You are allowed to have boundaries (Episode 33)

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro when it comes to boundaries, it’s easy to believe that boundaries are great in every situation…except maybe not when you are a parent or caregiver. Because when the lives of your care receivers are at stake, you’re going to have to meet everybody’s needs no matter what it costs you. Right? Well, not so fast. Listen to this episode to get an overview of boundaries and why they are so hard in family situations. You might be pleasantly surprised to get a perspective that puts parents and caregivers at the center of the issue, rather than treating us as just an afterthought.

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Why it’s so hard to let people help (Episode 32)

Hi there, I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. This is episode 33. Before we dive into talking about boundaries, let me just remind you that my webinar called Human Giver Syndrome: Why Caregivers Are Exhausted and How to Begin to Heal From It is coming up on Tuesday, May 4th at 1:00 PM Eastern time. And the link to register for that is in the show notes, or you can just go to my website and you’ll see the link there. If you don’t know what Human Giver Syndrome is, go back and listen to episode 31. As a caregiver, it’s a concept that I think could be very important for you to know about and it really does have a lot to do with what I am talking about today, which is boundaries. So here we go.

I have a lot of experience with boundaries, that is true. And I mean both professionally and personally, setting them and figuring out what’s getting in the way of setting them. I help my clients with it, true, but it’s work. I also have to do for myself every day. And just because I have a lot of experience with boundaries doesn’t mean that I do it perfectly for myself. No way. That could not be farther from the truth. I’m in this up to my neck in my own life every day. It’s some of the best work that I do and it’s some of the hardest work that I do in my own life. This is a huge topic that I talk about with my clients a lot. So I’m only going to scratch the surface here today. Understanding boundaries, what they are and that you are allowed to have them, yes, even if you’re a caregiver, is an incredibly important concept to learn. And it’s a skill set that you’ll want to develop if you want to live a fulfilling life, according to your own standards and values.

So let’s start at the beginning, what is a boundary? Well at its most basic, a boundary is a line or a symbol or a sign that marks where one thing ends and another thing begins. It’s easiest to think about in terms of a piece of property. So that would be a physical place where one piece of property ends and another one begins, and that’s a very clear boundary. When you’re talking about humans, which is of course what we’re doing today, the most basic boundary there is is your skin. Your skin marks you as separate from the air around you or separate from the chair that you’re sitting on. Then when we’re talking about humans and relationships, a boundary is usually a decision or a choice that you express by establishing limits on what behaviors you will accept. For humans, personal boundaries have to come first. That’s what you as an individual will and will not accept. And at that point then, you might also choose to place some boundaries around your family and around your care receiver.

Examples of a boundary in your personal life might be establishing times that you are and are not available to talk to your siblings on the phone or telling them you’re not going to be responding to text messages during certain hours. At work, examples of setting a boundary might be not answering email after a certain time at night or not responding to communication from work while you’re on vacation. Boundaries are one way that we tell the world who we are as people, what choices that we make and what our values are. Boundaries then tell other people what you and I do and don’t take responsibility for. And when we insist that others respect our boundaries, we are making a very clear statement about our identity as individuals separate from the people around us. A really important thing to understand is that boundaries are not about control. Boundaries are not just a clever new way to control the people in your life, and they aren’t a way to control yourself either.

Boundaries are not a personal prison filled with pain and punishment, unless you set them up that way for yourself. They can be more like trail markers for yourself that lovingly remind you about what’s important to you and redirecting you back to the decisions you’ve already made about your life. Boundaries are also not about changing other people. When you set a boundary and enforce it, you are the one who is making a choice about your own behavior. Sometimes other people will change when you set a clear boundary and stick to it, but that is their choice and they may not change, and if they do it may not turn out the way you would have hoped. And then the flip side of boundaries to always keep in mind is that every other human being also has the right to set their own boundaries too, and to ask for those boundaries to be respected as well. So when you set a boundary, other people are not required to agree with you because they are separate from you and they have their own boundaries.

Now here’s a real key to making boundaries work for you and for other people; understand that somebody else can only know what your boundaries are if you tell them. You have to tell them. Boundaries can give you the power to create the life you want to live, but only if you actually state those boundaries to other people. I’m not here to tell you that you should or should not set boundaries. That is not my job. If I were to try to do that, I would be trying to control you. It is my job though to tell you that you can set boundaries if you want to, no matter what your circumstances are, even if you are a family caregiver or a parent. It’s your right if you want to do it. And also if you do it, you should know that there will almost always be rewards and consequences for setting boundaries. And that’s your choice too to set those boundaries and accept what comes afterwards.

But why do boundaries seem to be just extra complicated for caregivers? I think there are two important reasons here. First of all, we are talking about family and everything is more complicated when family is involved because you’ve just got years and years of habits and patterns and relationship dynamics that are at play all the time. That’s how life works. That’s how families work. And then the second thing is I think people really are afraid to talk about boundaries when it comes to family caregiving and parenting especially because they think other people will see them as cold and unfeeling to even suggest that caregivers and parents have a right to have their boundaries too.

Look, providing care can be done in a loving way that includes not trying to protect people from their own lives. Even though it can be really hard to picture how that can work, it does work, it can be done. You can be a loving caregiver who does not try to rescue someone every time something hard happens. A caregiver who lets your care receiver feel their feelings, and live their own lives, you are allowed to choose to be responsible to solve your own problems and live your own life, and to let other people do the same thing for themselves. I’m not here to lie to you. So I’m not going to do that. Setting boundaries can be painful to set and to enforce. In fact, I know that it happens a lot. When we begin to set and enforce boundaries, people really confuse that with punishing them or withholding love from them. They can react in really negative ways like with anger and disappointment, and even trying to manipulate you or other people when you set boundaries. But when you set a boundary, you’re not actually withholding love. You are simply saying you’re not going to participate in activities or behaviors that aren’t true to you.

Boundaries actually can be one of the most profound expressions of self-love. They’re about you as an individual, as a whole person who is separate from the people around you. And so boundaries can come from a place of self-kindness and self-compassion. You can love yourself and at the same time set limits on what the people around you can do in your life. And hear me when I say this, you can still love those people. And I’m going to say this again. Even caregivers have a right to set boundaries. In fact, as caregivers and parents, boundaries could be the most important thing we do for our physical and mental health. Boundaries are the thing, the very thing, that will keep other people from draining our energy to dangerously low levels. And yet as caregivers, we are already deeply embedded in the situations where we probably need to set boundaries the most. And that means that we might have to have a front row seat to watch as others struggle when the limits we set affect their lives. And it is so hard to watch people struggle.

But these struggles that people have to deal with, that we all have to deal with, those are known as facing natural consequences. It’s what happens when you have to take responsibility for your own life. And people just don’t tend to like it when the boundaries we set cause them to face their own consequences. Because in the past, our lack of boundaries had been protecting them from those very consequences. They might not like that at all and they could resist. And sometimes they’re going to resist in ways that are loud and fierce and ugly. They might complain about us to family members, or they might tell the world on social media about how awful we are to them and what we are making them do. And we’re going to have to live with that because we are in a relationship with them. But living with it does not mean you are required to feel guilty or ashamed over it.

So to help you visualize this, let me give you a couple of examples. If you are always the go-between for your sister and your mom because they don’t get along, let’s say they won’t talk on the phone so you relay their messages to one another, what you are doing there is shielding them from having to be adults and figure out their relationship. If you set a boundary that you won’t do that anymore, they’re going to have to sort out their relationship for themselves. It might be painful for you to have to watch that. And they might be angry and act very much like they think you are hurting them or punishing them, but their relationship is not something you can control. And it’s not your job to protect them from each other. You’re not setting a boundary to hurt them. You’re doing it for the sake of your own mental health.

And if you do feel guilty, that’s probably normal for you. And if you want to, you can do the emotional work to start processing your guilt and be at peace with it over time. That’s your choice. And there may even come a day where you don’t feel guilt any longer. I can’t promise you that will happen, but it might. And here’s another example. If your mother is quietly slipping money into your brother’s bank account every time he needs extra cash, her lack of boundaries in relation to him is keeping him from coming to terms with his money problems. And she might be withholding cash that you, as the caregiver, need to hire help with her daily living. So you will probably want to tell your mom she can’t give your brother money anymore, but that’s not setting a boundary for you, that’s trying to control your mom and your brother. You can though set a boundary that you will only be her caregiver if she pays for outside help, or maybe she can even pay you for that help.

Now that might mean that she will have less money to give your brother, and then neither one of them is likely to be happy with you. If they resist the boundary that you’ve set, nothing has gone wrong with you, they are just being human. And if you find it difficult and very uncomfortable because they’re angry when you enforce those boundaries, nothing has gone wrong there either because you are human too. Setting boundaries does take time and effort to get right. And unfortunately, a lot of times, the only way you can learn you need to set a boundary is by being in a situation already and seeing something that you don’t want anymore. So you’re already in the middle of it, living through it, and you have to figure out what it is you really want. Then you have to make the decision and find the words to tell others about the boundary decision that you’ve made. And then you’re going to have to deal with the resistance.

Other people are going to resist you probably, but you might resist it too, because you just don’t want to be uncomfortable. And then you can find yourself backsliding and not enforcing that boundary that you yourself set. You might find yourself or somebody else pushing back really hard or maybe sabotaging your efforts to enforce your boundaries. So then you’re going to have to find the courage to talk about it again. As if it wasn’t hard enough the first time, now you might have to admit that you didn’t do a great job and you might have to say it all over again. Maybe you’ll even find that your own existing habits make it hard to enforce that boundary, and you might have to change your habits and your routines. You could even decide that the first boundary that you set was more strict than it needed to be, and you want to loosen it up. So you’re going to have to admit you were a little wrong about that and rewrite that boundary.

So yes, boundaries are hard and boundaries are messy, especially at first. But as time goes on, you’re going to build your boundary setting muscles and your boundary communicating muscles. You’re going to get more skilled and it will get easier to do over time. And I’m sure you’re asking yourself at this point, “Are boundaries even worth it? At what point would it be worth all of this effort and discomfort and maybe even some heartache?” Well, it’s because of what it’s costing you right now to not have boundaries. And here’s how you look at this for yourself; ask yourself in what areas of your life is a lack of boundaries costing you something important, maybe costing you too much.

Here’s some areas that I would suggest you look at; look at your health, your sleep, your finances, your relationships, or maybe lack of relationships, your job, your spirituality, your integrity, and possibly even your dreams and goals. All of these are valid places to set boundaries. Wanting to improve your life in these areas and be healthier and feel more like your true self, these are all valid reasons to want to set boundaries. Only you can decide whether the work of setting boundaries will be worth the potential payoff for you. So I’ll end today by reminding you that you do have a right to set boundaries for yourself, no matter what your circumstances are, even if you are a family, caregiver or a parent.

Thank you so much for being here with me today. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at That’s There, you can also sign up for my newsletter, which is called From One Caregiver to Another. Please follow me on Instagram, there’s a link in the show notes, if you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers who are tired of feeling trapped by the traditional definition of being a so-called good caregiver. If you liked this episode, please consider leaving a review which will help other caregivers find their way here. And definitely tell a caregiver friend who also needs a boost in their confidence to design and live their best life, which just so happens to include their caregiving responsibilities, but does not have to be centered solely on those duties. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another. 

your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations. The best place to connect with Kay is on Instagram.

Caregiver Coaching” is for family caregivers who are ready to improve their own life. Facilitator on Fire’s “Building Trust Across Generations” seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing teams that are attractive to people of all ages. Kay’s keynote address, “Top Myths of Leading Generations,” helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations.