Set Boundaries: Balancing service & self-care

We all sometimes struggle to set our boundaries. On the one hand we want to serve others, but we also want to take care of ourselves and serve our own needs and wishes. We could also turn this around and put it differently: We either fear rejection or we fear losing control. How can we find out whether we really want to help someone or whether we are simply afraid to lose their sympathy? And are you really taking care of yourself or are you simply afraid to lose control? Oftentimes it’s difficult to know what’s really at play when we have difficulties setting our boundaries, what makes it all the more difficult.  

In this post, I want to help you find out what’s underneath your inability of setting clear boundaries. Obviously, there’s so much at play, but I still hope to bring some clarity on the difficulties of setting boundaries. This post does not only address why it’s difficult to say “no”, but at the same time I want to highlight why we sometimes have difficulties saying “yes”. 

The root cause for boundary setting problems

I think the root cause of failing to set clear boundaries, lies in our unconscious belief that taking up a request is not a choice, but our duty. We somehow fail to see that everyone has the right to express a certain wish, but it’s not your duty to fulfill this wish. This unconscious error explains why we have difficulty saying “no” and at the same time are reluctant to say “yes”. 

The fact that we misunderstand someone’s wish as our duty is what makes us so tense whenever someone asks us for a favour. It feels as if we don’t have the freedom to choose which makes it so difficult to say yes. We would want to serve others from our hearts and free will, but since we perceive the request to be our duty, we feel trapped. This makes control freaks oftentimes furious at people who ask them for requests. How dare they putting them in such a position with this request? In order to prove themselves and the other their autonomy, they’d rather say no, even if they could actually easily fulfill the request.  

The same root cause, but a different mechanism is at play for the people pleasers who are incapable of saying no. They think it’s their duty to fulfill other people’s wishes, which is why they accept their requests. Contrary to the control freak, they are not angry at the requester, but afraid of losing their sympathy. They believe that those people have legitimate reasons for not liking them anymore if they refuse to comply. Subconsciously, they believe they are selfish when they don’t fulfill the others wish and they also believe that doing so will bring them love and affection in return. As if it’s impossible to receive love and affection by being who they are and subsequently doing what they want which is not always in line with the things others want from them.

The boundaries you set can determine how others treat you. How can people treat you right if you allow them to treat you wrong?

Obviously, this line of thought is wrong. It’s a relief to tell yourself consciously that you have the right to say no and that saying yes is your choice and doesn’t mean you’ll instantly lose control. If you have problems with your boundaries, this false belief will probably lie within you, but changes are big that the other will share this belief which complicates matters. They will pressure you into doing it, telling you you’re a bad person if you don’t (after all, it’s your duty as a “good person”, isn’t it?) and if you continue to refuse, they’ll get mad and withdraw their love and affection.

Coming across these people is inevitable, and that’s exactly why it’s so important for you to learn how to deal with your own boundaries. The boundaries you set can determine how others treat you. How can people treat you right if you allow them to treat you wrong? Eventually you’re the only person you can control and change, so there is no need to focus on these other people for now. So, let’s focus on what you could do to set healthy boundaries. 

How to effectively set boundaries 

Leave no room for discussion, your boundary is a statement, not an option. First and foremost, you need to really internalize the fact that your boundary is your business. People have the right to have an opinion about it, but you don’t need to justify it. Everyone is unique and has their own unique boundaries. This should be respected. Remember that this also means that you should respect the other person’s wish.

Mean what you say. People are susceptible to vibrations and will feel straight away when you’re doubting your own decision. Get clear to yourself why you set a specific boundary. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a rational process, better even if you make this an emotional process. Really feel into your decision until you can really feel that it feels right. As long as you doubt your decision, take your time to not make a decision until you can take a heart-felt decision. 

Make sure to also stick to your boundary. Once you’ve really set your boundary, really try to live up to it. If you continuously allow people to cross your boundaries, they’ll not only not take you seriously anymore, you’ll also betray yourself and your core values. 

Challenge yourself. Especially in the beginning when  you can’t trust your own feelings yet, try an experiment: Do the opposite of what you’re inclined to do. If you’re a people pleaser try saying “no” and if you’re a control freak try to say “yes”. Obviously, this experiment only works in those situations that your gut feeling tells you it’s right to do so. Are you unsure what your gut is telling you? Hold back for a second and just feel. Try to feel what your body is telling you. Is that knot in your stomach a sign of fear? Or do your tense shoulders indicate that you can’t let go?  Sometimes we can get surprising insights into our own psyches when we just stop for a second and feel. 

Oftentimes we get stuck to particular habits simply because we tell ourselves stories of what kind of terrible things could happen if we don’t do what we usually do. The only way of finding out is to do it differently for a change. Oftentimes we find out the flip side of the coin is not as bad as expected and might even be a lot better. You might even notice some relief, because you’re not tied to your own stories anymore. Finally, you’ll feel true freedom of choice and true acts of kindness.

Let go of your fears. Even though we might know that we have the right to make our own decisions, it can still be scary to either lose people’s sympathy or to lose control. But just think about it for a second. Yes, you could lose someone’s sympathy if you don’t fulfill their wish, but do you want to have someone’s sympathy who doesn’t respect your boundaries? If your (secret) answer to this question is “yes”, I would strongly advise you to work on your self love. You don’t need the sympathy or recognition from someone who only seems to care about you as long as you do him or her favours. 

On top of that: if the person really liked you for who you are, do you think he’ll be happy if you complied out of obligation? I might be speaking for myself, but I seriously feel bad when someone does something reluctantly for me. I’d seriously rather have the person not doing it, than doing it from any place other than their heart. And I don’t only say this because I care for the other, I also prefer people not doing me favors because I now they’ll (subconsciously) start to resent me for “making them do” whatever they actually didn’t want to do.

The control freak, on the other hand, could let go of his fears by considering the following: Aren’t you actually giving away control by saying no to everything? Obviously, your decision is not rooted in your heart and doesn’t correspond with your true wish. You might not give your control directly to the other person, but certainly you are not the one who’s in control. You’ve given it away to some other part of yourself, other than your higher Self. Maybe it’s your ego? Or your inner child? This line of thought is a bit of a mind-bender, but it makes sense. Sometimes (read: oftentimes) we are slaves to our own minds or egos, which can be even worse masters than other people. 

Be genuine. In some cases we don’t want to lose someone’s sympathy, not because we particularly like this person, but because we’re expecting something in return from this person. In that case, I’d say it’s better not to have a hidden agenda. Only doing something because you expect something from the other is not going to lead to a healthy and fun cooperation. Furthermore, you’ll probably not succeed in setting your own healthy boundaries as long as you don’t respect the boundaries of others.

In some cases, we think we actually love someone and we want to do something because we love him or her, but in fact we’re just hoping for some love and affection in exchange for a favor. I’ve already mentioned this point, but it’s so important, I can’t highlight it enough. First of all, this is not a genuine form of love and secondly, it’s not going to bring you any form of genuine love. You can say no and be loved at the same time, really.

I hope these thoughts will help you getting some better understanding of what your boundaries actually are which will make it so much easier (and so much more natural) to safeguard your boundaries without offending anyone. To the contrary, most likely, you’ll notice people respecting your boundaries a lot better, because they know your boundaries are not some loose concept in your mind, but a true act of self knowledge. Whether other people notice this difference is in fact unimportant. What counts is that you start balancing the service to others with your own self-love instead of balancing fear of rejection with fear of losing control. 

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