5 Lessons in Setting Boundaries that Every Caregiver Must Learn
It seems like I’ve been exhausted for 20 years. In just the last few months I’ve been waking up to the realization that this fatigue is the direct result of much-too-loose personal and professional boundaries. I’ve spent so much time and energy in my life doing things that I can’t or don’t want to do –that I am just plain tired.
There’s an epidemic of “can’t say no” among the women I know. But, I think it’s especially difficult for daughters – to say no to a parent who wants to move in, to say no to unreasonable requests from siblings or paid caregivers, or to bow out of community obligations that are just too much on top of caregiving demands.
As a caregiver, it’s essential that you become an expert in setting boundaries. Boundaries are the flip side of asking for help. And if you can do both… if you can learn to say, “No” and “I need your help,” you might just survive this experience.
It’s all well and good for caregiving experts to say, “make sure you take care of yourself” but they skip a step when they give this advice. Because, let me tell you this. It’s impossible to take care of yourself if you don’t have good boundaries.
But, just in case you’re like me and it’s never occurred to you that you might have a teeny tiny problem with boundaries, I am just dying to tell you the lessons I’ve learned over the last few months of working on this.
Lesson 1: Just because someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
People are going to make unreasonable demands – that’s what people do. But here’s the thing: Just because someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
This may seem obvious on the surface but you’d be surprised how many of us behave as if we must respond to every demand with an outpouring of our time and energy. I’ve noticed my own tendency to turn requests into objects of resentment because I immediately assume each one is a “should do.”
Recently, I was composing a defensive, angry email in response to a colleague’s request. Essentially I was saying, “How dare you ask me to do this… can’t you SEE how busy and tired I am, and how big this thing is you are asking me to do??!”
But then, by the grace of God, I paused (pausing is always grace-inspired).
And when I did, a huge blessing happened in the form of this idea: Rather than an email saying, “I can’t do that,” what if I sent an email that said, “Here’s what I can do (instead).”
Turns out that what I could do — as opposed to what I was asked to do — was 100% satisfactory.
So the next time someone asks you to do something that you can’t or don’t want to do, just try thinking about what you can or do want to do – even if it’s less than or different from the original ask — and offer that as your response! I think this can be a very powerful form of self-love.
Lesson 2: It’s not your job to make everyone else comfortable all the time.
My biggest confusion in life, I think is deciding whether something is a necessary obligation or a problem that isn’t mine to solve.
In the addiction recovery literature, solving problems that aren’t yours is called “enabling.”
Here’s an example. If you live near your mom but your big sister lives far away, she could be feeling helpless and guilty. So, to ease her feelings of guilt and helplessness, she might be demanding a daily update from you that’s difficult and time consuming to provide. While you may want to ease your sister’s difficult emotions, you can’t agree to add work to what you’re already doing just for that purpose.
And this is important: If she’s annoyed with you for not emailing or calling her every day with an update, her annoyance isn’t an indication of your incompetence, it’s a sign of her discomfort – which (even if you are sympathetic) is NOT your problem. You’ll develop good boundaries only to the extent that you can get in the habit of noticing the difference between what’s your problem and what isn’t.
Lesson 3: Guilt won’t kill you.
Guilt is normal. Unless you’re an enlightened being, you’ll feel guilt as a caregiver. But also know this: guilt is the ego’s sneakiest disguise. Guilt will keep you trapped in a false world of heroic shoulds.
You have so much to offer the world and if you’re agreeing to energy-sapping demands that run contrary to what you want and can do, you’re siphoning off the very energy that makes you an effective citizen of the world.
So, acknowledge guilt when you feel it, let it roll over you and then move on. Because, if guilt is motivating you to say yes when you want or need to say no, then it’s limiting your potential to have the impact you were born to have.
Lesson 4: Set boundaries with yourself.
Treat your superego – the one who wants everything to be perfect — like the person who just asked you to volunteer for a big job at your kids’ school. You gotta respond to this voice in your head just like you would an actual person who is making suggestions that require a firm “no.”
I have to warn you though — this voice is very insidious. I call my voice “Tiffany” – don’t ask me why, I don’t know exactly. But, yesterday, Tiffany suggested that it would be fantastic if the house were decked out for Christmas like never before…. She showed me some pictures of what my house could look like during the holiday and she even photo-shopped my kids into the picture. They were sitting around a brightly lit fireplace with cocoa mugs and …
She’s very persuasive, this Tiffany. She should get a job at an advertising agency. But, I am really clear with her that I don’t have the energy to realize this perfect picture because I care so much more about writing this blog. So today you’re getting this blog while my house sits undecorated.
Most Important Lesson 5: Your being is more important than your doing.
Whatever you’re doing to please other people is only temporary relief for that deep feeling of uneasiness about yourself that almost everybody has to some extent.
I’ve often felt that I need to do more in order to make up for something I feel is lacking in who I am. That if I do more that’ll help everyone get past the general concern they all must have about my worthiness.
But, actually, this is complete fiction. Nothing you do – whether good, bad, or great, can change the fundamental awesomeness of who you are. You are enough without DOING anything. This is the lesson that nearly every spiritual tradition and practice teaches – so take some time every day to try and absorb that truth and remember……
YOU are enough.
P.S. We’ve created super helpful free download on Setting Boundaries for you to use as reference.
Thank you. I needed this today. You’ll never know exactly how your words hit home. I’m a care giver living with ovarian cancer. I’ve been both sides of the coin and I guess I’m the whole coin right now as well. Driving MY caregivers crazy trying to give care to my sick grandparents. Life is funny.
Hi – Thank you for sharing this! I love the image of your pushing the boundaries with your caregivers in order to take care of others. Life IS funny.
Thank you for writing this. I have an aunt, who never married and had no children. She has recently started having health problems and is leaning on me, her only relative, to help her. While I am doing what I can, I cannot be the person she wants me to be. I am a recent widow, I work full time, and cannot just take all the time off to take her to appointments, etc.
After a day of her frantically texting and calling me while I was at work (her problem that day was NOT an emergency), if I finally sent her an email with my availability and what I could and couldn’t do for her. We then had a nice phone call and things are better.
You hit the nail right on the the head with your advice. Thank you!!
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Great post! I would also suggest that these lessons could be expanded into other facets of our lives!
Now go take some time to enjoy yourself doing whatever it is you want to do! Happy and healthy holidays to all.
I took so much time off (sort of) that I am just now getting around to responding to comments. I love yours!
I can’t beleive how you just stepped into my shoes, my head, my life. You just explained me to a tee. I am a fixer, I do everything with everyone else in mind with no reguard for my health and well being. Don’t get me wrong, I’m healthy….I put a few pounds back on with my Mom’s recent hospital stays. I just need to find my voice. I care for my Mom 24/7, take her everywhere, pretty much do everything for her as she is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. My main goal in life is to give my Mom her best life, each and every day. I have her in a day program, I get her out for lunch with her friends, my Husband and I take her with us on vacations, I just wish that rather than thanking me for everything that I do, my siblings would give me the gift of time. Not all the time or everyday, just on occasion, so I could go home to spend some quality time with my Husband. He comes to Moms to spend time with me, but it’s not the same. I appreciate your posts, your information and support. Thank you for the space to vent, and thanks for your wisdom.
Just wanted to let you know you have a twin sister in Florida for the last 6 years and we’ve led a mirrored life. Mom is at. My mom is now in late stage Alzheimer’s and renal failure. But I can say I wouldn’t change much of the last years for all the joy it’s brought her. Just amazing the lack of time & participation of family is sad, and I have set my boundaries and feel do much better saying no. Thank you for sharing
Beth. I am reading your heartfelt post. God bless you. Yes I know how you feel and it is very important to have healthy boundaries and receive help from others
Giving time, and of oneself is a gift. I too am amazed at the lack of just a little time and participation from family. Why is it so difficult to be thoughtful and to be present. A visit, take them to lunch, call on their birthday……. Elders – Like plants, when you water they grow. without water they wither away. Sometimes one can’t set boundaries because a caretaker does ask for help, but sadly, doesn’t always receive. But yet, I am grateful. Just exhausted and praying for strength and patience. Our parents deserve the best in their elder years.
Great read! Now you’ve got me thinking up a name for that lady that talks to me in my head;). I’ll tell you something else…I’ve spent the last two years perfecting this line for those times when I just can’t negotiate, and it’s so liberating. I simply say, “I’d like to, but I can’t.”, and I smile lovingly while I say it. In the begining I would add lots of explaination to that simple sentence, but now if there is no wiggle room I keep in simple. It feels sooooo good!
As the soul caretaker for my mom for 8 years ,this post hit home on so many levels for me .Your tiffney voice is a friend of mine !! As I sit here now in my new home ,since mama passed away Nov 11 2015 ,and dads demnchia was starting to get worse ,i fianlly said ,I am done ,I moved hme 8 years ago to take care of mom ,dads diease started 1 1/2 ago so then I was taking care of both of them ,then my little brother died in August ,and then mama ,and I called my oldest brother and his wife and said ,i am going to go take time for myself ,time to heal ,time to loe myself threw this ,and reflect on what my part in not setting boundries was and what I can do to change me ,it’s amazing what God can do ,when I can sit still ,hae no responcablitys except myself and visisting with my daddy ,calling him ,loving him from here,living on a beautiful lake with sunset views ,,coming from a co dependent racing ,and recovering fromm alacholism for 9 years ,the tools I learned in the programs I am a part of seemed to go out the window when it came to me learning to be the daughter God desired for me to be and me being the daughter tiffney wanted me to be ,,today I am learning to be me ,and that is enough ,,thank you so much for taking the time to help us other daughters out there ,,this year it took me 5 days after getting just the tree ,before I could actually enjoy decorating it ,since the last two years of mamas life I filmed me decorating the house and tree with her ,for her ,wanting to have those memories one day ,hav’nt watched those yet ,and the tree is as far as I was wanting tto go ,and I did it for me ,and as I sit here with the lights on and then turn this devise on only to have the blessing of reading your wisdom ,I know that God has us in the palm of his hands ,and we will survive ,this is a journey of discovery and recovery ,so grateful we can be apart of it together ,,Connie
Dear Anne and all others who shared above,
I have been caring for my mentally ill sister in my home for the past 3 years. She is very demanding, although she doesn’t realize she is. She has lost much of her short term memory at middle age and only knows that when she needs something, she needs it now or she will forget to ask. Instead of calling my younger sister to vent, I decided to search for articles on boundaries and came upon this blog. God does work in mysterious ways.
Sometimes I just need to know that I’m not alone. Reading these suggestions on how to deal with establishing boundaries and reader’s comments afterward has helped me tremendously. The knot I felt in my neck is no longer tight and I can feel my mind starting to relax.
Thank you all for sharing! Thank you Anne for giving us a space to share and heal.
Thank you for this and all who commented. I’m glad to know I’m not alone.
These musings have been so comforting to me as I struggle with care taking for a mother who loudly resists care provided by anyone but me. Her independence has costs mine. It’s hard “to be “in the face of so much “doing”. I am grateful for your insights, particular now at Christmas.
Happy holiday with or without a decorated tree!
insights that can only be derived from someone who has been there…
Oh, that dang Tiffany. Thank you for bringing her out of the closet. She gets me into more projects that don’t really satisfy in the end. I will have a long talk with her. Thanks.
All true – Let me know how that talk goes LOL
I am going through this right now! I’ve printed the refrigerator sign (actually 5 of them to put around my house and to give to my girlfriends who already tell me these things). It looks like you wrote this blog a while back, but so glad it ended up in my email this morning. I have Crohn’s Disease and take care of my dad who is very demanding. Thank you! I needed to read this! Guess I need to go back and read some other blogs!
Good advice, as good today as it was when you first posted it. Every caregiver needs to read this.
Hello my name is Anne Marie. My career in the care-giving industry id and has been interesting and amazing life giving on both ends. My parents passed away when i was in my late 20’s. Care-taking for me is literally a career of experiences and since I literally have no immediate family the people I care for have become a major part of my life and world. I too need to implement boundaries because of emotional well being and just to be able to care for me. I love reading other people’s insight on ideas for self care.
I WROTE THIS DOWN AS I GO, I HAD AN ACCIDENT AND TOTALED MY ALMOST NEW CAR . I am not buying a new car I am buying some furniture and a
kitty cat ,taking the bus to work,smelling the roses and working less,thank you for the lessons and I am getting some counseling thank God too<
Thank you ,everyone. I need this right now. I am an older woman and caretaker for my husband with Alzheimers, as well as grandchildren. After some health issues of my own, I am asking, “what can I do and what can’t I do?” and ” what about my own life and interests?” It is hard to be everything to everyone. I want to do what I can, and I love them all, but there is also me in this equation. And I have limited energy and resources. My husband does not ask for anything, but he cannot take care of himself. My support group says I need to do everything for him, and I feel guilty that I want some life for me. So I am looking at this boundary thing and thank everyone for their input.
i totally agree
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Yes I understand…..
Hello I had a Mom that was demanding before she passed on.. We never got along very well in our later years. But before she ended up with her first stroke she accepted me in her life and I was good to her and she always thought I would never in life.. But never was mean to her like she was with me… And then her second stroke she became scared and I told her we will be beside her when she needed us… tried to comfort her feelings.. Her third took her and truly happy she loved me as her daughter.. I was never upset on how bossy she was.. just did my best to be her daughter.
Taking care of the two people that means so much to me in my life is t he best feeling ever. My mother and father both have dementia and sometime would not know who I am. Just being in their life and helping thru living each days makes me happy as a daughter that I got to take care of them the way they took care of me when I was young.
In 1970 my mother died 1200 miles away from me. I experienced terrible grief and also much guilt. I felt I should have been with her when she needed so much personal care. As time passed and I thought so much about about our lives together, I began to dwell more on the positive issues between her and I. At first it was difficult to wash away the negative aspects of our relationship but realizing it was up to me to keep my memories of us together as bad hurtful thoughts or wonderful times (which they really were) .
Thank you for this wonderful article! I’m a care giver to my elderly mother and part time day care provider to some awesome grandchildren. I needed to read this years ago. I have never felt like I was enough! Inadequate, was may middle name. So, I ran around trying to please everyone and feeling resentful, hopeless and lost. Just recently, I have started learning to care for myself and say, “No, respect my boundaries” without the crushing guilt. Your article has brought more into focus, so I will keep moving forward in this journey! Thank you and God Bless!
i have appreciated the idea of dialectical thinking approach at work and especially in setting up healthy boundaries in our relationships.
thank you for this wonderful artical
I agree with you
GREAT advice! thanks so much…..
very helpful advice!
This was very helpfull
very helpful makes me feel better
Nice to know I should set boundaries even if its my mother
Very nice to know I can say No. That makes me happy. I make boundaries with my Mother have to or she can run U over
I enjoyed your comments.
You know what you are talking about.
I have said 3 comments and it keeps taking me back here. How do I go on with my lesson?
How many comments do I need to make.?
I learned that I need to make boundaries on somethings
I learned that I need to make boundaries on how often I will go shopping
All of the info in this lesson about boundary setting is great and has a lot to say, showing great ideas on how to handle it. I just lost one of my clients and that client was my oldest son he passed away in Janurary of this year, but not until doing this section of boundary setting did I realize just how much I did for him without setting boundries making myself very tired. He was so sick and because of the love for him as his mother I rarely took much time out for myself. Thank you for all of the information.
My comment t make sure that they know: if they fall you are there to catch them. pay attention to the things that they do for themselves. So you can get an idea of what they are like and that also if they are in need of something you know exactly what it is. Especially as they get older.
Thank you for a great insight.
thank you really needed that helped alot was getting depressed but now got to move on.
Thanks alot really help.
thank you i feel manipulated into giving you my adress in order to not waste the effort i have already spent on this course
Thank you for sharing /
Thank you for reminding me.
This lesson is very important to me, as I did have a lot of guilty feelings… So, now I know it is OK to say NO or give an alternative answer…
I thank you for this lesson Caregivers need to remember this always
Thank you. I never thought of myself as an enabler however this material was very inciteful to me. I always think that I have to help everybody all of the time and honor all requests for help and that could possibly jeopardize quality of judgment in caregiving as a result of sleep deprivation. I realize the importance of setting boundaries now. I never gave it that much thought before.
Thank you for this sharing of your feelings and it is inspiring to me.
Thank you very inspiring to me .
Thank you for sharing this. Its really inspiring and helpful alot.
i have now learned that i cant fix everything for everybody they have to want to fix it themselves and take the steps they need to.i will no longer be an enabler.i will give them encouragement, love and suggestions but they must fix there own problems
Thank you for this well help with change. Sharing can be real healthy!!!
Thank you for sharing your caretaking insight. You are a blessing!
Thank you for sharing this it really helped me Alot.
Thanks for sharing this will help me alot
I am so thankful I could take care of my mother. Knowing she is much safer with me around gives me so much peace of min
thanks for sharing ,won’t feel so guilty about what i cant do for everyone
I just love the way you wrote this blog! To have that strength and insight to know you are enough. For you to know the boundary of crossing the line between loving someone and not respecting yourself…you just made a milstone in my life. Honestly im sitting on my couch, doing my caregiving training on my laptop, its 10:12 pm, and i can honestly say reading this changed my way of thinking from this point forward. Good job not hanging up the christmas lights! lol
Yeah i needed this because my mom needs more than just me to help her caregiver. I love my mom but i must set my boundaries to keep my healthy boundaries
i have learnt more about setting boundaries next time i am found in a situation i will know how to handle it . Thanks for the information.
Great article. This habit can come from what you heard is “good” behavior and just unconsciously done until a situation happens where is just doesn’t make sense.
I heard “I am You and You are Me” early on (i guess that was supposed to be flattering, but even i know i’m not somebody else, *either* way). I also grew up with the notion “You don’t need Boundaries because all people are
really nice” and “Here’s how to answer every question so people don’t think you’re ‘not nice'” (Gak!!)
People really do need to be taught about situations that aren’t necessarily “ideal”–that can happen, too.
I’m struggling with the situation of a great Caretaker for my mother who gets way too “personal” in conversations.
There’s a difference between being friendly and “intimate” that just doesn’t exist in a relationship like that. That she does a great caretaking job is *enough*. Any suggestions on how to deal with this awkward situation?
I literally just made a list of things I am willing to do for my sister. She has been ill most of my life but we are coming to the time when she will need full time care, probably in a nursing home. I am telling my “Tiffany” that we have to stay in our lane and I made a physical list of the things that are in our lane and the things that definitely are NOT. I’m going to discuss it with my therapist, but it felt better just writing it down. All 5 of these suggestions are spot on. Thank you for sharing from your world into mine.
Thank you for share that with me . very understanding
Thanks for sharing great job and good lesson
My Inner Voice is ” OH. Rosemary BE REALISTIC>
Thank you very helpfull
Loved this article. I feel like it’s saving me in little ways. Been feeling so uneasy…. Since i take care of my mom, I’m 27 and my mom has metastatic breast cancer… It’s been incredibly tough on me and my family. But as her daughter, i feel so tied to her and her struggle and the grief and loss of quality time… As a caregiver and being so young i feel like I’ve been placed in an impossible situation where there’s no way i can care for her and myself at the same time. .. especially during a global pandemic where I’m already feeling so isolated …. But this article really helped me to today. Maybe if i successfully set these boundaries and honor myself…. I’ll feel i still have a reason to get up tomorrow. Thank you
Good Comments, Every Caregiver must read, Thanks.
Good guides, every caregiver must know your comments.
This was very helpful,I feel better knowing this.
Good guides, very helpful
Thank you for sharing it was very helpful.
Thank you for sharing it was very helpful.
I recently had to place my mom in a facility due to her advanced memory loss as well as her horrible home conditions. She hates me. Well, truth is she goes back and forth to how happy she is and then how she’s gonna get a lawyer and sue me. I get about 10 calls a day. Sometimes they are good, most time, mean and abusive. Tonight was the worse. She told me she hated me, wished I’d die and wished one of my kids died for putting her in the facility. I am tired. I am hurt. I need to set boundaries but I am struggling to not take her calls since I am her POA. I have an older sister who “helps” but doesn’t want the responsibility but wants to judge and a younger brother who struggles with mom and avoids seeing her. They live in the town where she is but I live 3 hours away. I feel battered and abused by her and am doing the best that I can to make sure she is cared for. There are times when I don’t want to take another call asking me for the 12th time if I can send her deodorant or is her house ok but I’d rather get those than the one I got tonight. I am so tired!
Dot, I’m SO sorry that you have to go through this. Of course we know that cognitive impairment changes someone’s personality and that, even though we can understand that on a rational level, we’re still experiencing it as a personal attack because our brain can’t switch off the “parent” mode when we hear abuse from them. So it’s just really painful. I’d recommend attending a daughterhood circle. Our daughterhood circles are meeting virtually on Zoom and you can sign up here on the website. Just go to the circles page and pick one that fits a time you can attend. Also you might check out the book Ambiguous Loss by Pauline Boss, and look into joining a local support group specifically for people with parents who have dementia or other cognitive loss (you can look for local Alzheimer’s Association). Dot, You REALLY need to get support – this isn’t something you’re supposed to be going through alone and please know you’re not alone!!
thank you very helpfull
thank you very helpfull
Did a search and found you, this is very very helpful. “Tiffany” can come to my 70th birthday bash, she can even help decorate. Of course, that day will in a sane world, be like any other!
Thank you. My father at 93 needs to move into long-term care. I was his primary caregiver for three years. And then I moved, and arranged care in his apartment. Thing is, I’m still the primary contact, advisor, organizer, planner, medical appointment taker. and. commute back to him every month. My sibling is supportive, in that they never complains about what I do, and yet they have never spent a straight 24 hours solo looking after our father. They think that he gets it, but they don’t really. // Recently, my father’s health declined significantly: more severe dementia, now he’s incontinent, he needs constant supervision, can’t stand on his own. I was looking at solutions through his lens: I want to stay living at home, I want to live to 100, I want to have people help me so that I can do everything that I want to do. Your article helped me to pivot. My life: I miss time with my children and spouse when I am spending weeks in Toronto, I miss time with friends who I won’t visit because I am afraid to bring my father COVID (and I am here so often that’s a lot of not visiting), I gave up a wonderful, fulfilling career, Initially, it was just a 3 month leave, and then, and then, and then,…FIVE years later I have no career, don’t feel free to get a job because I will get called back to full-time, 24 hour duty. Just as it happened last week. And my resentment is growing. So, here’s to figuring out my own priorities, accepting the guilt and getting back to feeling fulfilled. I love my Dad. But at what point is it unreasonable to protect his health and prioritize his happiness at the cost of mine? This article helped to set me free to look into nursing homes.
Hi Elle, Please know that you Rock and we’re all cheering you on!!
Thank you, thank you, thank you. My “Tiffany” has been really loud lately. You made me realize she needs to shut up and sit down sometimes.