Over the past few years, in both work and in my personal life, I have been responsible for a lot of stuff. A lot. And with that responsibility comes lots of people having lots of questions. These questions would start at 7am and go until about 11pm, sometimes later. It was intense, and pretty soon, I was burnt out and frustrated. I felt like nobody respected the boundaries that I had put up about when I was available.
I would get annoyed, ya know? Like, who wouldn’t? I’m over here just trying to catch up on Scandal and I’m being hit with a text about something that is happening 3 months from now? I’m just trying to catch another Liv + Fitz makeout scene and instead, I’m having to pause it to take care of a non-issue-issue, a phrase that I made up just now.
After about the 4th missed Scandal makeout sesh, it hit me: Nobody respected my boundaries because I didn’t. I stopped my life- from alone time to family birthday parties to times out with my man- to take care of whatever needed to be taken care of. I had set boundaries and found a way to navigate around them, all while blaming the people around me for not respecting them.
This happens to pretty much all of us. We are clear about what we need (or what we don’t need), and somebody comes along and crosses our line in the sand, hitting us like a misjudged wave right in the face. And now, we’re left with a barely-there line and underwear full of sand, both of which have uncomfortable after effects.
But what if creating sustainable and lasting boundaries is less about what we allow others to give us, and more about what we allow ourselves to take on?
Listen, people will be trying to hand off stuff to you for the rest of your life. Of course, you want to help people. Of course, you want to help bear the burdens of the people in your life. But MAN, there are only so many burdens that you can bear before you are an actual walking burden with burden-induced-arthritis from how heavy it all is.
So, what did I do to change all of this? Well, let me first say that it’s a work in progress. Committing to your boundaries is a daily decision, and it is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts and confrontation and the understanding that you are going to piss some people off along the way. It takes patience and the knowledge that you are doing this so that you can be the most effective version of yourself in the times that you are called to do so.
Setting boundaries will cause you to flourish because it allows you to commit yourself fully to the areas that you should (not could) commit to in the time that should (not could) commit. Here’s how I did it (and am doing it) in a way that didn’t make me feel like a total butthead to the people around me.
Know the difference between issues and non-issue-issues.
For me, the first thing was reading through the complete panic of some of these texts and emails that I was getting and deciphering if this was important. The people who cross your boundaries think what they are giving you IS important, but the honest truth is that important and urgent are two different things.
It’s okay to break a boundary to take care of something that needs to be taken care of, but sometimes you just gotta let someone know that you aren’t available to help at the moment and you don’t need to feel bad about it.
Don’t even read it.
If you are not at work, don’t check your work emails. If you are out with your girls or your boyfriend, set your phone on silent. If you are on vacation, leave your phone or laptop in the hotel room. Do not even create a space where you will stumble across something that needs to be handled. Why? Becuase if you’re anything like me, you will feel like you have to handle it- right then and there. So don’t even make space for that. Don’t even let it happen.
Should and Could are enemies.
I could eat an entire pizza today, but should I? No, I shouldn’t. I could train to be on the ultimate ninja warrior, but should I? No, I shouldn’t. Although it would be hilarious. Should and could are not equal. So, while you could take care of every issue that is presented to you and you could commit yourself to 18 activities in the next 8 hours, you shouldn’t. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you can’t do everything- it means that you shouldn’t do everything.
Identify habitual boundary breakers.
We all have that person who gives us play-by-play updates of their life. And often times, these people are the personalities that also think something is wrong if you don’t immediately respond. Sometimes, I will reach out to them and use it as sort of a preemptive strike, saying something like, “Hey, I am out of town this weekend. If I don’t respond, that’s why!” This gives them peace of mind, let’s you off the hook, and subliminally lets them know, “You’re not on the top of my list.”
Replace I’m sorry with thank you.
When I would get late night emails or texts that needed something from me in that moment, I started combatting it by responding with, “This is on my list of things to do for the next time I’m in the office.” Or sometimes, I wouldn’t even respond at all. But that’s not even the good part: When I did get around to responding, instead of saying, “I’m so sorry it took so long to get back to you,” I would say, “Thank you for your patience while I was getting back to you.” Because ya know what, sometimes I’m not sorry! I’m not sorry that I didn’t respond on Saturday while I was on a date, and I’m not sorry that I didn’t respond during my 18-hour Netflix binge of a show that I’ve probably already seen. I am not sorry that I have other things in my life that are important and need my attention- but I am thankful that you understand that.
Keep the people you love in the loop.
Generally speaking, my boyfriend and I don’t spend much time on our phones when we’re together. But there have been times when I let him know that I am monitoring my phone for an important text or email. What that does is it lets him know- or whoever I’m with know- that you are important enough that I want to be completely present with you and important enough that if I’m not able to be, I want you to know why.
Please know: You will feel mean.
When I first started doing this, I felt like the biggest, most giant jerk. I felt like I was being mean to people by not meeting their needs in that instant. Often times, when we are having to be firm, we feel mean. But here’s the truth: Taking care of yourself isn’t mean. It’s important. Chances are, you’ve conditioned yourself to think that the best way to love people is to take care of them all the time. Sometimes, the best way to love people is to let them figure it out. And the best way to love yourself is to let yourself off the hook.
Of course, with all of these things comes balance. Sometimes, you might be the person cutting into someone’s personal time or crossing a boundary with a constant existential crisis. But when you learn to set boundaries for yourself, you will be more aware of those of others.
Boundaries allow yourself to be the best and most present version of yourself. They’re not just good for you- they’re good for everyone around you. Why? Because when they do get you, they get you fully, at your most recharged and ready for action self. And that makes them feel good.
When you set boundaries for yourself, you benefit everyone. But hey- everyone aside, you are worth having space for you. Your issues and wants are important. A martyr can be good and necessary but isn’t always needed. Don’t set aside what you need to make sure others are taken care of.
Take care of you so you can take care of others.