In my last post, I talked about scarcity as one of two main barriers that usually get in the way of setting and sticking to our own boundaries, in order to respect our needs. Today I want to talk about a second obstacle: guilt.
Healthy guilt shows up in our lives when we’ve done something out of line with our values and, typically, it helps us get back on track. But most of the time, what we’re actually dealing with is toxic guilt. Toxic guilt stems from a belief that everyone else should come before us. So, I want to invite you to start by asking yourself this: did you do something out of line with your values? If the answer is no, then it’s toxic guilt you’re dealing with, and it’s not serving you. Remind yourself that you’ve done nothing wrong, even if it feels that way.
On that note, we can reframe that “guilty” feeling we get by naming it for what it really is. If you catch yourself saying “I know this is the right thing to do, but I feel so guilty”, try this trick of language: replace the word “guilty” with “sad”, and see if it fits. For example, “I know that I need to end this relationship, and I feel so sad.” Is sadness the emotion that you were really trying to name? If so, I hear you. It’s sad and heartbreaking, and I know we all find ourselves wishing it wasn’t part of life – but it is. It’s an important and necessary part of life to end relationships when they’re no longer working. At the same time, it also makes sense that you’d be grieving that.
As another example, we can try it in difficult situations that call on our humanity. Instead of saying “I know I can’t realistically afford to lend my brother this money, and I feel so guilty”, rephrase it to this: “I know I can’t realistically afford to lend my brother this money, and I feel so sad”. Again, you can try out the words and then notice how it feels inside.
It’s absolutely normal for sadness and grief to arise when we love someone and are also watching them struggle. We often wish the people we care about in our lives didn’t have to struggle, or that we’d be able to take away their pain for them. We wish we lived in a world where people didn’t have to struggle for basic needs, and there’s a deep and touching sadness that shows up in all of us when we confront the unfairness of this truth. Yet, there’s something different and powerful that happens when we can let go of the individual trapping of “guilt” and allow ourselves to feel the depth of communal grief underneath. When we allow ourselves to feel grief, we can experience empathy and compassion. When we get stuck in toxic guilt, we instead experience pity and eventual resentment.
How to say no without guilt in one simple step
Since we’re on the topic of guilt, I want to share one more thing with you today. Now, I don’t want to be flippant because I know it’s way harder than it looks from the outside. At the same time, what if I were to tell you that there really is one simple step to saying no without guilt? I actually have a way to do this! You’ll have to forgive me, though, because it’s simple, but not easy. Here it is:
You have to say no with guilt a bunch of times first. Do it with kindness, do it with integrity, but do it. And hold on to the truth that you’re still a good person. Time and time again, I hear from people that the more they practice saying no, the less guilt they feel. They start to see that they can remain compassionate, connected, and generous while still being able to have human limits.
Are you looking for a deeper dive into letting go of guilt? I have an entire section on exactly that in my Big-Hearted Boundaries online course. Big-Hearted Boundaries offers you 8 practical steps to prevent burnout and create sustainable caring. The way we can do this is by making whole-body decisions that are in line with our values, setting boundaries accordingly, and working through the shame and guilt of saying no to the things we don’t want in our life – which makes room to say yes to what’s important to us. If this sounds like something you could use, make sure to check out the full course curriculum and register here.
Sometimes, we might consciously know what steps we should take to care for ourselves, but still feel like we can’t follow through. It’s not that we’re unaware that going to bed will probably serve us better than staying up all night answering emails. Or that taking a 5-minute break will give us the energy we need to keep going on a project. So, what really gets in the way of respecting our own needs and the boundaries we’ve set?
I ask people about this any chance I get, and there are a couple of answers that get repeated again and again. Based on that, I’ve identified two major obstacles to respecting our boundaries. In today’s post I wanted to address one of those barriers: scarcity.
Our beliefs about scarcity are revealed in sayings like “I don’t have enough time, energy, or money to take care of myself”. If this sounds like something you’ve said before, I want to start off by acknowledging that there are absolutely real barriers to contend with. With the realities of income disparity, not everyone is in the position to sign up for a gym membership, buy organic food, go on vacation, or many of the other typical self-care strategies that tend to get suggested or thought of. I know plenty of young parents who are short on time, and plenty of single-income contract workers who are short on cash. From a feminist counseling perspective, it’s so important to acknowledge that those shortages disproportionately affect women, people of color, queer communities, and people with disabilities, to name a few.
We also have to work with a narrative that we’re not allowed to retreat and restore. Especially in hard times, many of us have been made to feel that we’re not allowed to be cared for. Many people I work with have a sense that other people have it worse than they do, and therefore they shouldn’t prioritize themselves.
Self-care is not conditional
When we find ourselves low on resources, we absolutely have to get creative about the ways in which we can respect our own needs while still respecting our limited time, energy, and money. And that’s not easy. Many people are probably tired of hearing the phrase “get creative” because that’s all they’ve ever had to do. It’s a struggle that folks who haven’t ever had to deal with scarcity may have a hard time understanding.
At the same time, I want to also (gently!) suggest that the magical time when we have “enough” time, energy, and money will never come. I keep hearing this idea of “I’ll take care of myself once things slow down” or “I’ll keep working like this until I save up enough to go on vacation”. But then, I watch people push themselves, and push themselves, and they never seem to get to that place of “enough”. Even when they reach their original goals, the bar just keeps getting raised. “I can’t slow down now, I’m finally ahead!”
Without choosing to make yourself a priority in your life, that won’t happen. Everything else will continue to come first. We can put our lives on hold waiting for the time to feel right. We end up waiting for the universe to slow things down and to feel like there’s finally space for ourselves. From my experience, the time just continues to get eaten up by other things. The bills continue to arrive. The people around us continue to struggle.
Most people seem to treat the idea of self-nourishment as an extra they can add on to their week only if everything else goes well. My perspective is that taking care of our needs isn’t something you reward yourself with once you’ve done enough. Taking care of yourself and respecting your boundaries is an integral part of life on this planet. And so, we need to make choices even with limited resources.
How do we do this? We can start with saying “This is a priority for me. My needs are important. I’m worth looking after”. Even just this – acknowledging your own needs and holding them as important – is a huge step. I’ve seen that alone open up all sorts of new avenues for people.
Jamila Reddy is a wellness advocate and coach who echoes this sentiment. I love how she reminds us that it’s okay to rest:
“When I give myself permission to have whatever I need to feel grounded and energized (without guilt or shame), the ripple effect of goodness extends far beyond my imagination.
Remember that you are inherently worthy of having all that you need to be and feel your best. You were BORN being deserving of rest, ease, joy, and wellness — you don’t have to earn it.”
How can we make ourselves a priority despite scarcity?
Putting yourself as a priority doesn’t have to be big, time-consuming, or expensive. Prioritizing your needs and turning toward yourself can mean paying your bills, trying to eat something every day, taking care of personal hygiene, drinking some water, dressing for the weather, going outside, moving your body, connecting with a spiritual practice, expressing your feelings, and so much more.
Another way the myth of scarcity shows up is when we say to ourselves “I’ll do it later”. The answer to that is simple – no, you won’t. So do it now.
Here’s something you should know: making yourself a priority is likely to give you energy. Within that framework, you don’t actually need to have the energy to do it. You don’t need to feel like doing it. You just need to do it.
To wrap this up, I leave you with some questions you may use for a writing exercise:
In my next post, I will tell you about the second barrier to respecting our boundaries, so keep an eye out for it!
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.