Learning to set boundaries
The anxiety alert system for lacking boundaries
When I first got help for my anxiety, I was surprised to learn that one of the most important things I had to do in order to fight my anxiety was learn to say NO. It turns out that I was perpetuating a cycle that led to much of the anxiety that was crippling me.
My lack of self esteem caused me to have poor boundaries.
Because of my poor boundaries I was letting others take advantage of me and take me for granted. And I was doing a lot of things I didn’t actually want to do. Because deep inside I knew that I wanted to be treated with respect, and not do things I didn’t enjoy, I felt anxiety. The anxiety was an alert system telling me that something was wrong.
My journey was learning to put boundaries in place that helped me put my own health first. I had to learn to say no. And the results were amazing.
How can anxiety be related to self-esteem and boundaries?
When we lack self esteem, we often don’t have the courage to put personal boundaries in place. We might be afraid to say NO to what someone is asking of us. Even if we feel deep inside we don’t have the energy or capacity to do what they are asking. We are afraid that they might be disappointed with us, or that they might get angry or not like us anymore.
“Boundaries are a part of self-care. They are healthy, normal, and necessary.”
- Doreen Virtue
We are very concerned with pleasing them, so we want to say YES. Instead of putting up a clear boundary and saying no, we sacrifice our own mental or physical health to please them. We put their needs above our own because we lack the self esteem to know that we are just as important as they are.
A lack of self confidence is a major cause of anxiety for many people. The relationship between self-esteem and anxiety is very complex, but it comes down to a simple fact. When you only look to please others, you end up neglecting your own needs. Eventually, over time, neglecting your own needs can build resentment and sadness (even if it’s just subconscious). Because in all honesty, no one wants to have their needs constantly unrecognized and unmet.
The truth about boundaries
If you are truly honest with yourself for a moment (without worrying about repercussions or consequences or someone else’s feelings) you would admit that you do like to have your needs met, and that you do want to take care of yourself and that you do feel you deserve freedom and love. Yet somehow, each day you make choices, you say and do things that end up meeting other people’s needs instead of your own.
It’s almost like a compulsion, like a reflex that happens before you even think about it. You’ve been trained this way your whole life, and you cannot imagine how things would be if you didn’t anymore. Because you have responsibilities, as a mother or a son or a wife or a teacher...you feel like it’s your job to please others. And pleasing others is how you keep everything around you harmonious.
It’s how you’ve learned to keep things sane and functioning. Yet what you are missing in that equation is that you cannot only take care of others because it causes you to neglect yourself. And over time, that will cause you harm. Whether it manifests through illness, a breakdown, disease or (most commonly) anxiety, it will come out somehow.
The benefits of boundaries
For that reason, it’s important to set some boundaries in your life. If you don’t have high self esteem and loose boundaries in your life, you’re most likely letting others tell you “how it is”, or what you “should do” a lot. You’re likely letting others make decisions for you, even when you know that it might not be the right thing for you.
It can be hard to make a major change, but I’m here to tell you that it’s SO WORTH IT!
Some of the benefits of healthy boundaries are:
Honestly, setting healthy boundaries can have a positive effect on so many facets of your life. It’s a great way to change the patterns in your life that are causing you anxiety. It’s an actionable way to change your life in a positive way.
How did I get here?
If you find yourself doing some of the things I’ve mentioned, you’ve likely been doing them for a while. Most of us learn this kind of behaviour and this kind of thinking over many many years. That’s why it can be hard to even recognize and sort out after so long.
Perhaps like me, you somehow adopted the idea that you are “less than” many other people around you. You might find yourself thinking that your colleagues are more intelligent than you and always do a better job than you at work, so their needs are more important than your own.
All the little sacrifices add up
You might give your children free-run of the house because you feel their desires and needs are more important than your own. You might let a partner or spouse take you for granted or speak to you disrespectfully because somewhere deep down inside you feel like it must have been something you did that made them act that way. Many of us have done these small self deprecating acts for as long as we can remember. We barely notice we do them anymore.
Maybe we always serve ourselves last at dinner and take only the burnt bits or what is left over. Even in this small gesture, you are saying that everyone else’s satisfaction at the table is more important than your own.
Maybe you never take time for yourself because you’re busy finishing everyone else’s laundry and prepping their bags for their next adventures. Maybe you’re bailing out a friend who left something to the last minute yet again. In those simple routines, what you’re saying is that their free time and their pleasure is more important than your own. And over time, that message is reinforced over and over in your brain with every little gesture of self-sacrifice that you make.
You’re always thinking “I’ll do some self care next week… when things aren’t as busy”. Your mental health is last on the list of priorities.
What do I do about it?
If you recognize yourself in some of the patterns I’ve mentioned, then you’re likely experiencing anxiety from some similar causes - a lack of boundaries due to a lack of self esteem. The good news is, these patterns can be re-routed, and changes can be made. Recognizing that you might be prone to a lack of boundaries is a momentous first step in making a change to the positive.
The idea is that when you learn to put healthy boundaries in place (and in turn start to protect your own mental health), your anxiety will start to subside. The anxiety is an alert system that is warning you that you are going against your own physical and mental health. It is alerting you to something that needs to be changed. Slowly, as we learn to make that change, you feel a deep sense of authenticity and satisfaction that helps extinguish that constant anxiety.
What can you set healthy boundaries for?
There are many areas of your life where you may relieve some stress and anxiety if you start to set some healthier boundaries. If you take a minute to listen to your gut, you might be able to identify some areas in your life (or even times of the day or times of the week) that are causing you a lot of anxiety.
The anxiety is a warning signal that better boundaries may be needed. In some way, the anxiety may be telling you that you are going against your own needs and desires, or always putting others’ needs first. Some areas to explore for anxiety where you may benefit from stronger boundaries are:
Learning to set healthy boundaries
Of course “making the change” sounds easier than it is done. There is a reason you’ve never had boundaries. Because it seems easier to sacrifice your own health to keep everyone else satisfied. But for the sake of your health (physically and mentally) let’s look at some ways you can start to change those patterns.
Listen to your instinct and take time to respond
In order to start setting some boundaries for your mental health, you have to re-learn to listen to your “gut instinct”. There is always a little voice inside you that gives you a gut reaction about something when it comes up. You’ve just learned how to ignore it like a professional. The next time someone tells you “how it is” or what you “need to do”, take the time to process before you react or respond.
If your coworker asks you to cover a shift on the weekend yet again, it’s fine to say “let me see about that, I’ll let you know by the end of the day”. Then walk away and take time to really check in with yourself. Do I have the time, resources, money and sanity to take on this additional shift? Or does she just make me feel guilty if I don’t? If you can feel in your gut that it would cause you stress, DO NOT SAY YES.
Don’t feel the need to over-explain
My favorite thing I learned when I was starting to put some healthier boundaries in place was that I actually don’t need to spend an hour justifying why I’m saying no. I don’t really need to explain (or make up a lie) as to why I can’t. It’s simply my choice, and frankly, for most people I only know casually, it’s none of their business why I’m saying no. I learned to be brief, polite, but firm. “I’m sorry but unfortunately that won’t work for me this weekend”.
Don’t feel responsible to find them another viable solution either (unless it’s an easy fix you want to share). This is not your stress to take on. Your boundary is in place so that you use the energy you have to look after yourself first.
Be vocal and start small
For patterns closer to home, with people that you know more intimately like your spouse or kids, setting boundaries might take a little more work. Likely there are deep patterns entrenched in your communication and behaviours. And people have “gotten used to” treating you a certain way. If you have determined that you need to make a change to the way some of these patterns work, then you may need to start small and make an announcement so that everyone knows what to expect.
Again, don’t feel the need to over-explain. Your choice, for your health, is enough reason. So if, for example, you have decided that a major cause of stress and anxiety in your life is making your kids’ lunches in the mornings when you are already super rushed - and most importantly - they are WAY old enough to make them themselves, you can choose to change that behaviour.
Talk to everyone in a calm and respectful way, and let them know that you will no longer be making lunches in the mornings. You may offer a transition period where you help them make their own the night before. But at the end of the week, you trust that this is something they can handle themselves. Be clear and communicate the change. And start small, not with everything all at once.
Pick a certain focus and start with just that rather than throwing in the towel on everything. Think of these changes like you are re-training the people around you in how to behave around you and treat you. You are showing them what is acceptable and what is not. These changes are not easy, and they take time.
Prepare to take some criticism
To be clear, none of the major changes will be easy. Through your behaviours and lack of boundaries, you have trained the people around you in how to treat you. Maybe your lack of boundaries up until now has taught them that “it’s okay if I don’t do it, mom will get it done before it’s too late”. It has shown them that it’s okay to rely on your lack of self esteem to put them first and ignore your own needs.
These patterns take time to unlearn. Your new boundaries will NOT be popular when you put them in place. People will need to make accommodations or even face consequences when you do not go out of your way to rescue them. That’s okay. As long as you have been clear and prepared them for the change, that is not their own choice. It’s not your stress to take on.
Patterns will change over time, as long as you remain firm with your boundaries. Be prepared to hear arguments as to why this is unfair. Expect some grumpy or angry comments. Know that this is all part of the change. Stay firm.
Don’t budge (remember you’re training them)
The worst thing you can do once you put a boundary in place is go back on it “sometimes”. If you put a new rule in place, remember that, in a way, you are training the people around you how to act. If you are wishy-washy about these boundaries, or give in to nagging or a guilt trip, the only thing you are training people to do is argue with you until you give in. Because you are showing them that if they do it long enough, you will eventually give in. So stick to your guns.
You’re starting small and you’ve been clear about the change. No reason not to go through with it. No reason to train people not to take you seriously about your boundaries.
And that’s it - that’s the process. It’s simple, but it’s certainly not easy. Sometimes we may feel so guilty we forget why we wanted to put the boundary in place to begin with. That’s normal. It’s a hard change to make, choosing to put your own health first sometimes. While everyone is learning, it might feel hard, but don’t lose focus. Your long term health is worth it. You are worth it. You deserve to have less anxiety, you deserve to be treated with respect.
If you feel guilty about telling your child NO for example, remember that you are really doing this whole thing in order to feel more healthy and have less anxiety. In the end, your child will benefit greatly from having a happier, healthier parent around. When you feel better, everyone benefits. It’s not a selfish endeavour. It’s a necessary lesson in how to remove anxiety and unhappiness from your life. And that’s an incredible skill to be able to pass on to your kids as they grow older and face their own anxieties and stresses.