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Cheryl Richardson: Setting Firm Boundaries

Body+Soul, March 2007

Christine, an osteopath, runs a small practice in upstate New York. One evening, as she waited at a stoplight, her car was rear-ended. She sustained only minor injuries to her neck and back -- but a year later, she still lived every day in pain. The months dragged on, and she found it harder to function as a business owner, mom, and wife. At a loss as to how to cope with the stress, she wrote to me for help.

By all accounts, Christine was a model patient. She followed her doctor's advice, attended rehab sessions faithfully, and got regular chiropractic adjustments from a colleague. After our initial conversation, though, I wondered if perhaps her life needed an adjustment to support her healing. After all, she was under a lot of pressure. Her husband had started his own business, leaving Christine as the primary breadwinner and manager of a household that included two teenage boys. "I feel like I'm drowning in responsibility, like the weight of the world is on my shoulders," she told me. "I need someone to take it off."

The words we use to describe how we feel offer a wealth of information about what's really going on below the surface. In Christine's case, this last statement fueled my suspicion that the chronic pain had more than just the accident at its source.

Her first homework assignment was simple: I asked her to schedule three hours of uninterrupted time for herself during the following week. She clearly needed breathing room to gain clarity about her pain. But Christine resisted. "My husband counts on me to be on hand to support him, and my sons need me to get to their sports practices," she said. "If I'm suddenly not around, they're not going to like it." I challenged Christine to do it anyway. To calm her anxiety about the family's reaction, I suggested she let them know ahead of time that she needed this break. In a calm and relaxed way, she would ask them to support her choice to practice better self-care -- a decision that would ultimately benefit everyone.

A Moment Alone
At our next session, Christine reported on her time spent drinking tea and reading at a cafe in her local bookstore. She was thrilled. "It felt like a hundred hours to myself. I came home energized and in a good mood -- and the feeling stayed with me for several days afterward." Most of all, she savored the time to think about her own life for a change. "It gave me the chance to realize that I have a habit of taking on everything myself -- the care of the kids, the chores, my husband's needs -- and then I end up feeling angry when no one offers to help."

Christine's next assignment included another three-hour date with herself, plus what I hoped would be a revealing exercise. She would write down anything that came to mind when she considered this question: "If your aching joints could talk, what would they say about you and your life?" To get the most out of it, she needed to spend at least a half hour. Intrigued by the idea, she eagerly agreed.

During our next call, Christine shared her list. "I wrote down things like irritated, stressed, slow down, give in, ask for help, stop saying yes, overburdened, and resentful." I made a special mental note of the last word: resentful. I've heard it used time and again by two types of women: those who feel like they live everyone else's life but their own, and those who suffer from chronic pain. I asked Christine to tell me more about this feeling. "It just seems as if my needs are less important than my family's needs. If my husband wants help, I immediately drop everything I'm doing and offer my assistance. If I don't, he tends to get upset. When either of my kids has to go somewhere, I'm always the taxi driver on call. When I do ask for help, I get so much flak from everyone that I just end up doing it myself, and my resentment builds over time."

The next course of action was clear: Christine needed to set limits with her husband and boys. Chances were good that they ignored her needs because she let them get away with it, not because they didn't care. To help her shift this behavior, we used three statements to identify where she would have to set a few boundaries:

1. What I need to feel restored is ____.

2. Where I need emotional and physical space is ____.

3. What people can no longer do around me is ____.

After listening to her answers, I could tell that keeping a weekly date in her schedule would cast a protective net around her much-needed emotional space. I could also hear that much of her resentment stemmed from the way family members treated her. She needed them to listen more, not speak down to her, and stop using her as a primary sounding board for their problems. Once we were clear on where she needed to set boundaries, she was ready for the final step. It was time to speak up.

Border Patrol
We chose one boundary for each family member and practiced having the kind of conversation that would reduce defensiveness and enlist support. If she didn't ask for what she needed before it materialized as an issue, she'd end up making demands out of frustration -- a formula for failure.

Over the next two sessions, I could tell Christine was making progress. "I asked my kids to give me peace and quiet in the afternoons when I often take a nap or work at home," she said. "At first, they didn't take me seriously. But every time the TV started blaring or they began yelling at one another, I calmly restated my request. Eventually, they got it." She also asked her husband to stop interrupting her with questions about his projects when she was clearly wrapped up in work of her own. "Initially, he was put off by my requests, but he's coming around. He actually admitted that I'm better to be around when I have time for myself. I know this will take some practice, but at least they're paying attention."

The week after our work ended, I received an e-mail from Christine. "I wanted to share an insight I had. I'm learning that I need to be the one in charge of getting my needs met. No one can do that for me. For years, I've felt like a victim and behaved like a martyr. Now I have the tools to turn this around. Thank you." There was a P.S. to her message. As Christine continued to set boundaries, something "miraculous" happened: "I've been pain-free for seven days now. I haven't felt this good in over a year," she wrote. "This boundary stuff really works." It certainly does. Good boundaries always make for good emotional, spiritual, and physical self-care.

Do you need Cheryl's Coaching? Each issue, our life coach helps a Body+Soul reader work on personal challenges. Write to Cheryl, describing the details of your situation, at Cheryl Richardson is a life coach, speaker, and best-selling author of four books, including "The Unmistakable Touch of Grace." Visit her at

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