How to Start Setting Boundaries and Prioritizing Your Needs
by Naomi Arnold
“You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.” ~Tony Gaskins
I highly value being loyal, honest, empathetic, and supportive. I am also partial to advocating for the underdog. As a result, I have historically attempted to be a ‘hero’ in situations of difficulty, tension, conflict, or stress.
I take pride in being the person who others can turn to for support, guidance, and empathy after an upsetting experience.
When a friend was going through a troublesome period, I literally dropped everything to race to her and give her a hand. I drove her everywhere when her car was destroyed in an accident. I sat with her in the car for hours each day and listened to her troubles in the driveway when dropping her home.
I often answered the phone late at night when this friend was having a crisis. I barely spent time with my husband as I tended to her needs, even when our marriage began to show cracks as a result.
I would fall prey to her criticisms and insults when she was distressed and seemingly needed a ‘punching bag,’ or when I didn’t respond as quickly or as perfectly as she desired. I regularly defended her behavior and tried to cheer her up when she questioned her value as a friend, in an attempt to help her feel better.
I convinced myself that it was a stage that she was going through and that she needed my support—that despite the emotional manipulation and unreasonable expectations—a good friend would stick by her, no matter what. Besides, she was a beautiful person and a wonderful friend in many respects.
When another friend wanted to provide a quote on a personal project, despite my intuition warning me against mixing friendship with business, I proceeded out of concern that I’d offend him if I did otherwise.
When he made a number of errors and contradictions, was significantly late with his submission, and quoted a much higher figure than initially indicated, I continued to reinterpret his behavior and make excuses for him.
Even upon first hearing that he had then proceeded to lie about conversations and events to others, my initial reaction was to defend him and make excuses for how he might have been misled by other influences (when this was very unlikely to be the case).
When a single friend who liked to frequently sleep with different women who he met at a bar each weekend suddenly got upset by the fact that he hadn’t met his soul mate, I’d regularly open the door to him at three in the morning if he wanted to have a drunk DMC about his life and situation.
When a man came at my friends and I with a baseball bat in a Melbourne train station, I tried to reason with him and determine why he was so worked up and how I could help deflate that— before my friends dragged me away to safety in disbelief.
I could provide many more examples of where I have put the needs of others before my own, to the point where I have been hurt or experienced significant difficulty. I bet that if you’re still reading this article, that you can do the same.
I thought I was being a loyal, giving, and kind person who continuously chose to see the good in people. I took pride in this, and identified with it being a core part of who I was. But then I started to notice a painful pattern.
My own health, happiness, needs, and desires were continuously neglected. I was so busy helping others that prioritizing my own needs wasn’t possible.
I implicitly told people that I didn’t have boundaries, so it was understandably a shock to the system when I tried to put them in place at a later date.
I also demonstrated that I held an impossible expectation for myself to be perfect in a relationship, and people started to hold me to that level of perfection and expect it from me 100 percent of the time (even when they did not hold their own behavior to anywhere near the same level or quality that they expected from me).
And what hurt most of all is that I started to notice that people often didn’t do the same for me. They didn’t risk putting their neck out on the chopping board and they certainly didn’t hang around to fight for our relationship when even the slightest bit of difficulty appeared. When I started to better manage my own energy and space, they would ‘dump’ me in a flash.
I suddenly realized that I needed to change.
I needed to respect and value myself and my needs more. I needed to make me a priority. I needed to stop being a martyr. I needed to introduce and maintain boundaries.
I needed to find a way to balance being big-hearted, loyal, and generous with taking care of myself and protecting my own energy and interests.
It was a difficult period—a period of adjustments and lessons, that are still continuing to a lesser degree. But at the end of the day, my increased emphasis on taking care of myself was not only good for me, but also for the people that truly loved and valued me.
But how could it be a good thing, you might ask? You lost friends, you suffered, you learned that many people you loved wouldn’t be there to back you up when you needed them. How is that a good thing?
Please, let me explain. When I ‘lost’ or better managed those who drained energy from me and disregarded perfectly reasonable personal boundaries it:
- Freed up more time for me to support and enjoy the company of those who did respect, value and cherish me—those who were uplifting and supportive
- Led to me respecting, valuing, and honoring myself and my own needs more, which allowed me to feel more energized, vibrant, happy, healthy, and ‘on purpose’ than ever before
- Allowed me to learn more about myself and what I valued in a relationship and to be more cautious about spending time with people who didn’t align with these values
- Helped me further fine-tune the art of boundary setting, a skill that I believe can impact on your life in so many ways
- Encouraged others to start treating me with more respect
- Inspired others to start taking better care of themselves and their needs too
- Helped me learn how to say no and to ask for help—two valuable skills to have in your internal wellness toolkit
The above are only examples, of which I am sure there are many more, of the benefits I have experienced from setting boundaries and learning to prioritize myself and my own needs.
Now this might sound great in theory, but I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to start setting boundaries and to prioritize your own needs, desires, and dreams. Some suggestions to help you get started include:
1. Begin to take notice of who you spend your time with and how they make you feel.
Do you enjoy their company? Do they make you feel supported and uplifted? Do they bring you joy? Or do they deflate you? Make you feel bad about yourself and your character? Suck the energy from you? Perhaps it is time to consider how you manage your time with these people in the future.
2. Take time out to reflect on and identify your own needs, desires, and dreams.
Do you have a self-care and me-time practice? Do you make time for activities that you enjoy? Do you feel satisfied with your work, home life, health, or other areas that you value? Commit to making a conscious effort to start prioritizing these areas more in your life.
3. Actively look for ways to make time for you.
What can you organize or change in your schedule to make this happen? Where can you find efficiencies or introduce systems that will make time for you? Where could you ask for help or delegate work or tasks to free up time? What items can you cull from your to-do list in order to drop some balls and pick up the self-care ball?
4. Practice saying no.
Putting a stop to the automatic “yes machine” and learning to say no are vital steps for setting boundaries and learning to place more value on yourself, your time, and your desires.
Learning to say no can take practice. I suggest that you start with a ‘buying time’ script, where instead of responding with a clear “yes” or “no” straight away, you tell people that you are busy and that you’ll check and get back to them. This buys you time to formulate a more considered response in line with your own needs and desires.
At the end of the day, please remember that you matter. Your life matters. Your needs and desires matter. And when you take care of yourself, you are in a much better position to be of service to others and the world.
In finishing, I’d love to leave you with a quote from Dodinsky that sums up one of the main points of this article: “Be there for others, but never leave yourself behind.”