We often misunderstand caring for others as something that is inherently selfless and limitless. Many clients of mine have found themselves heavily burdened by this belief: that they have a powerful obligation to give their all to the people they care about, even if it is at the expense of their own wellbeing, because that’s the “right thing to do,” or that’s “what a good person does." Then they come into therapy and confess that they are depleted, resentful, and unhappy. And the cycle goes on - they beat themselves up for feeling this way, for being "selfish," a "bad person," or not doing enough for others, and if they were truly Good, they’d just do it and stop complaining. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this same narrative from so many. And I understand it, because I have operated that way before, too, and continue to struggle with it at times. These people clearly care deeply for others and want to show up fully in their relationships. Yet this belief - that they must show up no matter the cost to themselves because they aren’t allowed to be "selfish" (a word that has a destructively negative connotation when it really shouldn't) inevitably leads to self-neglect and self-criticism, whether they are mad at themselves for feeling resentful or tired, they forget to take care of themselves, or maybe they don’t even believe they deserve to take care of themselves.
Often times, when we get stuck in this pattern of relating to others this way, our relationships start to drain us. It can be hard to believe we have permission be vulnerable and prioritize our own needs if we are constantly hustling for our worthiness through limitlessly giving others what they want from us. If we really believe we have to earn our love, acceptance, worthiness, and belonging, then we will never allow ourselves to stop working for it. Our relationships will feel insecure and fragile, with no end in sight. It’s not sustainable for our relationships to be centered around what others need or expect from us. We will lose sight of ourselves. We’ll forget that we are people, too. That we also have needs that matter, and we are allowed to do what is right for us even if it disappoints someone, and yes, even if someone else is hurt or bothered by it.
When we operate this way, we ultimately overextend ourselves, deplete our energy, build resentment towards ourselves and others, and lose our ability to be authentic or vulnerable with people. And beyond that, we underestimate others’ capacity to handle their responsibilities and their feelings on their own. When taken too far, we can end up enabling the people in our lives to depend on us so much that that becomes the sole purpose of the relationship. It’s not healthy for us or for them. And there is definitely no real trust there.
Many clients come into my office expressing a deep longing to feel seen and known, and to feel comfortable being fully themselves in their relationships. They notice that they feel invisible, they have so many guards up, they don’t trust others or themselves, or maybe they just don’t feel safe or secure - like others will judge or reject them if they make a "mistake" or don’t do enough to earn their approval. The fear of loneliness is a powerful thing. Of course we want to feel loved and accepted by others, it’s in our biology. But we never truly get that feeling, that real felt acceptance, if we are hustling for that approval by only doing what others want (operating from a place of believing we are not worthy) rather than being authentic (operating from a place of believing in our inherent worth). When we overextend ourselves beyond what we have to give, quietly build resentment, criticize ourselves for not being good enough, and then wonder why we feel so terrible and exhausted, there is no room to be at ease with ourselves and others, and we never learn to pay attention to what is actually right and healthy for us - the things that actually make our life fulfilling.
Here’s the key. The most important factor that cultivates security, trust, and honesty in any kind of relationship is good, healthy boundaries. Boundaries are not the same as being defended, guarded, or distant. Quite the opposite, actually. Setting honest boundaries is an exercise in vulnerability and self-respect. It is vulnerable to put yourself first, and to express that priority to others when necessary. It also honors yourself and sends the message that you are just as worthy as anyone else of having your needs met. The first and most effective step in not feeling invisible to others is to make sure you are paying attention to yourself. You deserve to care for yourself. After all, it’s your life and you are responsible for it. And when we respect ourselves and our own boundaries, we show people how to treat us.
My clients tend to be hard on themselves if they are being caring/giving to others with any sort of resentment or “selfish” motive - like wanting to be liked or wanting to avoid conflict. The only way to steer clear of this dynamic in any kind of relationship is to establish and maintain the boundaries we need. Boundaries help us to be clear that when we are showing up for someone we care about, we are doing it because we genuinely want to. Saying no when you need to say no makes the moments you say yes so much more meaningful. Those moments are honest, free of negative energy, and very nourishing to the relationship. They are infinitely more effective than any half-hearted or fake participation we could provide. Would you want a friend or loved one to be taking care of you when deep down they are so exhausted or distracted by their own stuff that they’d rather be anywhere else? Likely not. For a healthy, balanced relationship, you want that person to show up for you because they want to, not just because you want them to. This goes both ways. I imagine we all know the difference between what it feels like to give of ourselves enthusiastically versus resentfully.
So, how do you set boundaries?
Evaluate your resources before you commit to something or put yourself in a position of doing emotional labor for/with someone (for instance, listening/empathizing). I’m talking about literal resources (like money and time) and internal resources (like your energy and attention). Do you have enough of these resources to show up? Great! That’s good to know. If you don’t - well, either way - go to the next step.
Assess your values and priorities right now. What would feel positive and nourishing for you right now? What do you honestly want to do? How important is this relationship in your life? Will investing in this relationship right now promote a sense of wellness for you? If not, what are you genuinely willing to offer or compromise on in order to invest in this relationship without resenting them or neglecting yourself? Do you trust that this person will be okay no matter what you choose to do?
Be direct. If you do these assessments and get to a place of having to say no or to redirect a conversation that crosses these boundaries, tell them. Be gentle and be honest. Remember that it is more respectful to this person and to the relationship as a whole to be open with them. Speak for yourself, from a place of your own experience, and take full accountability for your own needs. Do not attack them or accuse them of intentionally doing harm or violating your boundaries, or causing your current emotional state. Simply let them know in a genuine way that now is not a good time for ____ for you because you are _____. It can be that simple.
Remember that if the person pushes back on your boundaries, or if they are disappointed or hurt, that does not mean you are doing something wrong. Acknowledge their disappointment or frustration and validate it. And then remind them that you have to take care of yourself. Again, it can be that simple. You do not have to explain yourself any more than that.
Establish ground rules if you have to. If you continue to come up against a struggle with certain boundaries in a specific relationship, set the boundary you need as an overall expectation in the relationship. (For example, “Mom, it makes me uncomfortable when you vent to me about Dad. I don’t want to be in the middle of things. I’d really appreciate it if from now on, you would talk to your friends or your therapist about this instead of me.”)
Be real! Show up and be supportive of those you love and care about when you can, and do it wholeheartedly. If a time comes when you start to feel exhausted or resentful, reassess, go through these steps, and go from there. Ask your loved ones to do the same for you - to set boundaries and be honest with you. This builds trust and security; it doesn’t leave much room for questions or guess work about what the other is feeling. It shows mutual respect and appreciation.
Practicing good boundaries can be unbelievably liberating and relieving. Not only does it cultivate security in our relationships, it gives us space to really get to know ourselves, make decisions based on what is truly right for us, and worry less about what others think or expect. All the while, this practice helps us to be truly caring and loving in our relationships in a meaningful, effective way.