If we do not know how to take care of ourselves and to love ourselves, we cannot take care of the people we love. Loving oneself is the foundation for loving another person.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Wouldn’t it be nice if all there was to setting personal boundaries was simply a matter of knowing when to say yes and when to say no?
Well it isn’t, and as caregivers we are constantly bypassing boundaries we might have set for ourselves. From day to day, it’s hard to know what our limits are. It’s hard to stick to your guns when the playing field is constantly changing.
For years and years in therapy, I tried to put into action what I knew to be true. My life was about making everybody else happy—no matter what the cost to me. I needed to summon the courage to risk disappointing my husband, clients, family and friends—by setting healthy boundaries and not putting the rest of the world first—because it was the only way I could ever take care of and love myself.
I prided myself on being a mind reader, able to anticipate everyone else’s needs and desires—and their pleasure was my pleasure. Except that it wasn’t. I was slowly becoming resentful and angry, and so many arguments were basically “Look at everything I do for you,” which would be met with the reply “Who asked you to?” When and how had I become responsible for everyone else’s happiness? It was high time I took charge of my life and took responsibility for my own happiness. This was hard work.
I had to learn how to say “No”—let alone when.
When the pain of doing things the way I had always done them, became greater than what I anticipated the pain of changing would be, I finally took action. Little by little, I set boundaries. I learned to tell others what I wanted and what I would and wouldn’t do—whether or not I could do them. There were a lot of people who wondered where “the old Adrienne” had gone. I had been trying to take responsibility for their comfort for so long, that when they experienced discomfort when I finally said no, I had to be prepared for the consequences. Would they still love me? Their discomfort had been my discomfort and I’d have to watch them hurt and go through this experience time and again before both sides of the new comfort zone became the norm.
Once I realized I’d been codependent with pretty much everyone, I used some of what I’d learned in 12 Step programs to fuel my resolve. I questioned what I was powerless over—like everyone else’s problems—and became serious about finding a new, healthier way of thinking and living, aided by taking a “fearless moral inventory” of my behavior.
Things were going pretty well. I was stronger; more centered and more confident. I learned that “No!” is a complete sentence. I found I could deal with all the things that I had been avoiding—after all, now that I wasn’t spending all my energy taking care of everyone else, I could deal head on with my own problems. Of course my “to do’s” had been put on the back burner, since everyone else came first.
It really felt like I was on my way to fulfillment— that’s when life threw me a curveball.
My husband, Steve, was diagnosed with lung cancer and I was forced to become responsible for just about everything, once again, except his business and our finances. In sickness and in health, right? Where do you draw the line when your loved one is terminally ill?
It’s said “Love expands; it does not limit itself to boundaries.” I’d worked so hard to stop making his needs more important than my own, yet now found myself having to come up with a new set of rules. It seemed the only rule had to be there are no rules. But I made a promise to myself that I’d ask for help when I needed it. I sometimes felt I was capable of superhuman feats, so I needed to be careful not to fall back into my old pattern. Happily, the changes I’d worked so hard to make were acknowledged and respected, and even the most gruesome tasks were ones we tackled as a team. Instead of needing boundaries to know where I ended and Steve began, sharing became a way of life totally unexpected by us both.
Loving myself had paid off. I had learned to say no and was still loveable (imagine that!). I knew when and where to draw the line. The world of cancer we found ourselves in could not be tainted by resentment, frustration and anger. We both knew “…’til death us do part” would be sooner than we had expected and did everything we could do make the time we had count.