So many people I work with struggle with boundaries – especially in the area(s) of what I call “over-giving” to others. This happens when we say yes to things we don’t actually have the time, attention, or energy for, because we think we have to, or that being a good friend or partner means always saying yes. This could be agreeing to do extra things on top of our workloads, or signing on for more responsibilities or volunteer duties, or just agreeing to listen, when we don’t actually have the capacity to do so. Many of us do this in habitual or chronic ways, which causes us to scatter little pieces or ourselves behind as we try to do everything for everyone at once.
These pieces get left with the people that we love and care about, and we don’t always realize we’ve left them. But there are ways we can go about recognizing this in ourselves, and then reclaiming those little pieces when we want them back. I’d like to just note that my intention around this idea is always about choice, so I’m not trying to say you should never give people help; rather, we need to be more mindful of when we’re giving too much of ourselves, too often, resulting in fragmentation or resentment.
Reclaiming our choice to help people
It’s important to look at the ways in which we habitually do things, and then reclaim the choice around whether we do those things, and if so, when we do them. We have to ask ourselves, where do I want to leave pieces of myself? Do I actually want to leave this here?
It’s valuable to recognize that often, especially when we’re giving in ways that haven’t even been asked for, we aren’t giving people the opportunity to treat us the way we want and deserve to be treated. It would be great if people were more conscious about when we are giving our time and our energy, and if they would recognize that more, but ultimately we can’t view them as “takers” when we are willingly giving up our time without even being asked. We have to recognize the limits of our own generosity, to avoid feeling like we’re being taken advantage of. Have you ever seen a friend, child, or loved one struggling and jumped in to help before they even asked? That’s what I’m talking about here.
The other side of this is that sometimes, it’s not that we give ourselves away without thinking about it, but that people ask for our help and we are unable to say no. Sometimes we say yes automatically without really meaning it, and then we find ourselves wondering why people always take from us, or cross our boundaries. But the truth is, we haven’t really given them the opportunity to honor our boundaries because we aren’t telling them what they are.
So how can we reclaim our choice with this?
We have to practice honesty in our boundary setting. Don’t make excuses for why you won’t do something, like saying “I don’t have time”, when the truth is that you do have time but you just don’t want to do it. Sometimes, there’s just other ways we want to spend our time. Our lives can be both full and spacious at the same time, and it is up to us to determine how we want to use that space.
Emphasize the importance of your own time
I like the idea of treating your free time like a date, or an appointment, so that it is actually scheduled and actually gets done. It’s just as important as the other things you do with your day, so why not block it off in your calendar? That way you ensure it happens. Your free time, or the time you spend with yourself, shouldn’t only happen after you’ve done everything for everyone else first.
There’s a degree of unconsciousness in the world, a self-centeredness that people have which causes them to enter your space and your plans without really thinking about how that could affect you. When you’re asked if you have “five minutes to pick your brain” or something similar, and you don’t want to do it on such short notice (or at all), a hard boundary can be a bit of a wake up call for that person. The assumption of immediacy, which has become more and more prevalent with the use of cell phones, texting, and the internet, needs to be tamed. If you set a hard boundary on your time, and request that people schedule time to talk with you in advance, people will begin to value your time more. Oten people fear that this will seem harsh or selfish, but actually it’s just clear.
For many of us, it is even more important to look at the places where we see we can help people, and we compulsively do it without being asked. They may not have wanted or needed the help. Sometimes they’re probably grateful for it, but other times it might be overstepping their boundaries. Giving and helping are not wrong, but notice if you are a little bit compulsive in this regard. I want to note – without blame, shame, or judgment, that this kind of compulsive helping is a bit manipulative. Not consciously, of course. It’s not like we’re thinking “I’m going to help them in order to get them to do what I want”. But it is often manipulative in the sense that we are so uncomfortable seeing the people around us, or the people we love, struggle. When this is the case, it’s easy to pretend we are easing their discomfort, when actually it’s our own discomfort with seeing them struggle!
Taking responsibility for our choices and how we want to be treated
We’re at a point now in our lives and in history where we can take some responsibility for this, individually and collectively as women. There’s a lot of data out there which shows that one of the main reasons why men get raises more than women is because men ask for them. This is a generalization, but women typically have an unconscious belief that if we just do a good job, or if we help enough, people will see that and reward us without us needing to ask. And this is what I believe is a manipulation of some kind. It’s not malicious, but it is this manipulative idea that if we behave a certain way, then people will respond in a certain way, and too often we choose this course of action rather than just being direct about what we want.
The application of this idea is very clever in the business sense, but in the personal sense it translates more to our sense of wanting to help people and offer our time and energy and attention, with the unconscious desire for reciprocation. Again, I’m not saying you should never help people, or that all support is manipulation – but let’s be more aware of whether we’re actually choosing it, or whether it’s somewhat habitual or compulsive. And some of that is being willing to sit with the discomfort of seeing that you could help somebody, and affording them the dignity of not immediately jumping in. We have to check if it’s just our discomfort that is making us want to help them. And, at the very least, asking if they want the support before doing it – as well as checking with ourselves if we have unspoken strings attached, even if those strings are just ‘so they’ll like you’.
On a personal level, I believe it’s valuable to practice in ways that are less common for us, especially if we notice that we do have a habitual or a compulsive way of being. Instead of saying “that’s just me” or “that’s my authentic self” or “I’m just a helper” or “I don’t know what to say, I’m just a giver”, what if you waited for people to ask for help, and then checked with yourself about whether or not you actually want to do it? This is an identity practice: Who might you be if you weren’t always the helper?
Those of you who have enormous hearts and who care so much about others are always going to have that instinct to help. But you may also find yourself feeling resentful when those people don’t reciprocate in the way you expect them to, wondering why they are wasting your time or treating you unfairly, when really, you simply haven’t given the opportunity to treat you the way you’d like to be treated. Treating someone a certain way with the expectation that they will then treat you that same way in response is manipulative. If you do want to make a request or make an offer of help with the expectation that you will be provided the same in return, then you must make that explicit within your offer. You have to make it clear that this scenario is a tit-for-tat situation, or that you are offering help in exchange for something, rather than implying an expectation that you are showing them how to be a good partner or friend to you through your own actions, and that they should automatically pick up on that messaging.
I think that when we give ourselves to others while expecting something in return – but without making it explicitly clear what that expectation is – we are putting a piece of ourselves out there and just hoping to get it back. We have to take responsibility for the reclaiming of that piece. We can’t just expect others to give it back to us, if they don’t even realize it’s there or that it needs returning.
When we start to reclaim these pieces, whether by setting clear boundaries on our time or by simply refusing to take on a certain task or favor for someone, we will find that we no longer leave these pieces of ourselves with people, and we can be more whole. This kind of practice allows us to choose when and where we leave these pieces of ourselves, and who with.
For a specific practice on reclaiming parts of yourself that you may have left with others, watch the full video here: https://youtu.be/Wbkd5aYVbcM