Setting Boundaries is an Act of Love
By Annabelle Parr, MA, AMFT
If you’ve ever spent any extended time with a two-year-old, you are familiar with the word “no.” The self-assuredness of a toddler saying “NO” is formidable. New to language, they wield those two powerful letters with pride, empowered in their newfound ability to express themselves. Yet, as we get older, many of us lose this zest for asserting our needs.
Somewhere along the way we learn that “no” is a bad word.
We look at that defiant little toddler and say they are in the throes of the “terrible twos.” We internalize the idea that saying “no” is selfish or difficult or even wrong. Women in particular tend to be socialized to put others’ needs before our own. The little girl who dares to say “no” and demand what she wants or needs is viewed as bossy, while the little boy who does the same is a leader. But boys and men can have trouble saying no as well. For individuals who engage in patterns of codependency, saying “no” can be particularly challenging. But “no” is not a bad word; despite what we are taught to believe, it is not inherently negative. In fact, “no” can be one of the most loving, affirming words available to us.
We can’t effectively care for others if we neglect to care for ourselves.
Consider this: when you fly on an airplane, during the safety briefing before takeoff, the flight attendants remind passengers in the event of an emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Why? Because if you’ve passed out, you’re not going to be much help to anyone, including yourself! This is an incredible metaphor for life. No matter how kind, compassionate, and giving you may be, if you fail to give yourself what you need to breathe, you are not going to be able to help anyone else. Think of your “no” as your oxygen mask; it gives you the space you need to breathe.
When we lack boundaries, we tend to find ourselves feeling resentful.
The oxygen mask metaphor isn’t totally complete. Because guess what? You probably could hold your breath and help other people put on their masks before you put on your own. But what happens when everyone on the plane sees how good you are at helping people secure their masks and suddenly everyone “needs” you? What happens when the passengers around you stop trying to put on their own masks because they want you to do it for them? What happens when you start turning blue in the face because you still haven’t put on your own mask? What happens if you are too far away to reach your mask before you hit your limit? If you’re lucky, you might be able to grab your mask at the last second before you pass out. But even if you do, you will probably start to resent everyone around you for “needing” you and for failing to notice how blue you’ve turned. Helping those around you would probably have been much more fulfilling if you could breathe while you did it.
PSA: Your worth is not something that you earn. It is inherent.
If you value caring for others, that is a beautiful, powerful thing. But you should also know that your worth is not defined by what you can give to others. You are inherently worthy of love and care. You do not have to justify taking care of yourself by what it will afford you to give to others. Regardless of whether your metaphorical oxygen mask allows you to help others, you deserve oxygen. You don’t have to earn that or justify it to anyone. You get to have boundaries just because.
Learning to set boundaries is about getting clear on what is within your control.
One of my favorite quotes on boundaries comes from Brené Brown. She says, “daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” Here’s the thing: no matter how hard we try, we cannot control another person’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, or experience. This doesn’t mean that we have to disregard others, that we should treat people poorly, or that we should never consider how our behavior might impact someone else. But it does mean that the only thing within our control is our behavior: what we do or don’t do. And this is the core of boundaries. As Lori Gottlieb put it, "Boundaries aren’t about dictating what someone else will or won’t do. They’re about getting clear with yourself about what you will or won’t do.”
Healthy boundaries are firm, clear, and kind.
You are not a two-year-old. You don’t have to scream “no” and throw a fit when things don’t go your way or when a request is made of you that you do not like. A two-year-old only knows how to communicate using the word “no” or a temper tantrum. As adults, we have a whole arsenal of words and modes of communicating available to us. We can say no with compassion and expressing consideration for the impact of our behavior on others, and we can be firm and clear about our limits regarding what we are and are not willing to do.
Boundaries are an act of love toward yourself and others.
As Brené Brown says, boundaries are about daring to love ourselves. And they help us love others better as well. Resentment is like poison, and when we choose to attend to others at the expense of ourselves, we are less free to love ourselves and those we are so determined to be there for. A perpetual “yes” is bound to eventually hurt us and those around us.
So what does it mean to love?
Love is not about making sure that the people you love (including yourself) are always happy and comfortable (reminder: emotions are not within your control anyway!). Love is about showing up authentically and compassionately; finding a way to hold and honor both yourself and the other person; balancing and attending to each other’s wants and needs; never requiring that the core of yourself or the other person be violated; and creating enough safety in the relationship that disagreements do not disintegrate it. When both people in a relationship have healthy boundaries, it allows love – for self and other – to flourish.
If you or someone you love might benefit from therapy for help setting boundaries, codependency, anxiety, low self-esteem, or depression, please contact Jodi Staszak, LMFT. Jodi offers Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) for individuals, and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, in addition to Overcoming Codependency groups for individuals struggling with codependence. Jodi is currently offering her services via teletherapy to patients located in California. Jodi can be reached at 619-818-0375 or JodiS.MFT@gmail.com.