By Eyal Goren, MFTi
How many times do you agree to do something before considering the meaning and consequences of it? How many times do you say YES, when you truly want to say NO? When we think of anxiety, its causes and ways to reduce it, we almost never think about boundaries. The lack of clear and healthy boundaries is a cause of stress and anxiety for many people.
Imagine the following scenario: A friend, who is moving into a new apartment, is asking you to help this Saturday. “There’s no one else that can help me, and I know I can always count on you” he says. You say “Of course!” without hesitation. “I’m his friend, I should be there for him” you think. When you get home, you remember that you planned to spend Saturday studying for the exam you have next week… but now it’s too late! You already promised your friend to help him. He is counting on you. If you tell him, you can’t help him after you already agreed he will get upset; he will be disappointed in you. He is depending on you! “Well…” you think to yourself, “I can help him for a few hours in the morning and study in the afternoon. That’s not what I planned, but I can do it for him, it’s not a big apartment and it will be over in a few hours”.
On Saturday you arrive to your friend’s place, only to discover that he hasn’t pack anything and instead expects you to help with that as well. “We have all day” your friend says, “so I figured it would be much easier if I waited for you to help me, rather than packing everything all by myself”. Your first instinct is to say, “No way! I have an exam to study for and I can only help you for a few hours!” However, looking at his apartment and understanding the impact you leaving him all by himself would have, you choose to say, “Okay…”, realizing that today you will not study for the exam.
You start to work, pack and move the furniture and boxes from his apartment to the truck he rented. Thoughts are coming up: “Why did I say yes in the first place? Couldn’t he prepare everything in advance? Why didn’t he give me a heads up? Maybe I should have said NO. Why didn’t he pay for professional movers???? ” Slowly but surely anger starts to build in you and start to feel resentful of your friend. You feel manipulated and used. You become bitter and at some point you turn the anger towards yourself “Why am I always doing this? Why can’t I say no? Why can’t I put myself and my needs first? What am I so afraid of?”.
As the day continues your anger turns to anxiety about the coming exam. You know you are not ready and that you won’t have enough time to study. You start to get worried and stressed that you might fail. You get home exhausted, restless, and unable to fall asleep due to the worry and anxiety surrounding the exam. Your worry grows and becomes bigger and bigger; you will fail the class, not graduate on time, you won’t get the job you wanted to apply for and so on.
Sounds familiar? Have you ever agreed to be the maid of honor for a “friend”, who was more of an acquaintance you never really liked? Requiring you to spend days of doing all the “dirty work” for her. Or have you taken on a project at work, that no one else wanted, only to find that you are stuck spending late nights and weekends without receiving any help or appreciation from your boss or colleagues?
Building healthy boundaries is one of the most difficult yet important aspects about reducing anxiety. For some of us, being assertive is challenging. We don’t like saying NO and defending ourselves. We try to avoid confrontations and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. At first, it may feel unnatural and even selfish, however, one might say that other people who think we are selfish for setting boundaries are selfish themselves for not respecting them. To some setting boundaries sounds like a negative thing, but having clear boundaries can actually create freedom. If you set a boundary or say no and someone experiences it as a negative, that is their issue, not yours. It is also a test of your relationship. If you can’t say no to someone because you feel there will be consequences, then what kind of a relationship is it? Is that the kind of relationship that you want? Setting boundaries is not about hurting other people, but about being kind and real with yourself; it’s about taking care of your own needs; it’s about self-respect and self-worth. Habits such as “People-pleasing”, doing something because you don’t want to offend, hurt or anger someone, being afraid of disappointing or being a disappointment, can be quite toxic, and in most cases, will induce stress and anxiety. For some people, who don’t know how to set boundaries, avoidance is a way to protect themselves, but this only generates additional stress. The more they avoid the more anxious they become.
Setting boundaries is an important, if not the most important thing in self-care. It is hard to set boundaries or to say no. It is not always a popular decision, but it is a huge relief to stop doing what you don’t want to do. Most of the time, (especially for people who are more sensitive, caring, pleasing, etc.) setting a boundary comes with a feeling of guilt. And still, there is nothing more helpful and important than keeping healthy boundaries. Remember, you are as important as other people, if not more, and setting boundaries is taking care of your needs and what’s important to you.
It’s important to take a day off when you feel you need to rest, take a vacation, let go of toxic relationships (negative, abusive, controlling, criticizing, energy drainer), not overextend yourself, not be available sometimes, not explain everything, not answer the phone. It’s necessary to prioritize yourself sometimes. Basically, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to not be there for everything and everyone all the time. It requires self-awareness and assertiveness in order to express your feelings and needs, ask for what you want, and say no to what you don’t want. A good indication of a lack in boundaries is, spending more time talking and thinking of the needs of other’s, over our own.
Setting and maintaining boundaries is difficult at first, but with practice and experience, it will get easier. Honing your skills will give you a sense of power and control over your life, increase your confidence, reduce stress and anxiety, lead you to better relationships, and improve your quality of life. As you say no to other people, you start to say yes to yourself.