I met a convicted pedophile at a networking event. Obviously it wasn't on his name tag, but he was so creepy that I Googled him when I got home. I just got that "get into my van" vibe. I'm familiar with that vibe because I have been invited into windowless vans on two separate occasions in the past year. One guy even got a little offended that I didn't want a ride, and informed me that he is "not, like, a serial killer or anything." Statistically speaking, that's probably true. Still not getting in your van.
Some situations make setting boundaries easy and obvious. Most of us are well-trained to recognize these situations. Opinion may differ about where that boundary should be, but it's pretty clear that there should be one. No, Mr. Networking Pedophile, I will not come to your house and give you a massage. Obviously. But setting boundaries doesn't just mean protecting yourself from obvious danger.
In the past week, two different women have told me that they feel responsible, at home and at work, for making sure everyone else is happy first. This is not limited to women, though I think it is compounded for many women by the fact that young children generally aren't worrying about whether mom has a solid support network or a consistent self-care routine. When you have to put your kids' needs before your own, it's not a huge step to put everyone else's needs first, too.
Having clear priorities is the first step to setting good boundaries. Here's an idea for figuring out where you need stronger boundaries. Make a list of all the things you do or want to do, in descending order of priority. Your first priority might be spending time with your family, it might be exercise, it might even be your job. The key is to be realistic about what your priorities are. Wishful thinking lists just make you feel inadequate, and that's not helpful. I might want meditation to be a top priority, but I don't do it even when I have time, so it doesn't get to be #2 on my list. Nobody else needs to look at the list, so you can be honest. What kind of life do you actually want?
Then, take the waking hours of the past week, and make a list of how much time you spent doing each thing. How much time did you spend at work? How much time did you spend reading? Exercising? Playing music? Compare it to your priorities list. Most people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, whether they like their job or not, but if you're working 70 hours a week for a company that only pays you for 40, you probably need to start saying no more often.
Comparing what you want your life to look like and what it actually looks like can be pretty depressing, but it can also give you some perspective on where your boundaries need to be stronger. If something is really preventing you from doing what is most important, how can you take control of that situation? It won't happen instantly, and it will definitely take some work. Start small, and think long-term. Sometimes having the life you want starts with saying no to things that are holding you back.
I'm so absorbed in the business aspect of my practice that I've given myself some seriously ironic insomnia. At some point my subconscious convinced itself that obsessing over meaningless details at 3 a.m. is the key to some kind of marketing revelation. If you've ever done this, I'm sure you already know that it is actually the key to a really crappy next morning. So what do we do?
The first step is to honestly make sleep a priority. It's easy to think that whatever is keeping you up at night (work, school, a relationship) is more important than sleep, and for a few days that might be true. Over time, though, being constantly sleep-deprived will ruin your career / grades / relationship anyway, if it doesn't kill you first. Here's how to make sleep a priority in 20 minutes per day.
The first step is preparation: make your bedroom a sleeping room. Move the TV, the laptop, the iPad, the box of your kid's toys, whatever. Anything with a screen, especially, should be kicked out. If you live in a studio or have one room in a shared house, find some way to convert your room at night, so that distractions are literally covered. When I lived in a studio, I put a blanket over my computer desk at night. It sounds silly, but it did help (plus it covered the flashing laptop battery light).
20 minutes before you want to go to sleep, get a notebook and make a to-do list for the next day. It shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. If it takes 20 minutes to write your to-do list, you might have unrealistic expectations about how much you can get done in a day. Once you write your to-do list (which is probably at least partially related to the thing you've been obsessing about), forget about it. It's on paper, you don't need to remember it. If the thing you're obsessing over is emotional, write that down instead of a to-do list. Write for 10 minutes only about whatever is bothering you, then actively let it go. You should do the writing in a room that is not your bedroom.
When you're done writing, you can get ready to sleep. Don't check your email one last time, don't turn on the TV. Sit on the edge of your bed (or on a chair in your bedroom) and breathe. In the beginning, this will be 10 minutes of obsessing over how you're not focused enough on your breath, and that's fine. It doesn't get easier, but it does get more effective if you keep doing it for a few weeks. Don't worry about whether you're doing it right, just sit and breathe. Set a timer (not your alarm clock) for 10 minutes so you don't have to watch the clock. In the beginning, you'll watch the clock anyway, and that's fine too.
Relaxation is an active process. We live in a culture that encourages us to collapse, rather than relax, because if you still have energy you should be using it to be productive. Use that extra energy to practice letting go. It's harder than being productive, but if you stick with it, it's worth it.
Setting yourself up for successful life changes
I am a New Years resolution breaker. Every year, I'm going to meditate 2 hours every day, cook organic three-course meals every night, get up at 5 a.m. to go running before work, and never have negative or judgmental thoughts about anyone ever again. I take the bus everywhere, so never having negative thoughts again lasts about an hour. The other ones last about 2 days.
The reason New Years resolutions are doomed to fail is that discipline is irrelevant. Thinking that keeping New Years resolutions is a matter of personal discipline only sets up a death spiral of stress and self-punishment that makes failure inevitable. Unless your resolution is to eat more cake, habit will always win over willpower. This sounds terrible, but is actually great, because it means that you can make positive changes in your life even if you don't have the discipline to keep New Years resolutions. Positive change is about forming new habits, which takes time. Making one huge change is exhausting. Changing one small habit at a time is much easier, and will lead to long-term support for a major change like a daily meditation practice or a strenuous exercise program.
The first step is to look at the reasons you aren't already doing whatever it is you want to do. The reason I don't get up at 5 a.m. to go running is that I go to bed at 11:30. If I make it a matter of discipline, I have to force myself out of bed on 5 hours of sleep to do something I hate. Eventually my body rebels and I pull a muscle or get sick. My lifestyle does not support getting up that early.
Make a list of all the habits that are standing in your way. Start with the most obvious and work backwards, so if you reverse the list you have a very loose kind of "butterfly sneezing in Antarctica causes a tsunami in Thailand" progression. My running list looks something like:
going to bed late, eating dinner too late, working on the computer at night, not getting enough done earlier in the day so I can relax at night, daytime schedule is disorganized, not eating lunch early enough to be hungry at a normal dinner time.
There are also emotional barriers (I hate running), but that is less important. I also hate flossing, but I do it every day anyway because there are no habits preventing it. Changing your habits will take time and involves many small pieces, so looking strategically at the steps is important.
Now that you have your list of habits, start with the last one. This is probably the first in the progression, and is often the easiest to change. It took a while to think of it, so it's not a huge part of your life. I don't try to eat lunch at 3:30, I just don't schedule myself time to eat during the day, so I eat whenever I get a break. This is a relatively easy problem to fix. For the first week, change that first thing. Changing the first habit supports changing the next: if I eat lunch at noon every day for a week, I'll start getting hungry earlier in the evening, making it easier to eat dinner earlier. Make a plan to change each small habit, working up to the biggest one.
My 6-week running plan looks like this:
week 1: eat lunch between noon and 1 every day
week 2: finish dinner by 6:30 every night
week 3: schedule time during the day to do computer work so I don't have to do it at night
week 4: go to bed by 9:30. Read in bed if you can't sleep that early, don't look at a screen.
week 5: get up 15 minutes earlier every day
week 6: get up another 15 minutes earlier
After 6 weeks, it won't be so miserable to get up early, because I've set up the day so that I can relax at night and go to sleep earlier. If I get up half an hour earlier, I'll have time for a short run. Once a habit is established, it is much easier to maintain.
It all looks easy on paper, of course actually doing it is more difficult. You have a much higher chance of success if each step is as small as possible. The 6-week plan isn't universal, I chose that number because that's how many habits I think are standing in the way of my goal. You might have more, or fewer, and that's fine. It might take 2 weeks for each step, you can plan it that way if you think it will have a better chance of sticking. It's better to take 2 months to make lasting change than try to get everything done in 2 weeks and not maintain it.
The most important thing to remember is to keep each small step small emotionally as well. Don't start the death spiral of failure because you slipped a few times in the first week. It's all fine, as long as you keep moving forward. If you get to the end of the first week and the first habit is impossible to change, take a few steps further back. Break that habit down into smaller pieces. Success will build on itself if the steps are small enough to manage.