Empathetic Boundaries: How to Take Charge and Make Room for What MattersOct 28, 2023
"Do you want people to stay and visit?"
This text, sent to me by a friend who was attempting to set up a meal train for me and my family, absolutely threw me for a loop. Which seems really bizarre, considering how mundane this text is.
But for someone who’s struggled her entire adult life to set and hold boundaries, it did a number on me.
I’m no stranger to meal trains, having been lucky enough to have friends or work colleagues set them up after I had each of my children. I coordinated and participated in them for friends, acquaintances, and even a few strangers. And never, not once, did it occur to me that a person could deny visitation rights to the meal-bringers.
I think back to all the exhaustingly polite conversations I had with well-intentioned helpers, covered in spit up with milk gushing down my shirt. I remember the enormous gratitude I felt towards the folks who left their meals at the door.
I thought socializing was part of the social contract of meal trains, honestly. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who suffered through it because I was grateful for the help and didn’t want to alienate anyone or seem selfish.
I’ve come a long way since my last meal train experience, though. And oh, what a relief it was to text my friend back and say, “No visitors until after the 26th, please.”
No visitors! Imagine! I won’t have to pretend to be ok or gather the energy to chat or say 10000 thank you’s because I can’t remember if I’ve said it already. I should’ve felt over the moon!
But then the guilt set in.
“Will people think I’m ungrateful?”
“I wonder I’m being a jerk.”
“I should at least meet them at the door…”
These internal debates led me to reflect deeply on the art of boundary-setting, especially for women and mothers like us. So, let me share what I've learned:
Tips for Setting Empathetic Boundaries
Guilt & Shame are NormalIf you care about other people, care about how you’re perceived, and have been socialized to take the burden of other people’s emotions onto yourself (which most women encounter in some form or other as we grow), it’s pretty much impossible to say no to someone without feeling guilty. Our mind kicks into overdrive imagining all sorts of reactions they might have (often not even waiting for them to, you know, actually react), and tell us it’s our fault they feel that way. Here’s the thing - it’s ok to feel guilty. It’s ok to feel bad. But those feelings alone aren’t an indication of whether or not you’ve made the right decision. Often when we’re new to boundary setting we expect to feel empowered and relieved, and when we don’t feel that way we wonder if we’ve made a mistake. Don’t go there, friend. Let the feelings be, and then move on from them when you’re ready - all that is separate from the decision you made.
You can’t control how other people feelThis is my biggest personal struggle in life - remembering that not only is it not my job to take responsibility for everyone else’s feelings…it’s not even possible. Humans are too complicated for that! You don’t set a boundary unless it makes XYZ feel bad or because it will make So-and-So realize your value or any of that. That’s not in your power, and it’ll make it a lot harder to set and hold boundaries if you think it is. Your job is to set the boundary that’s right for you, firmly and kindly. The end. The rest is truly out of your control.
You can’t make people respect your boundariesThis one really sucks. We spend so much time working up the courage to set the boundaries, and are often blindsided when people just flounce right on past them. It takes work to uphold boundaries sometimes, but this is where the real power of it is. If you say, “We won’t be flying with our 3 week old to come to Thanksgiving this year,” and then your parents passive aggressively book your plane tickets anyway and you just suck it up and go, what have you accomplished? Probably only creating resentment. Do what you say you’ll do. Don’t do what you say you won’t. The integrity of your words matters, to you and to everyone else.
Every time you say no to something, you’re saying yes to something elseTalk around boundary setting can often feel really negative. But here’s the awesome thing about setting boundaries - they pave the way to the life you want. Sometimes I set boundaries that I wish I didn’t have to set. I wish I could happily chat up every stressed-out mama who takes time out of her day to bring a meal to my door, truly I do. But when I say no to visiting with everyone who meal trains, I say yes to respecting my recovery time, to giving my body the deep rest it needs to heal from surgery, to maintaining quiet in a home that usually has none. I also say yes to finding other ways to show my gratitude to these women, perhaps in a way that is more personally meaningful to both of us. When I think about it that way, and filter it through my values, my needs, and this season of my life, I feel settled in that boundary.
You don't have to be a bitch to hold a boundaryI think sometimes when we’re uncomfortable setting boundaries we think we have to hold the line like a cruel general in order to stay firm. And when you’re starting out, depending on your situation, that may very well be the truth. But often I find that when I take the time to really think through the boundary I’m setting, understand why I’m setting it, and plan for my own personal hiccups (that aforementioned guilt and shame), I don’t need to be mean, because I feel confident and steady in the line I’m drawing.
Stick with YOUR valuesSet the boundaries that make sense for YOU. You can listen to what other people say is important to do or not do, but always filter it through your own internal compass.
Let’s go through an example - let’s say one of your core values is adventure, and in this season that means you’re traveling a lot with your children to places you’ve never been before. You and your family begin planning a trip to Germany in December to experience Christmas in another country and see the famous Christmas markets. You can’t wait!
Then you get a call from your mother, who has been a distant presence for most of your life but has been trying to be more involved as a grandmother, which has been complicated for both of you. She haltingly invites your family to spend Christmas with her. You know this is a big opportunity to continue building closeness with her and to work towards healing, and you know your children love spending time with her. Another of your core values is growth, and this feels like a chance to get some.
No one else can weigh these options for you. Only YOU can decide how your values stack up against each other, how much you want to consider your, your spouse’s, your children’s, and your mother’s feelings and needs. That’s your internal work to do, and there’s no right or wrong decision as long as it’s one you come to intentionally.
As I go through this process of setting what, ultimately, is a pretty small boundary, I can’t help but look back and wish I’d had this kind of understanding and perspective when I had my babies. I wish I had known that it’s ok to do things MY WAY. I wish I’d known that I needed to go deep and get to know myself better in order to understand how to set the right boundaries. I wish I’d known that feeling shame was a normal part of the process and not a signal that I’d made a mistake. I wish I’d known that boundaries can be set with kindness and empathy, even when they’re difficult.
It may have taken me a few extra years to learn it, but my life has dramatically shifted as I’ve become better and better at setting authentic, empathetic boundaries. It’s a critical life skill that becomes especially important in motherhood, when so many forces strive to take more than we can give and convince us we’re happy about it.
So, as you enter these last months of the year, I encourage you to take some time before the holiday demands start rolling in, and think about your values. How do you want to show up for your friends, your family, and yourself this year? What do you want to say yes to, and what is worth saying no to in order to get there? How will you handle boundaries that don’t feel good? How will you respect yourself and build a life that’s YOURS through and through?
As always, when you’re ready to walk this road with someone who’s been there, I’m waiting and I’ve got your back.
Feeling ready to navigate the holidays with authenticity and intention? Explore my 'Moms Who Make Magic: 5 Pre-Holiday Mindset Shifts to Save Your Sanity' guide. Download your free guide here!
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