Most of us have perfected the art of people pleasing. We've become so expert at thinking about everyone else that we've become a shadow of the person we were meant to be. We're afraid that if we set limits we'll be branded with the scarlet "S" for selfish. This is the last thing we want to be labeled.
However, before you can set limits with other people you have to define your boundaries for yourself. This requires that you know what you need, how you feel and what is and isn't acceptable to you. Setting limits requires a new level of self-discipline. This means being conscious every day of the activities you choose to spend your time on.
This may sound surprising, but anger often signals that you aren't getting your needs met, or that you're overextended. Your feelings of frustration and resentment, which are anger's first cousins, let you know that you've compromised or sacrificed too much of yourself. These feelings often help you to define what it is you want and need for yourself and your life. When paid attention to, your anger can motivate and mobilize you to take action, to speak out on your own behalf and to set clear boundaries. If you're going to reduce your stress you have to awaken a healthy protectiveness and find a balance between the need's of others and your own.
When you begin to set limits the people closest to you may think that you've been snatched by aliens. They may not like the new version of you as much. In fact, those people closest to you may resist initially, but once they see that you're committed to taking care of yourself, they will frequently accept your decision and in time they may even support you.
When you set limits it means that you value yourself enough to make your needs known and insist that they be met. The truth is that when you set and maintain your boundaries, you'll be happier and more fun to be around.
I'd like to suggest that you do an exercise I call Tolerable/Intolerable. Please make a list of the things you'd like to change, but can live with. Label this list, Tolerable. Now make a list of the things you must change, the things you can no longer stand. This will be your Intolerable list.
A good way to begin is to once again consider a typical week. Then, without censoring yourself, write down what you feel is both acceptable and unacceptable to you in the following areas: at home, at work, with your spouse/ boyfriend/girlfriend, children, co-workers, boss, friends, siblings and parents.
If you listen to your gut you'll know what your boundaries are. Your list of what is intolerable will give you the information you need to begin to set clear limits. Most of us push ourselves as though our life depended upon finishing a report, folding the laundry or getting our kids to yet another after-school activity.
Sure there are certain things we have to do, like caring for an elderly parent or occasionally putting in extra time at work but there are many things we think we should do that we really don't have to do. But we have to be able to discern the difference.
Now, think back over the last few weeks: did you make any decisions based on what someone else would think of you or because you were trying to prove yourself? Did you make these choices to please yourself? How do you feel about each of your decisions?
The next time someone asks you to do something, take the time to decide what your limits are before responding. Ask yourself, what can you reasonably and joyfully do? What are you willing to do? And what do you want to do? These three questions will help you to establish boundaries before you reach the point of no return.