We All Need To Set Better Boundaries

So often, we find the need to bend our schedules, values, and requirements to make room for the people in our lives. We operate from a need to stay out of everyone’s way and make life easier for the people around us. Someone asks when you want to schedule that meeting and you reply, “Whenever works for you.” Someone asks where you want to go to dinner and you say, “Anywhere.” You wake up every morning and consume other people’s agendas—through Facebook, Instagram, and email.

It would seem that women especially struggle with this. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the appropriate thing to do is assimilate our individual identities into those of our families, communities, and workplaces. While this is great for building short-term cohesion, it can often lead to anger, resentment, and confusion down the line.

This is something I’ve struggled with extensively in recent years - holding space where I shouldn’t be holding any at all. While it often seems like the right thing, I’ve come to realize it’s actually quite unhealthy to sacrifice our happiness to make others happy. 

In Michelle Obama’s new memoir, Becoming, she talks about the pushes and pulls of Barack’s political career. As he was beginning to establish himself in the Chicago area as a state senator, he was working 18+ hours per day—rushing from one congressional meeting to the next. It wasn’t what she’d signed up for in marrying him, yet it was exactly what she’d signed up for.

Sometimes Barack would text her earlier than usual to say, “I’m on my way home.” She’d get excited—letting Malia and Sasha stay up a little later than usual so they could hug and kiss him goodnight. They’d watch the clock together, waiting patiently, until they couldn’t wait any longer. She’d put the girls (and herself) to bed—feeling disappointed. 

This happened time and time again with family dinners, bedtimes, etc. She was feeling conflicted—trying to support her husband, raise two young girls, and juggle a full-time job that she loved. After some time spent in couple’s therapy, she figured out what needed to be done.

She realized that she needed to carve out space to live her own life, not just a wife, employee, and mother, but as Michelle.

She asked her own mom to start coming over her house at 4:45am (M-F) to watch the girls while she attended workout classes. She created routines and plans that made sense given her work schedule and the girls’ school schedules. She stopped designing her life around when Barack was going to be around, or even hoping that he would be.

She writes:

“When it came to the home-for-dinner dilemma, I installed new boundaries, ones that worked better for me and the girls. We made our schedule and stuck to it. I went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.” 

In what parts of your life would you benefit from asking others to catch up to you instead of the other way around? With whom could you benefit of being more proactive in this way?

Learning where to set the boundaries in our own lives is difficult. None one wants to say “no” to the people they love. But it’s necessary.

The way I see it, if you can’t set the boundaries now, you are going to regret it later. You’ll wake up someday realizing you never did the things you wanted to do. You were too busy waiting around to hear what others had to say about it. 

If you don’t learn to define your life, someone will define it for you. If you don’t set your own priorities, you can be certain that someone else will set them for you.

This doesn’t mean I think you should relinquish your responsibilities in an Eat, Pray, Love moment. This isn’t a call for selfishness. It’s a call for carving out a sense of self in a world that will always be trying to steal that from you.

Michelle struck a balance - one that optimized her effectiveness as a mother, wife, employee, and human being. She found a sense of self in a life that was complex, unpredictable, and intense, in a life that was often consumed by her husband’s political agenda. She didn’t do it out of spite or resentment. She did it out of love for him, for her girls, for herself, and even for life itself.

If Michelle Obama can do it, you can, too.

Kate Ward