At lunch this week I walked past one of my favorite spots near where I work, this little oasis of a pink iron fence, pink and teal lamppost, courtyard, and overhead trellis, all in front of a gorgeous building with pink and teal accents. The charming pink fence in particular reminded me how beautiful and important boundaries can be, relevant to two recent conversations I had with study participants in my job coordinating investigational treatments for social anxiety and depression. (As always, names and life details are changed to preserve anonymity).
One young man with social anxiety – let’s call him Ben – came in for a study visit and started talking to me about his younger cousins, around 11 and 13, who have recently been entering his room without knocking, and then talking endlessly to him. (He lives with his uncle.) He thinks this is just starting to be a problem because, as part of his quest to overcome social anxiety, he’s been spending more time out of his room and with his cousins. He guesses that this change makes his cousins think it’s okay to talk to him almost ALL the time, even when he’s in his room. I asked Ben if he could ask his cousins to respect his alone time while he’s in his room, or at least to ask them to knock before entering. He said he’s afraid that would be rude!
What’s really rude (in my opinion) is the fact that his cousins enter without knocking! Of course, they are still relatively young, but all the more reason to kindly talk to them about respecting other people’s boundaries. Understandably, Ben didn’t see it this way until I shared my thoughts, but he seemed to quickly agree with me. The tricky part is that, as hard as it was for Ben to expose himself to social situations (one of the keys to overcoming social anxiety) by spending more time out of his room and with his cousins, it will be even harder for him to expose himself by expressing disagreement/disapproval (the clinical term, haha) to his cousins.
This discomfort with expressing disagreement/disapproval to others is a) a symptom of social anxiety, b) something a lot of people, even those without social anxiety, experience, and c) a barrier to setting healthy boundaries. When I say boundaries, I mean “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits” (Wikipedia- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_boundaries). Even I have trouble with this! However, one helpful way I mentally approach setting boundaries is comparing short-term to long-term outcomes. Not speaking up and just going along when your roommate doesn’t do the dishes, your friend keeps inviting you out to bars/clubs and you’re getting tired, your cousins keep barging into your room, etc, may be easier and less uncomfortable in the short term, but speaking up in a kind, firm way will almost definitely improve your quality of life in the long term. Also, practicing setting boundaries now will make it easier to do so in the future, when the stakes might be higher!
However, boundaries can definitely be flexible, as long as you know where your firm lines are. Sometimes it’s okay to inconvenience yourself and go to your friend’s show on a weekday night just to support them, and sometimes it’s okay to pass on an invitation and show you care for your friend in another way/at another time. Everything in moderation. But when you start burning out, getting irritated, or experiencing any of the many ways your body tells you enough is enough, here are two good resources with phrases to help you set boundaries and say no:
Just as your relationship with others can improve by setting boundaries, so too can your relationship with yourself. Another social anxiety study participant, Jessie, recently came to my office for exposure therapy (giving a speech in front of an audience and watching video playback of herself). After the video playback, Jessie started listing all these negative thoughts she had about her speech: “I could’ve phrased that better, I don’t look smart enough, I’m not convincing anyone about my position, I forgot the name of that town, etc.” I realized that I used to have a lot of those same self-criticisms, for one simple reason: I didn’t think I would ever get better at anything without harsh self-criticism. As time goes by, however, I’m starting to realize that self-kindness is the smoothest, most effective, and happiest path to self-improvement. When you find yourself filled with self-criticism, maybe it’s time to set boundaries within yourself, fencing out the negative voice that is no expression of your truest, deepest, worthiest self. This article has 3 unique, actionable tips for dealing with that negative voice: https://psychcentral.com/blog/3-unique-techniques-for-navigating-a-negative-inner-voice/.
How are you setting boundaries with yourself and with others? Let us know in the comments!
As an enthusiastic believer in the merits, if not the truth, of astrology, I often take the advice of astrologists and set aside a half hour or so for reflection every two weeks, on the full and new moon. One thing that astrology does well is encourage time for reflection, which the modern Western world often does not. A couple months ago, an astrologist I subscribe to recommended a reflection focused on your relationships with your body and money. As I sat down to journal on aspects of those relationships I wish to improve, I hit a roadblock when it came to brainstorming concrete action steps with money. In contrast, I have done a lot of work with my body, beginning in eighth grade when I developed anorexia and continuing throughout the next four or five years. Thanks to this work - as well as to outside support, and also to sheer luck - when I brainstormed concrete action steps regarding my relationship with my body, the biggest problem I came up with was having too many pairs of socks and underwear with holes. I decided my body deserved better, so I bought new underwear and socks. Simple as that! However, I had never actively worked on my relationship with money, and I felt lost.
I knew it would benefit me to work on that relationship, because ever since I graduated and became financially independent in June, I have experienced undue anxiety about money. Although I work at a job that I like, and that will probably lead to a good career, I am not paid as much as many of my friends are paid. While I do not make much above minimum wage and am trying to live an active, single, social life in a major city, I still find that I have enough money to take care of necessities, have some fun, and build my savings. Yet despite having what is objectively enough money, I have gone to Walgreens and stood in the toothpaste aisle, almost hyperventilating due to the anxiety I felt about choosing the PERFECT toothpaste at the BEST price. I have also come close to hyperventilating at “normal” grocery stores, overwhelmed by all the choices and afraid I will overspend and/or not pick what I most want and need. (I am too accustomed to the limited-choice model of places like Trader Joe’s, and I don’t often step outside that comfort zone.) While I have bought my own toothpaste and groceries (and many other things) for years, this summer was the first time that everything I bought came solely out of the money I made, not from a combination of my money and my parents’ money. This new reality upped the stakes for me, bringing out the worst aspects of my perfectionism: my indecisiveness, especially in the face of the glut of choices in our capitalist society; my discomfort with anything other than a huge cushion of savings; my maximizing tendencies (e.g., if I don’t absolutely love this toothpaste/latte/you-name-it, it’s a waste of money; read more on maximizers vs. satisficers here); and many others.
I didn’t know with whom I can talk to about this, partly because I felt too much shame around a) making less money than my friends, and b) having these feelings when I have what is objectively enough money, and when so many others lived in abject poverty. So I was stuck. I felt too much shame to talk to friends; I didn’t want to pay for a therapist (surprise, surprise); and whenever I brought the issue up with my mother, she either got frustrated at my irrationality or upset at herself for raising me in the lower-middle class home that bred some of my anxiety in the first place. On the other hand, the situation wasn’t dire; I did not hyperventilate every time I spent money, and I could feel my anxiety lessen as the weeks went on and I became more accustomed to financial independence.
Transition periods have always been hard for me. Funnily enough, though, I expected this transition to wreak havoc on my relationship with food and my body, which is what most transition periods have done in the past. But that’s the wild thing about mental health; you cannot always foresee the challenges on the horizon. Luckily for me, even a couple months ago, this transition period was close to ending; I was close to fully being in a new era of my life, and my anxiety around money was less crippling than ever. But I still thought I should seek advice and put some work into my relationship with money, and I still didn’t want to talk to any person, over the phone or in person, about this. (That’s the great thing about advice blogs!) Alas, I did not write to an advice blog. Instead, I thought about the last time I wanted advice without talking to someone. What came to mind was a time near the end of high school when I had made some progress in my relationship with my body but wanted to do more work. Through my obsessive habit of internet stalking all manner of body-positive gurus, I stumbled upon a woman named Geneen Roth and went to the library to check out her book Women Food and God. This book ended up really helping me in high school, and now, as a college graduate, I thought I would try to find a similar book about money.
After reading reviews of various books, I checked out Emotional Currency: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Healthy Relationship with Money, by Kate Levinson. A quick search for this book, or for Women Food and God, shows that I am obviously more interested in psychological and spiritual work than in anything like Weight Watchers or a practical personal finance program. With my body, my goal is not to lose weight, and with money, my finances are fine on the surface; it is just my underlying relationship with them that is fraught.
The thing with any self-help book is that you cannot just read it; you actually have to do the suggested exercises and/or your own active reflections (e.g., journal entries) as you read. For me, truly experiencing a self-help book requires doing anything that requires more work on your part that just consuming ideas. I have to say that I have not persisted far in active work with Emotional Currency, partly because I’m juggling many things and partly because I’m resistant to tackling the topic of money. But, in the spirit of commending myself for consciously seeking advice when I felt I needed it, I will say this: I have done several exercises in the book that have helped me rinse out some of the murkier feelings I associate with money, and I am proud of myself for going from a place where I was completely clueless about how to handle this relationship, to reflecting on what I had done in past, similar situations and effectively applying that strategy to the issue at hand. I think that more often than not, a little mental push is all we need to see the situation in a new light and apply some of the wisdom we already have inside us.