Over the last week, clients, friends, and family have all brought up the topic of boundaries. Is there something in the autumn air that brought this on? Did I miss a planetary alignment that dictated a review of how we set limits? I don’t know, but I think anytime is a good time to check in on our boundaries.
Lots of us didn’t see healthy limit-setting modeled or have the opportunity to learn it when we were small. We missed out. And it’s likely that you, like millions of others, have been experiencing the lack of that experience ever since.
There are so many ways you can apply boundaries, but for today I’ll focus on just one. It’s the one that keeps coming up in conversation and it’s one Sensitive Introverts experience a lot:
Knowing how to give to others in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling resentful or depleted.
Because your temperament naturally leads you to pick up what’s going on for others, you’re in a great position to sense what they need and probably enjoy giving that support. It often feels great to be a friend who is counted on to listen with her heart or who intuitively knows when someone could use some TLC.
The problem is when you begin to feel that you’re giving so much more than you’re receiving—in a word, over-giving—and what creeps in is a nasty little case of resentment.
This huge change in sentiment, from something that started out so good—supporting a friend or loved one—to feeling that you’re overdrawn and resentful, taints the relationship like polluted water. It’s almost impossible to take another sip even though you’re parched.
In the simplest sense, having boundaries is knowing what you’re okay with and what you’re not.
That sounds so easy, right? Why does it get so difficult in this area of giving and receiving?
There are several possible scenarios and I’ve detailed a few below. If you think you’re over-giving, see if one or more of these fits for you.
You give to feel needed.
You feel that you’ll get love, respect, and admiration if you are the one who’s always giving in the relationship. Giving to others helps you have a sense of self and a purpose. If you don’t receive the love, respect, and admiration you seek you may try giving more and more to fill the emptiness you feel.
You take over-responsibility for the relationship.
You feel that if you don’t do the right things to keep the relationship going, the other person may walk away from it, so you take care of all of their needs and ignore your own. You may even go so far as to keep quiet about anything you imagine would displease or upset them.
You give because you feel you should.
Your giving is not coming from a full and generous heart, but from a place of obligation. You’re out of steam emotionally, but you push on trying to give more because you feel like you’re supposed to, or to avoid feeling guilty and selfish.
You’ve been giving and giving, but no one is returning the favor.
You might not feel comfortable asking for what you need, but you still hope that someone will be perceptive and give it to you. Not everyone is as attuned to the needs of others as the HSP, so they maybe don’t have a clue. Meanwhile, you’re still sadly waiting.
You don’t feel comfortable receiving, only giving.
You didn’t learn how to receive easily as a child—even now you may feel guilty if someone gives to you—so you pretend you have no needs and just keep on giving to others. Unfortunately, your cup won’t refill on its own and at some point you’ll become depleted. Usually resentment follows.
I absolutely got caught in this trap. I didn’t learn healthy boundaries or self-care habits as a child and felt my worth was based only on what I did for others. I was taught that having needs was unacceptable and so I very carefully made sure I didn’t have any.
As a new mom with a sensitive baby who wanted to be on my body every minute and nursed every 60-90 minutes, I gave and gave. I wouldn’t let anyone else help when they offered, nor would I ask for help, and I quickly reached my edge. I eventually got through, but it took a toll on my mind, body, spirit, marriage, and relationship with my child.
Still, I didn’t learn.
With the birth of each baby (I have three daughters) I went into deep depletion—and looking back now, probably depression too. I wasn't able to break this cycle until my kids were a bit older and I left my marriage. I began to reparent myself and learn what I’d missed with the help of therapists, coaches, and friends, and began to establish boundaries for myself.
I hope for your sake that you’re not in this deep. If you are, then learning to create boundaries might not be a DIY project.
What can you do if you think you might be caught up in weak boundaries and over-giving?
1. Learn how to nurture yourself.
Pay attention to your likes and dislikes, what would bring you joy, or nourish you. Then give these things to yourself. This is not selfish, this is self-care. Make sure you’re getting the food, rest, exercise, and enjoyment you need to not just survive, but thrive. When your cup is full then you’ll have the ability to give generously to others without feeling overdrawn or depleted.
2. Check in before saying yes.
When you’re about to say yes to a request for help, take time to do a quick reflection. Do you have the energy to give in this way? Do you want to? Will it energize or drain you? Find out whether you have the reserves you need before you consent to help out. It's always okay to say no if you want to spend your energy in a different way.
3. Deepen the relationship.
One way to get out of resentment and back into a more balanced reciprocal exchange is to have an honest conversation about what you need with the other person in the relationship. Sound scary? It doesn’t have to be. If this is a person that you love and trust, being vulnerable in this way will strengthen and deepen the relationship so that you both can get what you need.
4. End the relationship.
If upon reflection it’s clear to you that the person you’ve been giving to is not capable or interested in having a reciprocal relationship (they want your care to be a one-way street) you may need to set a boundary and walk away. This is something you’ll want to consider carefully, as it’s not easy to deliver or receive this message. But if someone is sucking up all your energy with no intention of reciprocating, it may be your best bet. Again, probably not something to do without consulting a healthy friend or a professional.
I wish there was an easy fix, but there's not. Definitely not an overnight kind of change. But awareness is always the first step in making a change and now that you know, you can be more intentional about how you want to use your energy.
It is your right and responsibility to make this decision and no one else’s.
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