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How to Handle 2022: A Therapist’s Boundaries

Responding to expectations.

By Pro-stock Studio/Getty Images Pro via Canva
Setting boundaries. And expectations.
Source: By Pro-stock Studio/Getty Images Pro via Canva

By Kristen Beesley, Ph.D., with Linda Michaels, PsyD.

A recent New York Times article focused on the experience of therapists during the pandemic and found that many are feeling overwhelmed, burned out, and exhausted. Just like our clients, therapists can be struggling as we enter the second winter of this pandemic and the constant influx of information we have to process.

One thing that can add to the struggle is difficulty putting up boundaries and saying “No, I can’t do that.” Women, mothers, and those of us in the human service or personal care professions (i.e., therapists, nurses, teachers, hairstylists, personal trainers) can have a particularly tough time saying “No.” We are dealing directly with people and we hope to meet their needs and wants. Many of us are also women, and socially and culturally, we are further burdened by the care-taking expectations traditionally imposed on women and mothers. We are seen as helping, caring, and expected to perpetually nurture, and often expected to say “Yes.”

A few years ago, I decided on a “Year of Yes,” Shonda Rhimes style. I can say now in hindsight, even some small “yesses” lead to some very positive changes in my life over the course of time like building new friendships, hobbies, and business opportunities.

Alternatively, this year, I decided on a “Year of No.” This is a feat for me, as a lifelong people-pleaser and recovering perfectionist. However, 20 months into a global pandemic, as a therapist working during a global mental health crisis, and as a mother with three young children at home, I’ve decided the time is now for “No.”

I am eternally grateful to carry with me the benefits of my own personal psychoanalysis, which helps me to identify my overwhelm before it grows into resentment, anger, sadness, or anxiety. Knowing myself, and identifying these feelings, and understanding them led me to plan my “Year of No!”

What does a “Year of No” entail?

1) Setting boundaries that work for me.

Setting boundaries requires a tough core. "No that doesn’t work for me." These words are met with disdain and envy (see below). You may be asked for an explanation. Some settings (e.g., work, certain relationships) call for an explanation. Some settings do not. If an explanation is due, make it brief, firm and without blaming yourself for perceived shortcomings. In other cases, with practice, you can get used to saying no with a period at the end (without explanation).

2) Staying in touch with my core values.

There are “No’s” that are transient, such as: “No, I’m sorry, I just don’t have time for that right now.” Or “No, gosh, I wish I could but that’s just not my specialty. You may want to call my colleague instead.”

And there are “No’s” that won’t change, even with time. “No, that is just not something I feel comfortable with.” Knowing who you are and what you stand for helps tremendously with this one.

3) Understanding my limits.

There are many things I could say yes to, but many things I should say no to. I will ask myself some questions: 1) Does this fit with the way I envision my most satisfying life? 2) Do I have room for this request right now? 3) Does this request or situation leave me feeling uncomfortable, used or exploited? Reviewing the answers to these guiding questions should help you to communicate your decline of the request.

What to expect when you say no

1) Disappointment or disdain

When someone responds to your “No” with disappointment, disdain, or even anger, ask to take some time and come back to the discussion later. Before returning, take inventory or jot down some of your original reasons for saying no. Set limits for the return conversation, “Let’s circle back to our discussion. I can say a bit more but I want to begin by letting you know that there really isn’t going to be much that could change my mind. I also want to have a respectful and productive conversation about this.”

2) Guilt

Even when the person you’ve said no to isn’t angry or their response comes across with subtle disappointment or passive aggressiveness, you may feel guilty and think, “I guess I could have said yes.” Or, “Ugh, now they won’t trust me!” Remind yourself of the reasons you’ve said no in the first place. Try to manage the impulse to return to the discussion or to reverse your decision, just to assuage your guilt.

3) Envy

For many, this one is the worst to sit with as the recipient (and can occur in combination with #1 or #2). Sometimes your ability to say “No” is met with envy from the other person. This envy can come across as anger, guilt-inducing commentary, judgment, or silence. These feelings may cover the other person’s envy of your capacity to set healthy limits, and their own struggle to do this for themselves. They may want to attack this ability in you and make you feel bad about it. This is their problem, not yours. For more about the relationship between guilt and envy, read here.

Even though this may sound like a lot to manage, the benefits of healthy boundaries, and less burnout and stress are worth it. Here’s to 2022, a year of “No.” Will you join me? Even if your answer is a resounding “No,” I’m still planning to do it anyway.

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