April 10, 2023

Why Women Find it Hard to Set Boundaries.


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A boundary is a defining or limiting line that clearly separates or protects us from another person, object, or property.

We erect fences or walls between our homes to separate us from our neighbours. We have them for privacy and to claim ownership over what we consider ours.

When we speak to someone we don’t know very well, we usually keep a slight distance from them. We do this to protect our personal space, around what feels comfortable for us. If someone starts to encroach upon this invisible line, we may begin to feel threatened. We also tentatively approach things that are out of our comfort zone. If something is uncomfortable, we don’t feel safe, so we hesitate to commit.

Personal boundaries, on the other hand, are values that we have learnt or adhered to throughout our lives. They define what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t and determines what areas we take responsibility for.

Our earliest boundaries are those imposed upon us by our parents during our upbringing.

We learn to act a certain way, to behave, not voice our views too much, adapt to the status quo and dynamics of the family. We learn to not “rock the boat.” This imposes boundaries or restrictions upon us, albeit usually for “our own good.” Or so we are told.

As we grow older, society begins to impose its own boundaries, particularly for women. Throughout history, women have adhered to the roles assigned to them. These roles depended on their status in life, the circumstances in which they were born, and the restrictions placed on them by a male-dominated society. As women’s rights and roles changed through the years, more freedoms were gained; however even today, many women find it hard to put themselves first.

Why do we still find it so hard to set healthy boundaries?

I believe it is because as women so much is still expected of us. It is mainly women who raise and care for their children. We run our households, have careers, care for our partners, parents, pets. We rarely question these roles. Although this is changing, many men still tend to be on the periphery. It’s us brave, courageous, unselfish women who put ourselves forward. We often feel that we don’t have a choice.

We tell ourselves that others need us now. Others are more deserving. Others’ needs are greater. We feel that we need to serve the needs of others before we meet our own needs. Is it a gender or generational issue or due to society’s expectations of us as women and what is considered the “norm”? Is it a sign of perfectionism, the need to be doing the right thing, whatever that is? The need to be accepted and loved.

Most of us want to be liked. We care what others think of us. We worry about how others will view us, and we crave acceptance. We feel that if we turn down opportunities, jobs, invitations or requests from others, we will be judged and criticised, or even worse, rejected. We avoid being the one left behind, the difficult one, the one who always questions everything. And so, we give in.

It’s far easier to say “yes.” We tell ourselves we can defer what we were doing, or rest later, or make up for it another day. We can say “no” next time. But we are only lying to ourselves and selling ourselves short. We are once again not meeting our own needs. We end up depleted, resentful, exhausted, and often—ill.

For most of my life, I was guilty of this too. I was the middle child, the one who felt she needed to keep the peace, so I became the “good girl.” I was the people pleaser, the one who always said “yes.” I continued this trend as an adult. After all, I knew no better. A career in nursing followed, then roles as a parent and later carer for my elderly mother. Everyone else’s needs came first.

It was only when I ended up burnt out and exhausted that I knew things had to change.

Once we decide we need some boundaries, we may not even know how to begin. I certainly didn’t. After all, when we have been available to everyone else for most of our lives, how can we change? Awareness is the key, and I was definitely aware of my situation, but how could I begin to do things differently?

I began by acknowledging where I was now. I could see what wasn’t working for me and slowly began to recognise what was. I began by setting limits on my time and availability. Learning to say “no” was difficult, so I started to say, “I’ll think about it” instead. This gave me time to see whether the request was reasonable and if I really wanted to do it. If not, I would call back with a polite “no.”

No explanations needed. I realised that I wasn’t here to please everyone. I was here to be true to myself.

I also began asking for help, and it’s something we all should be doing. Our family and friends might find this strange, coming from the old available you, but that’s okay. They may resist at first, but we need to stay firm and then let go of control. Others will not perform tasks the same way we have. The house may not be quite as clean, or the meals may be cooked differently, but don’t be concerned. Just because it’s not done “our way” doesn’t mean it isn’t acceptable. Let go of the need to be perfect. Our way wasn’t working anyway.

We can also look at what depletes our energy and assess how we can change. Learning to say “no “means we stop meeting everyone else’s expectations of us.

If we keep conforming to our friends, families, and society’s expectations of us, we will always be a version of “someone who fits in.”

A healthy boundary is one we set up around ourselves when we learn to put ourselves first. It means we put ourselves first now not later. It means saying “yes” to things that feel right that we really want to do. It means finding balance in our life and learning to let go of controlling everything. It means accepting ourselves and others as they are. It takes awareness and it takes courage, but mostly, it takes compassion. Compassion and love for ourselves, especially when we get it wrong and fall back into old behaviours.

Setting boundaries is a part of loving ourselves and that is a lifelong journey. However, if we persevere and realise that we are worth it, it will be one of the best journeys we can ever take.


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