assess your next move
When someone reacts badly, it can be helpful to consider the following:
a) What is going on in their life? Usually when people don’t show you compassion or understanding, it’s because they are struggling with something personally. It’s not about you, but them. If it's someone you care about, try giving them some space and then make the effort to talk through your individual needs at a calmer time.
b) Perhaps this person is not someone you want in your life anymore? If they only want you when you are betraying your own needs, the chances are they are not very good for you. Part of life is accepting that some relationships are only for certain times in your life, and that’s OK. You can spot the keepers, as they'll be the ones rooting for you, just as you would for them :).
I would love to hear your thoughts on the blog and the tips you have for setting boundaries, so please share your comments below!