Boundaries: Why and How?

The year I turned forty, I was sick all the time. I had multiple rounds of antibiotics for chronic sinusitis and tonsillitis. It took me a little while to accept that I was exhausted. I remember telling my two-year-old constantly “I’m too tired.” What was the root cause of my exhaustion? I was living for other people constantly: helping, giving and trying to embody the selfless service that I understood to be the heart of spiritual practice. At home, I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be for my family and friends.

So, as was my tendency back then, I went to India for two months to have a break and take a pause. These days time in nature is my medicine, but back then time in Indian played a central role in helping me get perspective. Slowly I began to reflect on my choices and how I found myself in this predicament. As much as we want to blame someone else when we don’t feel good, I realised this was a situation of my own making. I realised that selfless service needs to include taking care of ourselves, or we can not sustain in the long term the work we wish to do in the world.

I began to reflect on the choices I was making in my personal and private life and noticed that I was in so many relationships that lacked reciprocity. To be clear, relationships that endure over time go through phases wherein one person supports the other physically, emotionally or financially more for a period of time. Teacher student relationships for me are about giving, not  receiving although there is a lot of joy that is found. When it comes to family, friendship and work colleagues healthy relationships need to be, in the long term, deeply reciprocal. 

Perhaps you remember, I wrote a blog called “Are you setting yourself on fire to keep others warm?. Slowly I began to realise that my boundaries were not clear. I encouraged people around me to expect that I would always be there for them no matter what. That I would give everything: whether it be time, money, intellectual property or simply energy. 

It felt spiritual to give in this way. To allow my own needs energetically, physically and even financially to be diminished in service of others. As a result my time became deeply preoccupied with keeping others warm. Propping up insecure egos, going the extra mile so people felt loved and making sure everyone around me was happy. Meanwhile I was exhausted. I couldn’t teach as much because I had little energy, my anxiety resulted in self-doubt about my teaching. I didn’t have the energy I wished for at home or in my friendships and I was forty with no superannuation.

Sometimes you have to feel broken by life to get boundaries.

So, while every part of my being found it difficult to undo this samskara (pattern), I started saying “no.” And especially in my professional life, I stopped setting myself on fire to keep myself warm. While I cared about the feelings of staff, it wasn’t my responsibility to take them out to dinner and a show to cheer them up, or pay for their yoga trips to India. It was actually ok to require that students pay for classes or make a clear exchange (this is how our work/study program began), I began to see that someone else’s crisis didn’t need to be my crisis, unless this was someone very close to me. I didn’t need to be perpetually available to everyone! Importantly,  I realised that I deserved the love and time and attention I gave others.

It still makes me uncomfortable to say no. Boundaries are a work in progress, but they are necessary to live a full and loving life. It is not selfish to do what is right for you, or what works best for your relationship or family.

Yet, my experiences have taught me that it won’t be easy. When you begin to create boundaries, people in your life may become unhappy with you. No matter how gently, no matter how clear and open you are about why you need these boundaries, someone is likely to become upset. I reminded myself when I began this journey:

“The only people who will be angry when you have boundaries are those that benefited from you having none.” 

My family and lifelong friends celebrated my boundaries. I also began to have a lot more time for the people I love, my work and friendships. 

Boundaries allowed my life and spiritual practice to blossom in an entirely new way. I cared a little less of what other people thought of me. I also began noticing that my world began to consist of other people with clear boundaries. Kind, loving, compassionate people doing wonderful work in the world who are clear. People who don’t need me to prop them up, but who embrace vulnerability. Friends and yoga students like this are invaluable, because we can journey through life together, learning. Indeed, as a teacher, friendships can develop when students are mature in practice and life. Our Mysore program is full of mature students who are deeply self sufficient. Saturday mornings post class sometimes feels like group therapy! A sharing of life and amazing people to provide alternate perspectives and their own unique wisdom.

Mostly, boundaries allow you to settle more deeply into yourself. To be present, to enjoy this fleeting life and have a deeper encounter with those around you.

My wish for you is to begin to understand what parts of your life feel boundary-less and how this is getting in the way of a deeply meaningful life filled with love and time for what matters. I am not an expert! But we have a variety of ways in which we allow our boundaries to be a little too permeable and it is important to recognise these patterns. Example include:

Mental/Emotional Boundaries: Sometimes we are enmeshed with others and their feelings become our feelings! Or we are unable to accept that other people may feel differently to us. Further, we don’t need to all think the same way. Try to get clear on what you are feeling, and begin to realise other people may feel differently to you.

Material/Financial: Money makes me uncomfortable. I have always just wanted to give it away. But we have material needs and being financially responsible is an important part of spiritual practice. We need to set boundaries with ourselves and others so we don’t live beyond our means. It is ok to tell people you don’t have the money to go somewhere you have been invited to. It is amazing to bake a cake rather than buy an expensive present. It is ok to ask people to be careful with your stuff if you lend it out. 

Time/Energy: I know a lot of people reading this will be people pleasers. I know I have tried to keep other people happy a lot. But, that is not your job! That is THEIR job. When people we love are struggling, we give our time and energy. That is being a good person and a kind friend or partner. But time and energy are finite qualities. You can’t give from an empty cup and selfless service to the point of exhaustion doesn’t help anyone. If you wish to be in the world and help others, you need to give yourself time and energy. For practice, for rest, for adventure and creativity. Your time is important and learning to say no to a coffee date or a dinner or extra responsibilities at work will actually allow you to show up for people in a sustained way.

Once you have begun to reflect on which areas in life you need to have more boundaries for your own wellbeing and self development, then you need to:

State, Create and Maintain

It will be hard at first, but you need to let people know what your boundaries are. And try to stick to them! I am certainly not good at this, I will state and create boundaries, but the follow through of maintaining them is a work in progress! Primarily this is about my job – I love what I do and am deeply passionate about teaching and training teachers. So I text when I know I shouldn’t, I email when I should be resting and I plan programs when I would be better off catching up with a friend. But! The good news is that I am slowly and steadily allowing my behaviour to be more congruent with my boundaries. And I find I have so much more energy for everything.

Once you have stated your boundaries, create them. What is your day of rest? For me it is Sunday. 99% of Sundays I will be practicing, walking, gardening, reading, cooking and being with my family. This one day is a haven that allows the rest of my week to be free for the work and activities I love.

Once you have stated and created your boundaries, you need to maintain them! This need not be strict and harsh, but an ongoing lifelong process of checking in with yourself. How am I feeling? Am I a little depleted? Do I need less socialising and more quiet time? Could I get on my mat a little more?

Boundaries are not easy to create, especially in personal and professional relationships wherein you have had few. Do remember that the people who truly want the best for you in life will understand why you are going through this process and will support you. It is not selfish to have boundaries and life will flourish with them in place.

Good luck! I would love to hear your thoughts and life lessons when it comes to boundaries,

Jean x

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