Last week during a staff meeting, we played a game called “Set Those Boundaries”. It was a game co-designed with girls in our Power Lab school in New York and included several scenarios where we had to make a decision about setting a boundary to create healthier relationships with ourselves and others. The game brought up laughter, reflection, and the realization that we all need boundaries in our lives, especially during times of transition and change. This was made even clearer to us when the caregivers in our Raising Resilient Girls workshop shared their most common feelings during the week: anxiety, disappointment, and insecurity. So as we settle into the fall and a new school year, we want to offer both the insight from the girls and the wisdom of Woodrie Burich, a leadership coach, who shared her boundary training with us.
In case you are hitting your limits these days, the first thing we learned from Woodrie is that a boundary is not the same thing as a limit. We tend to hit our limit, then we set a boundary. But what if we could learn to set a boundary before we hit our limit? What if we could protect our energy and wellness before getting to high blood pressure, burnout, and exploding emotionally on everyone we love? That’s the goal — to make the choices that take care of us before we are face-to-face with our limits.
Five Boundaries For Caregivers
To help get there, here are five common boundaries that can help caregivers.
Emotional: Emotional boundaries could be honoring the feelings of the person you are caring for, but not letting them express it however and whenever they want. This can sound like, “I am so sorry that you are hurt, and it’s still not okay to yell at me. Should we punch pillows together?” Another boundary can be protecting your time, or place or relationship where your own feelings are at the center, at least some of the time. This can be therapy or talking with a friend.
Physical: Physical boundaries can be hard, especially when taking care of young children, or those who are ill or elderly. Caring for your own physical need for rest, food, and physical space are the “fuel” that provide you the energy to move through your day with more ease and care for others. This may only happen in short breaks of time throughout the day, but even having small moments of “me time” or “me space” to eat, take a walk, or even sit alone can have a positive impact. Teens who shut their doors are really good at setting this boundary.
Time: Putting a boundary on time can be as small as turning off phone notifications to make your time your own. Or it can be bigger, like getting help with caregiving (watching shows or allowing video games count as help) because having time to yourself to do something that makes you happy or doesn’t require you to focus on anyone else really matters.
Household: Did you end up as the operations director for your family without requesting or realizing this was a role? A household boundary can look like getting others to take on tasks, such as having a young person take out the garbage each week, getting groceries delivered, or just accepting that projects can wait a few weeks.
Mental: The most common mental boundary is protecting yourself from the demand to solve problems for others. As caregivers, the constant responsibility of finding solutions for the people in our lives can be draining. Whenever possible, give yourself permission to step back from this role and ask others to suggest solutions that can be discussed together. This small shift can ease some of the mental burden we carry.
Setting boundaries can be public and spoken out loud to others, or written down for accountability. They can also be silent, private commitments that we make to ourselves. While boundaries depend on the support and partnership of others, possibly including those we are caring for, other boundaries only require our own clarity, commitment, and consistency.
If you are uncomfortable setting boundaries for yourself, consider trying boundary setting for the sake of your kids. When we ask for what we need, or name our expectations explicitly, we send our youth a message that this is okay —in fact it is healthy — and they should be able to do the same in their relationships. When we ask caregivers how their girls are expected to look and act, the most popular response is “likeable”. Too many girls are taught that “likeable” means to not have boundaries and to give to others at all times. They become so adept at taking care of others, they don’t even recognize their own feelings and needs.
If we learned these lessons in childhood, we may still be practicing “likeability” in our own families, teaching our young people of all genders that our value to the family is in the giving of ourselves, instead of the caring of ourselves. If we want our kids to know their own intrinsic worth, independent of service to others, then we have to tap into that worth within ourselves. Setting boundaries can be one way to build that worth.