I grew up watching my mother give so much of herself to others.
My mother was a doctor in Vietnam, but she decided not to practice medicine when she immigrated to the States. Instead, she devoted her time to our family. She would spend all of Sunday afternoon in the kitchen making egg rolls for my father to bring to his colleagues. When we were building a house in Indiana, she prepared a warm lunch every day for the crew of builders. I observed my mother dedicating herself to others, yet she rarely did anything for herself; she had no hobbies or interests apart from being of service to others.
I admire my mother for her giving nature. However, the flip side of having such a doting mother was that I believed it was normal — and even natural — to put other’s needs and wishes before my own.
For years, I was unaware of how to negotiate healthy boundaries. If a close friend or even a casual acquaintance asked for a favor, I would always say yes. Like my mother, I wanted to be available to my vast network of friends, regardless of the how their needs impacted me. If a friend opened up about a problem, I wanted to help find a solution. If I received an email asking for advice or a professional introduction, I would respond immediately putting aside whatever I was working on at that moment.
I said yes, but I often complained about people and their endless requests. The line between my needs and others’ wishes was blurry to me, often leaving me depleted and overwhelmed. My schedule was always full — sometimes with social activities I had no real desire to attend. I didn’t want to say yes, but couldn’t say no.
This went on for many years until, one day, my therapist said to me point-blank, “You know, you can say no.” I was struck by the fact that I had become a “yes” person, considering everyone else’s needs before my own and unwilling – perhaps unable – to set appropriate boundaries.
It took me a lot of time, practice, and awareness to learn to listen to myself first and have a clear idea of boundaries in relationships. This change enabled me to have more time and space for myself, which, ultimately, allows me to be more giving with others.
Over time, I’ve learned to incorporate the following into my life to create healthy boundaries:
Make time for myself
In the past few years, I have realized that I need to carve out a lot of time alone to work on my personal projects and to ground myself in order to not be at the whims of external factors. Although there are times when I would rather be social, I have found when I make time for myself, I feel more balanced, rejuvenated and able to set healthy boundaries.
Questioning the word should
When I hear myself saying I should do something, I begin to question whether it is something I really want to do or have time to do. It might sound selfish, but I have found that it’s really valuable to ask myself what I really want to do with my time and what activities/events are important to me. I try not to feel obligated to do things that aren’t a priority for me.
Paying more attention to my body and my words
I’ve noticed when I start to feel even a little resentment toward a friend that I need to listen to this feeling. Usually, it is a signal to me that a boundary has been over-stepped or the relationship is out of balance. If I begin to complain a lot about a specific person, I see that as a red flag to have an honest conversation with the person or to take a step back from the relationship. However, I’ve found that most people are open to these conversations and are generally understanding of my perspective.
Being clear and authentic in my speech
If I do have talk to someone about a frustration or a boundary issue, I try to express myself in a clear and kind matter. Usually, I have to wait until emotions have subsided so the conversation can be less charged. While I am not always great at expressing myself, I am much better than before. I’ve found that honest communication really opens up a healthy dialogue with most people.
Sometimes I wonder what my mother would say to me today if we talked about healthy boundaries. I think she would tell me she lived an immensely satisfying life and enjoyed being there for other people. I would probably disagree and tell her she should have been a little more selfish, taking time for herself and cultivating her passions and interests. Perhaps, we might meet somewhere in the middle: agreeing that best approach would be to learn to care for yourself and others at the same time, while having the utmost clarity about where you end and the other person begins.
Here are a few other resources to help for further exploration about boundaries:
1) “Boundaries vs. Barriers” by Pema Chodron explores the difference between dissolving barriers and setting good boundaries.
2) An insightful article that describes a four -step boundary practice.
3) Dr. Raymond Richmond states that “healthy boundaries derive from love, not fear.” You can read more on his website to gain a deeper psychological understanding of boundaries.
About this Contributor: Christina received a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Masters in Social and Public Communication from the Department of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked for UNDP, UNICEF and Solidaridad in Hanoi, Vietnam and was a Global Leadership Fellow for the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. Christina has a deep interest in psychology and well-being, and hopes her writing will have a positive impact on others. For more information about Christina’s work, please visit www.christinavo.com.