Below is a question a client recently asked me during a coaching session. Since so many people struggle with setting boundaries, I thought I'd share the question and my suggestions.
Q: I often find myself torn between wanting to be a supportive and good friend, parent, and co-worker by helping others with things that they need, and getting things done for which I'm responsible at home and at work. If I say no to someone in need I feel guilty, but saying yes all the time makes my life very stressful and exhausting. I also don't want to hurt people's feelings or have them think I'm unsupportive. How do I say no and maintain good relationships with people I care about?
A: You're certainly not alone in your difficulty with setting boundaries, as well as in knowing where the line is between being helpful and taking on too much.
The key to knowing your limits is by "checking in" with yourself regarding how you feel emotionally and energy-wise. If someone asks you for assistance and you feel happy to do it—and it is manageable in light of your own schedule, responsibilities, and energy level—then great. Giving to others is a rewarding and uplifting thing to do. However, when we habitually say yes in search of others' approval—or when our own plate is overflowing—we set ourselves up for feeling overwhelmed, "used", and resentful—which ultimately contaminates our relationships with others.
A teacher of mine used to say, "Take care of yourself so you can take care of others." When you recognize and express your limits to others in a loving and honest manner, you're not only honoring and taking care of yourself, but you're also preserving your relationships with others.
There are times when we have to overextend ourselves or do things we'd prefer not to do at work or for friends and family. However, when this is a habitual pattern, our relationships ultimately suffer and we create chronic stress, which, over time, can weaken the immune system and put us at risk for getting physically ill.