Ten Steps to Setting Limits:
Another Way To Take Care of Yourself
by Cheryl Rainfield, the award-winning author of STAINED, SCARS, and HUNTED, 2002
How many times have you done something you didn’t really want to? If you’re like me, it’s probably a lot of times. There are many reasons we agree to do things we don’t want to—thinking that we have to take care of others; thinking that someone else’s needs are more important than our own; fearing that someone will stop liking us if we say no; feeling like we don’t have the right to say no or to do what we need to do for ourselves; guilt; thinking that the “right” thing to do is to say yes; conditioning to be helpful, polite, and agreeable (especially for women); learned reactions stemming from child abuse; and so on and so on. But saying yes to something should always be a choice. Repeatedly saying yes to something you don’t want to do, no matter how small that thing is, can eat away at your self-esteem and self-worth. And it gives yourself the message that what you want doesn’t matter.
Think of how you feel when you agree to do something you really don’t want to do. Your stomach may get all bunched up, your jaw can grow tight, and you may be left with a tense, negative feeling. You may also feel resentment or anger if you give more than you feel you can offer, or if you repeatedly agree to do something you don’t want to do. Being able to say no allows you to breathe, and to respect your needs and yourself. Saying no when you need to means you’re taking care of yourself.
Fear often stops us from setting good boundaries and saying no. This is especially true for survivors of abuse, and for women. But if you work up the courage to say no, and do it a number of times, you’ll find that it gets easier to do, and that you feel better afterwards. If you have trouble saying no or setting limits, you may need to periodically remind yourself that it’s something you can and should do.
There are situations where it’s hard to say no, or where you may be afraid of the repercussions. But even then, if you can figure out a compromise, or just allow yourself to express your feelings, it can help a lot.
If you’re afraid to say no or to set your limits because you’re afraid of someone else’s anger or reaction to you, you may also want to examine whether your fears are based in the reality of the present. Often our fears are based on experiences and perceptions we made when we were vulnerable children. While the person you’re setting a limit with might initially confused, upset, or angry if you’re breaking a pattern, they will respect you and learn from your example, and they will come to appreciate you more when you can fully be there. It’s far more healthy to respect how you feel and what you feel you can do, than it is to agree to do something out of fear or because someone else wants you to.
The best way to set a limit (in my opinion) is to do so calmly and firmly—without anger. You may find it easier to set a limit—and the person you’re setting it with may find it easier to hear you and to respect the limit—if you briefly explain (without criticizing) why you’re setting that limit, and offer a compromise or an alternative time. But even if the person you’re setting a limit with tries to push you on it, it’s important to stay with your limit, and to know that you have a right to it.
You may not want to say no in every situation where you don’t feel like doing something; it’s good to choose when you want to set your boundaries. But you can probably say no a lot more often than you are. So how do you start? Here are a few steps that might make it easier. Leave out the steps that aren’t necessary for you.
- Decide that you have the right to say no and to set your own limits.
- Examine your feelings, fears, and childhood experiences that keep you from feeling that you have the right to say no or to set limits.
- Let go of as much of that baggage as you can. Tell yourself that you have the right to set limits, and to feel good. Remind yourself that your needs, and your level of comfort, are just as important as everyone else’s.
- Choose the situation that you want to say no in.
- If you need to, write out or rehearse what it is you want to say.
- Express your limit clearly, without back peddling or selling yourself short.
- Offer a compromise or an alternative time, if that feels right to you.
- Remain firm in your decision.
- If you set a limit and stuck to it, praise yourself for taking care of yourself. Hold onto your accomplishment. Notice how you felt after you stuck to your limits—including hours later, when you’re alone. Pay attention to the relief or the lifting of heaviness. Remind yourself of that often, and draw on that experience to help you to do that again.
If you weren’t able to stick with your limits, don’t beat yourself up. Accept that that’s where you’re at right now–and go back to the beginning. You may want to examine how you felt at the time you were attempting to set your limits—whether you felt afraid, small, vulnerable, or unimportant—and try to figure out when you first felt that way as you set a limit (or tried to). Did someone walk over your boundaries and needs as a child? Pay attention to any thoughts or repeated messages that went through your head as you tried to set your limits. Were any of them negative? Counteract those messages in your head. Know that you’re doing the best you can–and give yourself encouragement and praise for trying.
- Start at the beginning again, skipping any steps you no longer need. Keep setting boundaries and saying no when you need to—you’ll be a lot healthier for it!
The people around you will feel the difference when you set your limits. There’s a big difference in the feel of someone agreeing to do something when they’re too tired to or don’t want to, and when they are fully present and happy to be there. You will have more attention to give your loved ones if you are there for them when it feels right for you. They will feel the difference—and so will you.
Giving yourself permission to set limits can help you feel happier and stronger. You may even find that your self-esteem increases—because you’re giving yourself respect, and encouraging others to treat you with respect. So set limits when you need to—guilt free. It’s not only good for you—it’s good for the people around you.
©Cheryl Rainfield, 2002
Written by Cheryl Rainfield, award-winning author of SCARS, STAINED, and HUNTED
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