“Daring to set boundaries is about the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” – Brené Brown
All humans share a desire to be seen, loved, and accepted. Sometimes this longing is so strong that we sacrifice our own sense of self in hopes of receiving validation from others that we matter. Without daily rituals to help me recenter and set strong, loving boundaries, I can become lost in a sea of other people’s feelings, needs, and opinions.
“People who want to be liked, or those who feel the need to please other people, generally have a hard time setting boundaries,” Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist said. “Individuals who use emotions as a reason to do — or not do — something can also have difficulty setting boundaries,” she added.
“For example, an individual thinkings ‘I’m really tired tonight and would rather stay in, but I feel guilty telling my friend I can’t do dinner so I’ll just go to dinner’ is demonstrating the idea that a feeling (in this case, guilt) has to motivate a behavior (in this case, going to dinner despite not wanting to do so).”
My Struggles As A People-Pleaser
As a deeply feeling person, I became a people-pleaser at an early age. I used to internalize everyone else’s pain and felt it was my responsibility to make them happy. I worried that if I didn’t say and do exactly the “right” things, my friends would ditch me, my bosses wouldn’t respect me, and my partner would find someone better.
The idea that people would only love and accept me if I was perfect is what researchers call a “contingent sense of self-worth.” I put an incredible amount of pressure on myself to be the person I thought everyone else wanted me to be and in the process, I lost a piece of myself. The piece that knows deep down that I am worthy of love no matter what I say, do, wear, believe, feel, express, and accomplish.
Over the years, I’ve learned that my people-pleasing tendencies were an earnest attempt to protect myself against the pain and sadness that comes with rejection.
“Individuals [who have trouble setting boundaries] may be afraid of disappointing people or having people not like them,” O’Neill said. “There can also be an aspect of being concerned that saying no or setting a boundary might result in their expulsion from a particular social group or network (for example, if I don’t agree to hang out with my friends, they might stop asking).”
The Relationship Between Boundaries And Self-Compassion
Learning to love and accept myself just the way that I am has been life-changing. Research shows that practicing unconditional self-acceptance is a crucial step to quieting one’s inner critic.
Here are five ways to practice setting loving boundaries in your life:
1. Give Yourself Permission To Say No
People who struggle with setting boundaries often experience a sense of guilt or fear about what might happen if they do so. According to Dr. O’Neill, one of the first steps in learning how to set boundaries is giving yourself permission to say “No.”
“It’s okay to put your needs first,” O’Neill shared. “It’s important to value yourself and take care of yourself.”
2. Tune Into Your Emotional State
Tuning into your emotional state, and the ways in which specific people and situations impact how you feel about yourself, can offer clues about when it might be time to set a boundary.
“Be aware of when you’re running on empty and when you might need to take a step back and recharge for a bit,” advised O’Neill advised. “Sometimes this means not answering phone calls or text messages right away and other times it might mean scheduling some down time to regroup.”
Dr. O’Neill recommends a body scan as a way to check-in with your body. “Doing a simple body scan one to two times a day can help you to be aware of any tightness and tension,” said O’Neill said.
3. Practice A Loving-Kindness Meditation
Especially on days when you feel extra sensitive, practicing a loving-kindness meditation can be a great way to increase feelings of love. It can be difficult to set boundaries if you aren’t grounded in your own sense of self.
A loving-kindness meditation may look like the following (inspired by Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist practitioner and world-renowned meditation teacher):
- Focus your attention inward on your own well-being and recite: May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be safe from inner and outer dangers. May I be well in body and mind. May I be at ease and happy.
- Expand your attention outward on the well-being of someone who loves you and recite: May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be safe from inner and outer dangers. May you be well in body and mind. May you be at ease and happy.
4. Watch Out For Self-Sacrifice
It is helpful to take note of when you are bending over backwards for someone, doing things out of obligation, or saying “Yes” when you really mean “No.”
“If a person tells me that they are constantly doing things for other people — – at the expense of their own well-being — – then that’s generally a sign that we need to work on their boundaries,” said O’Neill said. “I might start by pointing out the ways in which putting others’ needs first has impacted their life.”
5. Ask For Support
Working with a skilled therapist can be helpful to uncover the root of your people-pleasing tendencies and develop tools to set more loving boundaries in your daily life.
For those looking to dive deeper into their relationship with boundaries, Dr. O’Neill recommends the following:
- Heart Talk by Cleo Wade (focuses on self-care and treating yourself well before taking care of others)
- Codependent No More by Melody Beattie (good for those who are in relationships with diffuse boundaries)
- The Lively Show: Episode #124 How to Compassionate Set Boundaries In Relationships with Brené Brown
Learning to love yourself enough to set the boundaries you deserve is a lifelong journey. There will be ups, there will be downs, and we won’t get it right every time. Feelings may get hurt. Relationships may sever. And there may be days when the discomfort of this new way of operating feels completely overwhelming.
But as hard as it might be, don’t give up. You are worthy of everything you desire.