Note: This was originally published in A Liberated Heart in 2018.
Ask almost anyone to name the biggest area we’re taught to put others before ourselves, and the answer will be mothering. It begins with the pressure to become a mother, to do so in a particular timeframe, and then to parent in particular ways that can feel practically impossible to live up to. Women in our culture are expected to give 100% of our time and energy to mothering, and, here’s the crucial part – we’re expected to do all with complete satisfaction and enjoyment, as if it’s our only life purpose.
We’re also set up with a lot of expectations about the ways we should mother – from how our own birth experience should happen, what the names of our child should be, whether or not we should breastfeed (and how long we should try if it’s not working), to a thousand other decisions around mothering that can leave us feeling lost in a sea of other people’s opinions. We can also get lost in other people’s expectations about their own involvement – whether that’s how much access they get to the baby and what that will look like, or how much decision-making they’ll be part of when it comes to parenting.
Set Up To Struggle
One of the things that makes it especially hard for us during this time is that we’ve also been taught it’s not polite (or acceptable, or nice) to set boundaries with other people about their involvement in our child’s life or decisions related to mothering. So when our mother in law tells us she’s going to be present in the birthing room with us, are we allowed to tell her no? When visitors come over to see the new baby, is it okay to ask them to leave after an hour? What if we really want our sister to stay with us after the baby is born, but she hasn’t offered yet? Are we allowed to ask her? What if we really don’t want her to, but she hasn’t asked our permission before making plans to stay in our spare bedroom? Is it reasonable to talk to her about wanting something different?
Maybe we feel guilty, like we’re being too needy or demanding. We don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful. We don’t want to cause waves, or unnecessary tension. We want the important people in our lives to feel like they can have a relationship with our child.
The difficulty is, when we bend over backwards trying to make sure everyone else is okay, we end up exhausted and burnt out, and we may be at higher risk for postpartum depression and anxiety.
One of the big lines we’ve been taught as women is that everyone else should come before us. But at this crucial time in our lives, what’s best for us and as an extension, for our baby, may not be what our extended family prefers. And so, we find ourselves in a bind. How can we prioritize our own needs while still making everyone else happy?
The short answer is we can’t. For possibly the first time in our lives, we need to turn our attention toward ourselves, and ask ourselves what’s truly best for us. This is not the same as figuring out what other people want that we can also live with. We need to ask ourselves what’s best for us. Once we understand this truth, and acknowledge it, we need to find a way to honor it.
Boundaries for the First Time
Often, women I work with on setting boundaries around birth and motherhood are setting boundaries for the first time in their lives.
As may already be clear, we can learn pretty early on in our lives (through a variety of experiences) to put the emotional needs of others before ourselves. Many women have found themselves in caregiving roles, whether in their first families or in other relationships since, and it can be difficult to recon with the notion that we might need to put ourselves first. For a lot of women, pregnancy is the first time they’re forced to act in ways others might see as selfish and make decisions that others may not agree with.
Below, I wanted to share some of the big ideas I talk about with my clients when it comes to setting boundaries for the first time.
You're Allowed to Want Something Other than What Other People Want
Yep, I said it. You’re allowed to want something different. You’re even allowed to make decisions in accordance with those desires. Boundaries are connected to our values, and since we each have different values, what makes sense for us may not seem logical to other people. I know it’s hard. But wanting something different than someone else doesn’t have to put you at odds with each other. Most healthy adults are able to hold different opinions about important matters while still holding each other in high regard. We can understand that disagreeing with someone about an issue and still caring deeply for them aren’t mutually exclusive.
We might hear from some family members ideas about what’s best (from how often we hold our baby to what our sleeping arrangements should be), but we can remind ourselves that these statements are just that person’s ideas about what’s best. And we’re allowed to have own ideas, developed from our very unique experiences and values. Ideas that we don’t need to justify or make other people understand. As I’ve talked about elsewhere, “People don’t need to understand our boundaries in order to respect them. We can state our needs and desires without explanation or apology.” If someone in your life pushes you to explain yourself, that says way more about them than it does about you, and it might also be an indicator that some healthy distance is in order.
It's Okay to Protect Yourself from Unwanted Influence
In those first weeks and months (and years) of motherhood, we’re very much still finding our feet as parents, and that means it’s easy to doubt what we’re doing. The parenting strategy that seemed great on paper can feel shaky when it’s time to implement. The bedtime routine that worked last month has suddenly stopped working. In times like these, I often encourage my clients to protect themselves from people who’ll just add to the doubt they’re already feeling.
I’m all for learning from the women who’ve come before us, but I also think we need to be careful about who we turn to, when, and what we share. Sometimes when we’re unsure of a parenting decision we’re making, it’s not the best idea to turn to the person in our life with the strongest opinion on the subject. Instead, we want to turn to the person who can bring out our own wisdom. The person who can help us connect to our truth, our body knowledge, and find our confidence again. The person who will ask us good questions with the intent on helping us find what’s right for us (not enforcing their own view on ours).
When turning to others for guidance around parenting, ask yourself, are they:
• Someone whose parenting style you seek to emulate?
• Able to listen and support you, even if your experiences and decisions are different than theirs?
• Able to come from a position of “this is what worked for me” rather than “this is what everyone should do”?
• Someone who is nonjudgmental and compassionate?
• Someone who you can admit mistakes and uncertainties to without fear of judgment?
If we’re speaking with someone who tends to be more pushy, judgmental, or opinionated, it’s okay to hold back, and wait until we’re feeling more certain about what we’re doing before we share with them. Even then, we may choose the types of things we want to share with them, reminding ourselves that we don’t need their blessing or their permission to parent in the way we see fit.
Be Prepared for Pushback
As Harriet Lerner helps us understand in “The Dance of Intimacy”, the work of boundaries is really about managing other people’s reactions to our boundaries without getting pulled back into old patterns (blaming, cutting off, or appeasing, for example). Change is hard, and if we’re speaking up or standing our ground in a new way, others may have difficulty adjusting to this. It’s pretty common for even the most loving relatives to push back a little when we do something different. We need to anticipate this pushback and plan how we’re going to manage our own reactions in the face of them. One way we can do this is to learn to hold our ground without becoming defensive, explaining, or justifying.
Just how do we do this? It might involve getting rooted in our own values, and surrounding ourselves with the people, items, and practices that help us stay connected to those values.
For me, it sometimes means connecting with other attachment therapists so that I can talk with someone who understands my worldview and speaks the same language. It means getting on the same page as my partner as much as possible so that we can handle difficult situations as a team. It means taking care of my health so that I can make decisions from a grounded place (and make less decisions out of scarcity, desperation, and exhaustion).
Where does this lead? Ideally, we can practice turning toward ourselves and continue building a trust in our own voice. We can let go of old beliefs that we have to be pleasing, or agreeable, or understood to other people.
Putting it All Together
Those first years of parenting (pregnancy included!) are tough – we’re forced to confront the reality that our desires are sometimes in conflict with other people’s. For the first time we may have to use our voice, stick with our limits, and find a way to do what’s best for ourselves even in the face of other people’s disappointment. I’m often reminding my clients that we don’t need to make other people understand our parenting decisions or agree with us.
What we do need to do is continue turning toward ourselves. We need to continue listening to our heads, hearts, and bodies, so that we can make conscious decisions about our mothering based on what’s the best fit for us. We will make mistakes along the way, and we’ll lose touch with ourselves from time to time, but we can trust that asking ourselves what we really need and trying to find a way to honor that will never be the wrong thing to do.
1. Perry, N. (2017). 5 Beliefs to Support You in Setting Boundaries [Ebook]. Edmonton.
2. Lerner, H. G. (1985). The dance of anger: A woman's guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships. New York: Harper & Row.
I think it's so neat that in addition to the amazing local, in-person resources I often share with clients, there's a ton of really cool online offerings these days. From my perspective, these can be a great adjunct to therapy or a standalone resource, depending on what you're looking for. I think these resources look amazing and hope you will too.
Over the years I’ve worked with a number of people trying to make hard decisions, and these hard decisions usually boil down to this: “should I stay or should I go?” What people struggle with most is knowing whether the situation they’re in (a workplace, a relationship, etc) is one that will get better by working on or not. I watch people struggle for months and sometimes years, caught up in the distress of trying to make a decision that’s best for them.
It’s not uncommon in my therapy office to talk about social media. Specifically, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about wanting to not be on social media but having a hard time stopping.
When people bring up the topic of their social media use, it’s usually said with a bit of a guilty look, and can come across as a shrug off comment. “I really shouldn’t be using my phone so much,” they might say in an off-hand way. But, since people are paying me money to notice things, I don’t just shrug it off. Instead, I invite them to talk about it. So many of my clients are finding that they’re on social media more than they actually want to be, and that it’s causing upset in their lives. These are some of the things we’ve been talking about in those conversations.
It’s hard saying no. For a lot of new therapists, we really struggle with the idea of disappointing someone in our care.
It can be easy to feel that because our clients need something, we need to be the one to give it to them. I hear new therapists say things like “but they need evening hours – they can’t make it during the normal workday“ or “they need a sliding scale – they can’t afford the full fee”.
"It's Actually a Good Thing": A Little Reassurance When Your Loved One is Working on Their Boundaries
As a partner/friend/lover/ally of someone who is working on boundaries, you may be noticing some changes. Like most changes, this can feel pretty scary and you might be unsure or hesitant about what’s happening. That’s why I wanted to write you this letter. I think it’s normal to feel afraid in times of change, especially when the change involves something unfamiliar.
As health professionals in positions of power, we have certain standards of practice we need to adhere to it in order to protect the public. The Standards of Practice of the College of Alberta Psychologists are “the minimum standards of professional behaviour and ethical conduct expected of all regulated members”. These include informed consent, avoiding dual relationships, and acting within our scope, to name a few. These are incredibly important to know and adhere to, and yet it’s not enough to ensure that we’re working in a way that’s ethical and sustainable.
I want to offer some assurance for anyone struggling with setting boundaries. Ready for it? Deep breath.
It’s not your fault.
Yep, I said it, and I’m going to say it again. It’s not your fault.
“I don’t want to get into some kind of unhealthy codependency,” *Lydia said, referring to her new relationship.
I gave her a quizzical look. I’m familiar with the concept of codependency, but I wasn’t sure what she really meant by it. Just by what I already knew of her, it seemed like a strange thing to be worried about, so I asked her to elaborate. She went on to describe not wanting to be in a position of needing her partner, or spending “too much” time together. I knew what she was getting at.
A few months ago I was facing some tension with an acquaintance (caused entirely by their unwillingness to hear my very reasonable “no” to their request), when I caught myself in a dangerous thought.
The stress of having tension between us was really getting to me, and I found myself thinking, “maybe I should just compromise after all, to make it easier”.
It’s amazing it took me this long to get to the 1989 feminist therapy classic considering how hungry I've been for more voices like hers. I kept seeing it on the bookshelves of my mentors and thinking some day I should get around to it. I’m glad I finally did.
Setting boundaries starts with believing you’re worth it. Believing that you’re worth putting as a priority, and that you deserve to have your needs met. That means letting go of guilt and shame, and practicing turning toward yourself, even though it’s uncomfortable.
I often imagine conversations I'll have with my daughter when she gets older. I imagine how I might talk to her about consent, what I'll share with her about mothering, what I want her to know about friendship, and of course, what I want to help her understand about love.
Specifically, I was thinking about how I would explain my love for her. I often had conversations with my own mom where I tried to understand why she loved me, and I don't know that I ever quite got it. So if she ever asks me why I love her, this is what I came up with:
In the last 5 years I've worked with more and more helping professionals and caregivers, supporting them to be a support to others. It's probably one of the things I enjoy the most, because there are so many good people out there trying to do helping work, and I've actually figured out some things that can allow them to keep doing what they're passionate about, despite the heaviness of the work. I get a little excited about this because I now know without a doubt that it is completely possible to do some amazing things without giving up your life in the process. And actually, it's not only possible, but better for everyone involved - keep in mind that we're able to do more and better work when we can still connect to our own aliveness.
So I don’t know how many of you have seen a counselor, or if you ever wonder what goes on in the world of a psychologist OUTSIDE the therapy room (“do they really do all the meditating they’re telling me is so beneficial?”) but I’ve got a little bit of insight that I’d like to share with you. I have noticed that in psychology, self care gets talked about a lot… but similar to other helping fields, the actual practice of putting ourselves as a priority is not so good. There’s a lot of TALK about work-life balance, but the structural systems within the workplace – be it nonprofit or private practice – make it really hard to actually have balance. Now, in my early 20s, I was excited enough about the work, and energetic enough, that I could “buckle down and push through”. But by the time I turned 27 – not that old – the effect of “pushing through” was starting to wear on me.
One thing I've come to realize over the years is that, contrary to popular belief, everyone has boundaries. Stick with me - I know it's so common to feel that if you're a people pleaser, it means you have "no boundaries". So let's get really clear. Boundaries are your own unique sense of what’s okay for you and what isn’t. It’s your internal understanding of what nourishes you and what doesn’t. We all have that understanding inside of us. We all have limits. What commonly happens is that over the years that we lose touch with our boundaries, or we learn that they're not important. So, with that in mind, when you start working on your own boundaries, what you're really doing is learning to listen to and respect your own limits.
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
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.