Boundaries are a form of self-care—they protect us physically and emotionally. But many of us feel guilty when we prioritize our needs, set boundaries, and practice self-care. So, in this article I'll help you let go of feeling guilty and recognize that it's healthy to ask for what you need and set boundaries to keep yourself safe and living in alignment with your values.
Do you have difficulty prioritizing your needs, setting boundaries, and consistently practicing self-care? These are struggles for many people who have codependent traits. We tend to put our needs last, often sacrificing our own well-being to make other people happy or avoid conflict. And when we do consider our own needs, set boundaries, and practice self-care we feel guilty, like we’re doing something wrong, mean, or selfish.
What are healthy boundaries and why are they important?
Boundaries create a space or separation between you and someone else. A physical boundary, such as stepping away from someone or closing a door, literally creates more space between you and others. And an emotional or mental boundary helps you separate your feelings, needs, beliefs, and interests from others’. An example of an emotional or mental boundary is stating your opinion or not accepting the blame for someone else’s angry outburst.
Without boundaries, we run the risk of “losing ourselves”—we don't know how we feel, what we’re interested in, or what we want. We let other people make decisions for us. We give and give without receiving in return. And we run the risk of being manipulated, used, and abused because we aren’t putting any limits on how others can treat us.
Boundaries create safety.
Boundaries are guidelines and expectations that we set in relationships. Boundaries help both parties understand how to behave—what behavior is acceptable and what won’t be tolerated. If you feel unsafe or on edge with someone, there’s probably a lack of clear and consistent boundaries.
Boundaries strengthen your sense of self.
Boundaries are also central to your identity and sense of self. Without boundaries, it’s hard to distinguish where you end and someone else begins; you feel like a chameleon always morphing into who other people want you to be rather than having a strong sense of who you are.
What’s the connection between boundaries and self-care?
Boundaries are a form of self-care. When you set boundaries, you are taking care of yourself. You are recognizing what you need and asking for it.
Boundaries can help you manage stress, take care of your physical well-being, and create healthy relationships. For example, when you say no to working late because you’re overtired, you’re prioritizing your need for rest. And when you put your phone on do not disturb to protect yourself from your ex’s toxic tirade, you’re looking out for your emotional well-being. And when you say no to things that you don’t want to do or you leave the room when someone continues to yell at you, you are respecting yourself and doing what’s true and right for you.
If you don’t set boundaries, you’re likely to become resentful and exhausted. Without boundaries, you’ll absorb other people’s feelings and take responsibility for their problems; you’ll overwork, allow others to take advantage of your kindness, and eventually this will negatively impact your physical and mental health. In contrast, when you set boundaries, you’re taking care of your physical and emotional needs.
Why do codependents struggle with setting boundaries and self-care?
There are a number of reasons that boundaries and self-care are difficult for codependents. Here are a few:
- You didn’t have role models for healthy boundaries and self-care. Chances are that you grew up in a family where boundaries weren’t set or respected—you didn’t have privacy, there was unwanted physical touch, you couldn’t express your feelings, and you couldn’t say no. We tend to struggle with boundaries because no one taught us how to set boundaries or that it was acceptable to do so. Instead, you got the erroneous idea that boundaries and self-care are selfish or mean. You also didn’t see people taking care of themselves. In codependent families, life can be tumultuous and unpredictable. It also may revolve around a “dysfunctional” family member’s needs and moods, making it hard for you to prioritize yourself.
- You were taught to be a caretaker. You focus your energy on taking care of others, often at your own expense. Again, the roots of your extreme caretaking probably go back to childhood. Many codependents were parentified children meaning they had to accept adult responsibilities and take care of their parents and siblings from a young age. This leaves little time, energy, or money for self-care.
- You weren’t allowed to have needs or be assertive. As a child, were you told to suck it up, stop crying, or to stop overreacting? Or maybe you were told that you were being selfish or disrespectful if you set a boundary or asked for something. These are the kinds of shaming and blaming messages codependents often get as children – that their feelings and needs don’t matter or are unacceptable. As a result, you learn to push your feelings aside and pretend you don’t need anything.
How can you begin to overcome feelings of guilt and begin to prioritize your own needs?
As you begin to change and recover from codependency, you’ll want to pay attention to your thoughts and behavior – challenging yourself to think about things differently and taking small steps to behave in new ways that reflect your increasing self-respect and self-understanding.
- Remember that boundaries are a healthy form of self-care. You’re less likely to feel guilty when you remember that everyone has needs and taking care of yourself is a healthy choice. There is nothing wrong with looking out for yourself! Obviously, eating more vegetables is a healthy choice; you wouldn’t feel guilty about it. Well, setting boundaries that help you stay mentally and physically healthy are no different; there’s no reason to feel guilty about doing something that’s good for you.
- Setting boundaries and practicing self-care benefit those around you, too. That’s right, boundaries and self-care are good for everyone – not just you. Setting boundaries strengthens relationships. Things run more smoothly when expectations are clear and others feel respected when you communicate your needs and expectations clearly. And when you take care of yourself, you’re healthier and happier. Everyone benefits when you have more energy and patience, are less reactive; and have fewer resentments.
- Tune into your needs. It’s nearly impossible to set boundaries and practice self-care if you don’t know what you need. Tuning into your thoughts, feelings, and physical body will help you do this. Intentionally pause several times per day to ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need?” When you have a better sense of how you feel and what you need, it will be easier to set boundaries and practice self-care.
- Practice, practice, practice. Setting boundaries is a skill and like any other skill, the more you practice the easier it becomes. Expect that it will feel uncomfortable in the beginning, but stick with it!
- Self-compassion. Trying to take better care of yourself and learn new skills is hard work. Be sure to give yourself plenty of self-compassion and encouragement.
- Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Setting boundaries and practicing self-care aren’t all or nothing endeavors. So, don’t get hung up on doing them perfectly. Remember: progress not perfection!
©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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