PUT YOURSELF FIRST Get control over your life
We set boundaries for children, so why not for adults, too? Victoria Lambert reveals how she took back control over her busy life
My breaking point was the day I got out of my car, having forgotten to fully engage the handbrake. On a steep country hill. As the car started to slip forwards, I threw myself at the door, somehow struggled back in and hauled on the handbrake.
Once I’d stopped shaking, I began to feel guilty. If only I’d remembered to pop into the garage that morning to get the brake tightened as I’d meant to. There was only myself to blame. I realised I had become – like the car – an accident waiting to happen.
Like many women of my age (52), life had become one long juggle of competing demands: work, my elderly mother’s shopping and medical needs, chauffeur duty for my teenage daughter. Not to mention household chores and the occasional conversation with my husband. An overflowing inbox full of emails all requiring me to get involved with something or someone – which I never felt able to turn down – was a particular issue.
I mentioned my chaotic life to a psychotherapist friend, Jennie Miller, and she suggested a surprisingly straightforward solution: I needed to learn to set boundaries for myself.
We often think of boundaries as rules we establish for children to help them with their behaviour at bedtime or with screen habits. But adults need to know where to draw the line as well. Not just in areas of behaviour, but also in the way we interact with friends, family and colleagues. Boundaries work because they delineate clearly – in our own minds – what we will and won’t do or say.
Jennie’s advice grew into an ongoing conversation between us. I texted her whenever I refused those guilt-tripping invitations to join committees, organise events or buy endless books of raffle tickets, happily pointing out that I was using boundaries to improve my day-to-day life. Jennie taught me that one of the most important lessons to learn about boundary making is that it’s okay to put yourself first.
Our chats turned into a book, which we wrote in a very boundaried way – setting aside one day a week to work on it, and making sure our time together included a healthy walk, when we could forget writing and just mull over life. It took three years but Boundaries – How To Draw The Line In Your Head,
Heart And Home has been transforming for me. One trick I’ve learnt is to visualise my boundary as I set it. Some days, it’s like a colourful Hula Hoop
Life was a juggle of competing demands: work, my elderly mother, chauffeur duty for my daughter
spinning around me; at other times, when I need to protect myself, I may put myself in the centre of a beautiful trellis covered in wisteria. If I feel anxious, my boundary is a warm sheepskin cocoon.
Boundaries are not fixed battlements. They are a flexible, porous line between you and the world that can help with decision-making and support all areas of your life. Here are some of the most important points I’ve learnt about boundary setting:
self-care START WITH
Boundaries that govern how we care for ourselves are a great place to start, because they can give you the time and energy to deal with others. Key areas are sleep, fitness, diet, bad habits (like drinking too much Pinot Grigio), and your use of the internet and mobile devices. In each case, do a written audit. How much time do you sleep or work out? What’s stopping you doing more or less? Armed with that information, you can begin to set healthy boundaries.
Fitness is a good example. To set a boundary here, note your attitude to the idea – was it horror? If you recoil from exercise, you may need to adjust your attitude. Fitness doesn’t have to involve a gym. It could be an opportunity to restart a long-lost hobby – for me, it was taking up horse riding again after a 20-year break. What matters is that you find something you like. Then work out how much time and money you can reasonably commit so that you aren’t giving yourself an excuse to fail later.
As I learnt to set boundaries for myself, I noticed a surge in confidence. Jennie explained that proper ownership of oneself is vital to building good self-esteem. ‘How can you feel good about yourself if you are allowing others to control and direct you?’ she said. ‘Deciding that from today, you will run your own life is an incredibly powerful position.’
Jennie feels frustrated when she sees couples for relationship counselling as they separate, and realises they could have saved their marriage had they come sooner. Caring for your relationship requires a boundary that encircles you as a couple. And your partner will need to be involved, too.
This means not relying on your other half for all of your needs – something that can put too much pressure on the happiest couple. If you love cycling and your partner loathes it, it’s okay to follow your passion. Indeed, it’s essential. Part of a healthy relationship is what we do outside of it, which then brings a positive energy back to the relationship.
Respect your partner, and show it. From saying thank you and meaning it, to not shaming them in front of other people. Don’t eye roll. If you feel you are not being respected back, don’t start a row. Take a walk together – sitting across from each other can be confrontational – and then raise your concerns calmly. Don’t raise old gripes but stick to current issues and how to solve them.
family pressures FIX
How do family boundaries work when you also care for an elderly parent whose needs are sometimes most urgent? My mother is 89 and needs support with shopping, appointments and entertainment. But she has a cleaner and uses telephone banking, so I don’t need to worry about those. My sisters take her out to lunch and also go through her paperwork every three months. It’s important for all of us that boundaries covering what we can and cannot do are in place so that our relationship stays warm, and Mum doesn’t end up as just another item on our to-do lists.
the inbox CONQUER
On average, we get around 122 work emails a day. No wonder we feel swamped. To control it, start by setting a regular time for emails to be received in bulk. The constant beep of incoming mail is too distracting. Separate work and personal email into folders and leave personal messages until lunchtime or evenings.
Have a switch-on and switch-off point, such as 8am to 8pm. Very few of us need to be in 24-hour contact with the world. Do block correspondents you don’t like to hear from, without guilt. Remember, you don’t have to reply to any email, ever. You are in charge of your own destiny – especially online.
really DECIDE WHO matters to you
Imagine there’s a space rocket docked outside your house and you have 24 hours to decide who is going in that rocket with you. It’s going to a new planet with everything that you like about this planet – think job, house, countryside. But it’s a one-way journey. You decide who goes on that space rocket and you don’t have to give any reasons. Write down the names. Some may be a surprise but it’s important to listen to your heart and not do what you feel you ‘should’ do. The people on your rocket are the ones you need to concentrate on. You may notice that the ones you wanted to leave behind are those that you seem to spend a lot of your time thinking and worrying about. But they are also the least likely to support your needs in return. It’s time to redress the balance. ◆ Boundaries – How To Draw The Line In Your Head, Heart And Home by Jennie Miller and Victoria Lambert (Harpercollins) is out now
Boundaries are a flexible line between you and the world that can help with decisionmaking and support all areas of your life