Ask The Therapist: “I don’t know how to set boundaries…I am always stressing on how to say no to people…”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained therapist. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I am a woman in her mid 20s and I don’t know how to set boundaries. I hate being unfair to someone or seeing anyone’s aggression. Arguing with anyone disturbs me so I run as far as I can from confrontation, but this has allowed people to walk all over me and say and do whatever they want. I’m going to buy a car and I’m afraid that people will ask me for lifts and I’m already stressing out on how to say no to them.  Please help. How do I set boundaries between myself and other people?”

Shahrukh’s Response:

Dear Anon,

I can only imagine the kind of frustration or sense of powerlessness you must be feeling right now. While the idea of setting boundaries is simple in theory, when living in a society like ours, which rarely models healthy boundaries, I hear you when you say that it’s really challenging to set them without the guilt that may follow. Before we explore how to set boundaries, let’s first look at the barriers that stand in the way of you setting them.

Boundaries: The Self-Care Essential One Tends To Deny Themselves

In recent times, the word “boundaries” has found its way into the realm of social dialogue. What I have observed over the last few years, whether it’s in practice as a therapist or in my day-to-day interactions, is that people find it difficult to set boundaries. The question becomes: what is so difficult about this? While there could be several answers, depending on the person you speak to, overall what has been emphasised and echoed in our collectivist culture is that we have to prioritise others’ needs before our own. Ask yourself: what is the culture around boundaries within my family/circle of friends? Were boundaries ever modelled to me, or was I told to ignore my own needs and discomfort and just do what is needed/expected of me at any given time?

Boundaries, in their very essence, serve as a self-care tool, a way of refusing things that feel uncomfortable or draining for us. So, perhaps it’s time to give yourself the permission to say no, and put yourself first.

Setting Boundaries 101

Here are some tips and need-to-know things about boundary setting:

  • Some people might not be able to respect your boundaries: when it comes to boundaries, it’s important to understand that not everyone is going to be able to respect them, and you might face some push back or even disappointment from a person. That being said, a person’s inability to respect boundaries is more about their narrative than it is yours. The person might see it as a form of rejection, or they simply cannot understand the importance of boundaries, and will try different ways to violate them. In cases like this, it’s important to stand your ground and not give into push back and emotional manipulation (which is what people tend to do). 
  • Boundaries are essential for your mental health, and maintaining healthy relationships: be it family, friends or even a significant other, boundaries are important. They maintain balance, openness and authenticity in any relationship. In cases where boundaries are violated, slowly but surely, resentment can build up and it leaves room for a certain level of animosity in the space between two people. By setting boundaries, you’re giving importance to your needs, and are able to do things that are within your realm of comfort. Boundaries will help you avoid things like burnout and can help you build on your autonomy.
  • Validate yourself and know that your feelings and needs are important: whether it’s needing some time alone for a few hours, or cancelling on plans with a friend, you’re entitled to look after yourself. Trust your gut and listen to your body and mind. If you feel that you’re approaching the point of burn out, take some time out to rest and recharge, even if it is for a day. In your case, Anon, it’s okay if you want to say no to giving others a lift. You may feel the need to explain yourself, and it’s okay if you do, but even simply not wanting to or feeling uncomfortable with the idea is enough. I do want to point out that you cannot control how another person responds to your boundaries – if they react badly or harshly, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong for setting them. Again, it just speaks to their narrative and issues around boundaries. Let go of the guilt you feel, there’s nothing to feel guilty for, especially if you’re taking care of yourself.

What Do Boundaries Sound Like?

Healthy boundaries can be statements like:

  • “I can’t make it today. Something came up.”
  • “I can’t meet beyond xyz time.”
  • “I will not be able to help with this.”
  • “I can’t speak right now, I have some work. How about I call you at xyz time?”
  • “No, I won’t be able to drop you home today.”

Yes, some of these may seem simple and direct and that’s because this is what they’re meant to sound like. You’re not being rude or aggressive, you are being assertive – and that is okay! 

Anon, I know I, along with many others, have struggled with setting boundaries. It’s worth exploring what stands in the way for you. In any case, remind yourself that it’s okay to put yourself first. It might be challenging, but that’s okay – practice makes perfect. I hope this article was helpful to you – I wish you all the best on your journey towards healing! Best of luck and stay in your power!

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

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