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Do you know women who seem to have no boundaries with family members and friends? I do. In fact, I recently talked with 4 women who need to support themselves financially with their own business. In each case these women are limping along, barely making enough money to cover their monthly expenses. They are constantly feeling worried about money.
As we talked, it was not hard to see that these women have found themselves giving over their time to family care-giving with few or no boundaries. It wasn’t a conscious decision. No pros and cons written down, no short term or longer term financial consequences laid out in black and white. It was a feeling of obligation and falling into increasing demands as time moved on. They all fell into the trap of thinking there are no alternatives. Subtly, month by month, additional responsibilities piled on.
Each woman came to me complaining that her business is slow and that she is constantly worried about making ends meet. Each expressed a deep disappointment that her business was “not taking care of her.” As we talked about schedules and taking focused action to solve the income problem, it became clear almost immediately that these women had no emotional energy or time left to do much of anything. Worse, they kept cancelling opportunities, letting any single care-giving situation always take priority over taking care of their own financial security. For two of these women a lack of setting boundaries was especially troublesome, as the income provided not only for herself but also for the family member who required assistance.
You may be trained not to set boundaries with family members
I get it that many women have had it drilled and grilled into them that taking care of family members and friends is their responsibility. We are trained that we should step up, and that no one else can or should do it. That somehow giving our livelihood and life energy over without boundaries is a show of our ultimate love. Guilt rears its head when we have the fleeting thought that we are exhausted and can’t do more. I know this path very well – I lived it for a decade.
Stepping up to being the leader of our own life, stepping up to setting boundaries with family members and friends, being willing to face the conflict with the person in need or other family members – all of that can be hard to do. It may seem easier to sacrifice your own mental and physical energy, to forget about your own financial situation, to put all of your life on hold. It isn’t. It isn’t easier and it isn’t wise.
Setting boundaries can bring up long-buried emotions that need clearing out. It can bring to surface dysfunctional relationships. It can fill you will fear and dread. It will force you to face your own beliefs about who you are, and your own resistance to change. But once you consciously decide upon and set your boundaries you will find a new respect for yourself. You will find that others respect you and, yes, still love you. You will feel safer that you can still provide for yourself now and in your later years. You will quit playing the role of passive martyr and act from a place of decisiveness and new-found strength. And you will assure that you have the money you need to survive, plan for your future, and pay the bills for that family member or friend who needs you.
If you feel defensive and angry reading this, it’s because you are stuck in the box, and you want to insist that the way you are doing it is the only way. You want to insist that you don’t mind at all, that you take your responsibility and obligation seriously. I get that. I did it, too, for many years. I believed that the only way was the one way I was doing it. I required nothing of the person in need. I required nothing of other people who could and should be stepping up. And I got mad when someone else suggested that I needed to set boundaries around what I could do, both timewise and financially. Just like you, when I was pushed to consider the ramifications of what I was doing, I reacted defensively with phrases like, “What am I supposed to do? There is no one else who will do it. I could never forgive myself.” If you are a care-giver or a parent, you know those phrases.
Consider – if you died in the next hour every single one of the family members or friends you are giving your life to will survive in some fashion. None of us are indispensable although we may think we are. Part of the dark side of a lack of boundaries with family members or friends is that, within you, it’s a control issue. That’s the dark side of “I have to do this, no one else possibly could.”
Refusing to set boundaries about when we can and will be available means giving up our own life. Further, the exhaustion that comes from care-taking too much means that we don’t do an objective job of it anyway. It means we refuse to delegate, refuse to accept help, and often feel victimized and bitter with others. Others are certainly willing to stay away because we have stepped up too much. It also means we have refused to set a boundary with the person in need.
Get this! There’s nothing wrong with setting boundaries so that we don’t lose our own identity and wishes and dreams. There’s nothing to feel guilty about if we need to care-take ourself, or care-take a business that feeds us and pays our bills. There’s nothing wrong with refusing to exhaust one’s self physically and emotionally for any other person, no matter who they are.
Sometimes we hear the clarion call, “Oh, but it’s family” a little bit too much. Sometimes, frankly, we use that as an excuse not to move forward with what we say we want. It’s scary to set boundaries. It’s easier to say, “I just can’t, I have to be available for my mother, my grandfather, my grandchild, my neighbor.”
No, we do not have to be available at any time for any reason. We do not have to go without a boundary because the person in need might throw a tantrum or put a guilt trip on us when we say we are not available.
A former client said to me a few weeks ago, “I just can’t change anything right now.” But the truth is, she’s in a situation where the care-taking could go on for a decade or more. She’s already been struggling financially for 4 years. It’s not realistic to think that her finances or her energy will last for that long. There ARE options – maybe we don’t have the guts to push for other options, but that is our own fear, not the requirements of the person in need.
Care-taking requires a huge amount of self-honesty. It requires boundaries. It requires delegation. It requires letting go of being the “good girl” or the “good child.” Stepping up to care-taking our own needs as much as the needs of someone else, no matter what is going on around us, requires re-keying our relationship to ourselves and to the other person. It may require confronting others who are not stepping up.
Tips for Setting Boundaries
- Get an objective view of the situation from someone totally outside the situation. That person will see things you don’t see. Listen without “yes butting” that person.
- Expect that your relationship with the person in need and other family members will change. Eventually, it will be for the better. In the short term everyone might be testy, but hold your ground.
- Block your time. Figure out the minimum amount of time you need to actually work or run your business and block that out. Keep it as sacred and as important as the care-taking you do.
- Use humor. It helps break tension.
- Practice your “things will change” talk, especially if the person in need is demanding, mean-spirited, or used to having things her/his own way. “Things have changed for both of us in ways that neither of us like. We are both going to have to accept that we won’t get what we want all the time. We are both going to have to accept that things are less than ideal.”
- If the person in need is elderly, consider a consultation with an attorney especially trained in elder law in your state. Go to the National Academy of Elder Care Lawyers website to find an attorney near you.
Setting boundaries with family members or friends requires a tremendous amount of self-growth and emotional maturity. Saying “yes” because “of course that is what you do” is a disservice to the person in need and to you.
Resources for Setting Boundaries
If you are struggling with whether to continue your business while you are care-giving, my e-book Starting a Small Business – Are You Really Ready to Work for Yourself? might be helpful for you.
If you need help with elder abuse and setting boundaries, here’s the Guide to Recognizing Elder Abuse from the National Council for Aging Care.
I’d love to hear what you’ve done to set boundaries around family members. You’re welcome to comment here, and to like and share this post.
[Note: Some but not all of the links in this blog post are affiliate links, which means I will earn a small commission if you click through and purchase. If you do so, thank you.]