My mother-in-law keeps dropping by unannounced, help!
My relatives make inappropriate comments about weight & food around my children and I don’t know what to do.
I have a friend that is constantly telling me how to parent and it’s really bothering me. I want her to stop, but I don’t want to offend her.
These are a few of the scenarios that come up in therapy regarding boundaries. Boundary issues get highlighted in early parenthood (sometimes during pregnancy) because parent’s begin to recognize their non-negotiables.
The stakes are high. You’re not only caring for yourself, but you’re also responsible for the care of a tiny human being. And the old ways of pushing your boundaries to the side aren’t working. In fact, you’re feeling the tension, resentment, and bitterness because you desperately want to set your boundaries.
So, what are boundaries exactly?
Boundaries are where you end and others begin. Boundaries are limits. They tell others how often they can have access to you, how close they can get, and what will and will not work.
I like to think of boundaries as a fence. Just as a fence protects your property and provides a clear distinction between what’s yours and what’s not, boundaries do the same.
Boundaries are the fence you put in place to better protect your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. This way you are in charge of who is invited and under which circumstances.
Why is it so hard to set boundaries?
Understanding why it’s so hard to hold limits with others is critical in establishing boundaries. So much of your understanding and relationship with boundaries started long before you became a parent.
You learned about boundaries by watching those who cared for you. Did they hold limits with others? Did they avoid limits all together? How did they parent you? Or better yet, how did they respond to your wants and needs?
You’ve stored these interactions for memory, many of which are responsible for how you relate to others and whether or not you feel comfortable setting limits. If you were taught from a young age not to trust your own wants and needs, it can feel impossible to assert your boundaries in adulthood (without a bit of work that is!).
Many of the clients I’ve met with, were encouraged to be peacemakers, people pleasers, and to generally be others-focused. They’ve spent so much of their lives looking outward that they’ve denied their own wants and needs in order to appease the masses.
They were taught to hug a neighbor even though they didn’t want to
They were nudged to “not be so shy…go ahead and talk to them”
They were encouraged to give up what’s theres in the name of being well-mannered
They were often shunned to their bedroom for having big feelings
Or clear their plate even though they were full
What happens when someone spends a lifetime this way?
Well, they become disconnected from their inner alarm system that says “hey this doesn’t feel good.” They learn to ignore the blaring sirens their body sounds and override it with hyperfocus on the needs of others. They begin to respond in a way that makes sure that others feel good. They fear showing up as their authentic selves in order to avoid rocking the boat in any way possible.
If this was your experience, you might struggle with boundaries. But that’s not all.
You might struggle with boundaries if you:
Hate letting people down
Agree with others to keep the peace
Say “yes” even when you don’t want to
Struggle with making decisions
Give away too much of your time
Feel taken advantage of
Feel responsible for the happiness of others
Avoid speaking up when your feelings are hurt
Not knowing your needs until they’re not met
Think you’re being selfish for sharing your needs
Avoiding self-care because it feels selfish
Fear letting people down
Feel bitter or resentful
Experience more anger and rage
Feel burned out, run down, overwhelmed
Okay, you’re definitely feeling the chaos of a boundaryless life, what can you do about it?
Knowing you struggle with boundaries and making a commitment to change are two very different things, but I assure you that you will not regret putting these five tips into practice. You know what it’s been like to navigate life with an others-focused perspective. What would it look like to finally have a sense of control over your own life? What would it take? Here’s what I suggest:
1. EXPLORE YOUR WANTS AND NEEDS
We talked about the detriments of abandoning your own personal desires. Much of understanding and implementing your boundaries will require you to get better acquainted with yourself. This will take consistent exploration of your needs for time, space, connection, respect, and much more. Make a commitment to continue exploring your wants and needs, write them down, and write some more.
2. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SAYING “YES” (OR “NO”) TO
Each time you say “yes” to someone else, you say “no” to something, whether that be your peace, your family, your time, finances, etc. Getting really clear on knowing what exactly you’re saying yes (or no) to is important. It provides meaning and value to each of your responses.
3. GET COMFORTABLE WITH FEELING UNCOMFORTABLE
One of the myths of boundary setting is that we should feel comfortable doing so. We then use our level of comfort as an indicator of right or wrong decisions. The problem is that boundary setting doesn’t always feel comfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or should be avoided. I encourage you to lean into uncomfortable feelings. Let them serve as a reminder that you’re stretching yourself (in a good way), you’re doing something you’ve never done. Welcome these feelings. Breathe through them. And know that they will pass with time.
4. CREATE MANTRAS
Write down mantras, affirmations, or whatever you’d like to call them and be prepared to look over them before you set out to hold limits with those around you. Save them in your phone, write them down on a piece of paper, leave post-it notes in your car, wherever you choose–just make them visible. These can sound like “I am allowed to say no” or “it’s not selfish to hold boundaries.” Come up with at least 10 of your own.
5. TAKE A PAUSE
If you’re new to setting boundaries, you may find you have developed a “yes” reflex. You say it so quickly, you don’t give yourself time to process what’s being asked of you. No matter the ask, take a pause. Try using a statement that buys you time. You can say something like “let me think about it” or “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” This way you can pause, think about what was asked, and you can respond in a way that aligns with your wants and needs.
Learning to hold boundaries can be really challenging, especially as you navigate parenting. If you want to learn more about boundaries, I created Keeping Mommy in Mind, my online course, just for you. Keeping Mommy in Mind is the ultimate playbook for postpartum mental health. Here you can learn more about boundaries, how to improve your mood, navigate changes in your relationship, and much more.
Dr. Ashurina Ream of Psyched Mommy is a PMH-C licensed clinical psychologist with advanced training in perinatal mental health. Follow her on Instagram for more where this came from!
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