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

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Contents -

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

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