“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” – Brené Brown
Sharing is caring.
Most of us heard this term repeatedly when we were kids. Your parents may have asked you to share your toys with a sibling or split your sandwich with a school friend. If not from a parent, you probably heard it on a TV show such as Sesame Street or Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
As we grow up, we’re further inculcated with this moral credo by political leaders such as John F. Kennedy who said, “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Even world religions uphold generosity as a core virtue:
“It is more blessed to give to give than receive, a true man’s wealth is the good he does in the world. For it is in giving that we receive.”
“Give even if you have only little.”
“Help thy brother’s boat across and thine own has reached the shore.”
We’re conditioned to become good Samaritans for a reason. Humans are social beings that live in an interconnected society. We all depend on each other for survival. An egocentric and selfish behavior pattern can lead to a breakdown in our delicate ecosystem.
If it’s done right (more on that later), the act of giving makes us feel good. Whether we’re expressing our giving nature in our personal relationships or on a larger scale, in the form of contributions to our community, we feel like a better person. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy, contributing to society is a top tier need for self-actualization and meaning.
But at what point does the act of giving become too much? When does it start producing diminishing returns and we become burdened by the sacrifices we make for others? This can be hard to identify because you can’t quantify and measure the help you offer others. Even if you try to, you’ll be overcome by guilt or others may label you as ‘selfish’.
I’ve crossed the line to ‘overgiving’ in one of my previous relationships, in a vain attempt to be accepted. After many years of sacrificing my needs, I felt depleted because I had lost touch with my true identity. Some years after it ended, I watched a woman who had gone through a similar experience being counseled by Dr. Phil on his show. In his signature compassionate, yet firm tone, he said to her, “never invest in a relationship, more than you can afford to lose. If you have to give up who you are as an individual to be half of a couple, the price is too high!”
His words of wisdom solidified my hunch about the necessity for us to differentiate between healthy compromises and self-sacrifice. When we give to others from a place of insecurity, we become incapable of receiving the goodness from the pure act of giving. When we give to others to gain their approval and love, or because ‘it’s the right thing to do’, we dismissing our need to receive the same from them and become resentful, or that we are being taken advantage of. We’ll experience a loss of personal power and a disconnection from our goals and ambition. Giving to others will feel like a transaction instead of a sincere act of love and kindness.
Identifying this tipping point is not a rational process, but rather an intuitive one. It requires that we look within and be honest with ourselves about how much we’re comfortably willing to give in our relationships. A person taking care of an elderly parent or ailing child will need to consider this more carefully than a single, young professional climbing the corporate ladder.
The good news is that we can be autonomous, sensitive to both our needs and the needs of those we care about. We can engage in a healthy dynamic of give and take if we actively work on building our self-esteem and prioritize connecting with our core values.
Here are some specific ideas on how you can be giving, without sacrificing your needs:
1. Get clear on your needs and do frequent check-in’s: Take the time to go within and figure out what you need to feel balanced and self-sufficient. This includes physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. For example, some people need eight hours of sleep while others are fine with less. Some people need more space and me-time than others who prefer more interaction with their friends and loved ones. The key is to develop the self-awareness to figure out what feels right for you. Engage in frequent check-in’s to see how you feel, and listen to your body. If you’re feeling tired and run down, know that it’s a call to get back to balance. Train yourself to intuitively know when you’re giving too much of yourself and take a step back.
2. Determine in whom you’re willing to invest your energy: We have different kinds of relationships in our lives that vary in importance. We should be able to allocate our time, emotions, and energy in each one based on its significance in our life. For instance, most people would like to devote more of themselves to their close relationships such as family, significant others, and close friends, rather than on their coworkers and acquaintances. This is a necessary act because relationships, in general, are complex and require lots of nurturing, attention, and care for them to grow and stay healthy. If we worry too much about the wrong people, we deplete our reserves and become less available to those who really matter. Exercising this sort of discernment might seem cold and calculated, but in actuality it’s an act of compassion. The more time you have to take care of yourself, the more present and available you can be in your significant relationships.
3. Set defined boundaries: Once you figure out your needs and the relationships you want to prioritize, the next step is to determine the boundaries that you want to set in place to avoid undue pressure and demands. A big part of your commitment to take care of you involves enforcing definitive boundaries and having clarity on where you’ll draw the line in each life area. An example of a boundary in your career is leaving work at 5pm, instead of working overtime, so that you can be with your family, or a pet. A personal boundary is making yourself available on instant chat or for phone calls at only certain times of the day. A relationship boundary could be having a couple of hours to yourself in the evening to engage in a creative hobby, or to participate in a class that you’re enrolled in.
4. Communicating your boundaries with others: Communicating your needs and boundaries with others can be tough for many people. It’s especially hard if you’ve always made yourself available to others without giving much importance to your own needs. The people around you may have gotten used to getting their way and taking you for granted. The only way to shift this dynamic is to let them know where you stand, firmly yet compassionately, and to keep reminding them until they respect your boundaries. Practice saying ‘no’ to small things, then slowly build it up like a muscle. Eventually, you’ll find it easier to say ‘no’ to the bigger things and be resolute about your decision. If you ever feel nervous, ask yourself if it’s worth being in a relationship where you can’t express and honor your own needs. You have to be willing to leave if the other person isn’t making any effort to meet your half-way.
I believe that unconditional love is best expressed when it’s sourced from a place of self-love, self-sufficiency, and inner abundance. When our cup is overflowing with all the good stuff, we’ll be in a better position to share it with others. All the bounty that we cultivate within us can be transferred to the collective consciousness and amplify the good vibes on the planet.
All my best on your journey,
Question: Do you find it difficult to be giving without sacrificing your needs? What are the main obstacles that you face?