Many of us live in societies that tell us that being there for others in spite of ourselves is preferred and even praised. When we start looking after ourselves by saying: ‘No, not today,’ for example, we get booed and made to feel guilty.

The guilt has kept many of us from saying ‘no’ and asking for what we need. Because it is frowned upon. Because ‘it’s not how we do it here’. What about our mental health?

If we are running around, going against what our mind, body and gut are telling us, aren’t we going to fall into mental unwellness?

Yes, most likely. So how do we set our boundaries, ask for what we need, without letting the guilt stop us from doing so, or making us backtrack and go back to our people-pleasing ways? It sounds simple, but it’s very complex. What we need to do is to plan ahead.

Planning ahead means being aware of the fact that we will be challenged. We will have people say to us ‘Oh come on, it won’t take long,’ when you’re at the end of your tether and really just want to go home and have a bath or get into your favourite pyjamas and rest after a long day.

If we know ourselves and what we need, then we can stand firm on our decisions and stick to our boundaries no matter what.

We get to know what we want, need and where our limits lie, by going to therapy or really listening to ourselves and how we reacted when we went against our body and mind’s wishes, and felt resentful afterwards. Resentful against the person asking and ourselves for not sticking to our guns.

Next time something like this happens, we will remember the feeling and know we don’t want our relationship to go sour, so it’s better to have a short period of anger from them and guilt from ourselves, than lose the friendship altogether. Dealing with the guilt might take time.

I am a firm believer – and have seen it in action in my own life and in my clients’ lives – that the more you practice, the easier it gets.

The first few times I set boundaries and said ‘No, sorry, not now,’ (among other things), I felt guilty and even upset at letting my friends or loved ones down. But knowing that I hadn’t done it out of malice, and that I did it because I really needed time on my own, or just not time doing what they were asking, helped reduce the guilt.

Also knowing that other people’s errands and responsibilities aren’t… well… my responsibilities… also helped dissipate the guilt and show me that I was in the right to set boundaries that made sense to my mind and body, and that in the end made me feel much better about my decisions, myself, and my relationships.

Striking the right balance will take time. Letting the guilt wash off or be a silent, distant voice, will take time. Figuring out what you actually need, want, and where your boundaries lie, will take time, but the sooner you start, the better.

You could start with saying no to a cup of tea and asking for a juice instead, when visiting a friend. (If you want a juice that is!) Start with the small things, see how they feel, and then start trying the bigger things. 

Trust in the process, I have, and it’s been life-changing.