People know me as a nice guy. That means I’m the person who you don’t mind asking for favors or help. Maybe you need to borrow some money. Or in school you would ask me to edit your essay for you or help with the math homework. I would rarely say no. It wasn’t just that. I let others make a lot of the decisions. Or felt bad saying that I would prefer something else.
It wasn’t until well in my 30s I realized I had boundary issues.
Being a so called “nice guy” means that you put yourself last. You don’t take time for yourself. You put the needs of others over your own. But this creates resentment and unhappiness and is ultimately unsustainable.
Making time for yourself
Setting boundaries in your life doesn’t just mean being able to say “no”. It means assertively stating your needs and following through with them.
It’s important that we set aside time for ourselves. It’s important to put yourself first sometimes. Whether that means spoiling yourself financially, or taking time to do something that you love, keeping up hobbies or male-bonding (or girls’ night out).
Say you want to go swimming once a week on your own. You always loved swimming, but it’s not the same with the kids. You end up spending all the time taking care of them and not getting enough laps in. Maybe swimming is low on the list because of the soccer practice and doing homework with the kids and making lunch for tomorrow’s school and getting those late night final changes needed for your presentation tomorrow. But you really want to do this. So discuss it with your spouse and tell them that this is important to you and you need their help to make it happen. It doesn’t have to be a request. You need to just do it.
When you need to say ‘No’.
Say your spouse is spending too much money, and it’s hurting your family’s bottom line? Maybe you’re constantly having to save them by covering their credit card bills or their account is going into overdraft. If this is upsetting you and it keeps happening, it might be time to set a boundary. Tell them if it happens again, you will not help pay for it. Say that you believe in them and they can do it. Maybe sign up for YNAB and work together on it. But you have to stick to your guns. If you said you will not do it, don’t renege on that.
Growing resentment and explosions
I think the personality traits of having high empathy come with also having low boundaries. When you feel for others, you will often put them first. But it doesn’t come free. It causes resentment when you repeatedly do this. And then you feel like they need to reciprocate. And when they don’t, you feel cheated. You feel betrayed. You feel angry. And sometimes you explode.
Let me tell you the story of when I was living on campus for my first year of university life. I had extra money in my food account, so I would buy drinks and pop for my friend, who we can call Mike. I probably spent $60–100 on Mike throughout the term.
The one time I forgot my card and asked him to cover my drink, he said something to the effect of “You’ll pay me back, right?”
It’s not that Mike was a freeloader. Let’s put this a different way. There was never any expectation that he had to be generous back. Now, he should have been, and this was an extreme example of stinginess, but this is why it’s important to create boundaries. You don’t have to say yes to everyone. Even if you do, it doesn’t mean they will reciprocate. Always remember that.
It could be quite the opposite. Maybe you guys are best buds and the relationship is reciprocal. You buy Mike things and he often gives you a ride to school or maybe he’s just not as well off as you are. That’s fine. But don’t be afraid to say no sometimes.
Sometimes the resentment will turn into an explosion. It’s when the resentment builds so much that you can’t hold back anymore. That’s what happens when you don’t make boundaries.
Don’t Justify Yourself
Here’s a trick — don’t justify yourself.
“Can you cover me for this drink?”
No. Sorry, not this time.
“Can I borrow $500? I’ll pay you back next week. You know I’m good for it”
Sorry bud, I can’t cover you this time.
I can’t. Not this time. Sorry.
You notice that there’s no explanation given. Be okay with the uncomfortable feeling that brings. Sit with it. Allow it to be.
You don’t have to justify it. You don’t have to say “I only have $300 in my bank account.” That’s the easy way out —either lying or making excuses. Even if you really don’t have the money. It doesn’t make you are a jerk, but it might feel that way if you are not used to behaving this way.
What are the repercussions?
What might happen when you do this?
It will take time for them to adjust if they are not used to seeing you assert yourself. They might even try harder to prevent you from doing what you wanted.
Say your kids are used to getting whatever they want by whining. While you’re on your shopping trip, they will pick up whatever toy or candy catches their eye and then will persistently badger you until you say no. Maybe it’s only $10 and you can easily afford it. But it’s not about that. You know that this isn’t the right way for them to get what they want. You know that they don’t need yet another plastic toy that they will play with for 20 minutes and then forget all about it. So this is what you do:
- Say no. We will not get this toy this time
- If they persist, tell them you will say it one final time, and if they ask you again, you will leave the store
- If they continue, leave the store immediately. Drop all your groceries and take them back to the car.
This pattern works really well. They will soon realize who is the boss. You.
Making boundaries takes conscious practice and effort. It requires assertiveness and being able to state your needs. It means you have to say no sometimes and be okay with the uncomfortable feeling that brings. By creating boundaries and putting ourselves first, we will be living happier lives not just for ourselves but for others around us. We will have more balanced relationships and not have as much resentment and avoid explosions. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.