Set boundaries and set yourself free

Do you find it hard to say no to people and add to your ever-increasing ‘to-do’ list? Do people describe you as having it all together yet on the inside you feel like a failure, a mess and simply never good enough? Do you find yourself ‘wired and tired’ at the end of each day and maybe need a glass of wine to un-wind? Then read on, this article will explain what you can do to help yourself. 



Have you ever experienced yourself saying yes to something and at the same time your insides feel like they are tight as a coil because you really want to say no? In fact, you know that you should say no because you already have a never-ending to-do list and you have yet to bake 50 fairy cakes for your son’s birthday party.

When you find yourself saying yes to everything and everyone it can leave you feeling resentful, unappreciated, angry, teary, and depressed. These emotions are exhausting to deal with daily and, as well as this, we are inadvertently sending the signal to our body that there is a threat. That threat isn’t so much coming from an external source (apart from 200 unanswered emails!) but from our own mental chatter that is telling us that we should be more and that we aren’t good enough.

Threat and our hormones

Back when we lived in caves, threats came in the form of large predators or starvation. Our brain and bodies were set up for survival; we felt threatened, and our bodies went into a state of fight, flight or freeze to keep us alive. In our modern world we still have the part of our brain that is constantly on the lookout for threat, only now we also have the part of our brain that is able to think and this takes the form of time travel. We think about what might go wrong in the future or what might happen if we do say no to that invite or that extra work project. We can think about endless possibilities and visualise things that may never happen.

When we have a constant list of things to do and are already feeling run off our feet, our brain interprets that as threat. Our sympathetic nervous system then goes into a state of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ releasing cortisol and adrenalin. We are then further exhausted, wound up tight, unable to sleep, have anxiety and the cycle continues.


Take my client Sophia. She first presented to me with what she described as anxiety and, she said, she would fly off the handle. I asked her to describe to me an example of anything that has happened recently that would tell me more about what she was experiencing.

"The other morning, I got up and looked around the kitchen. I felt myself getting so angry. The kids had left their dinner plates stacked all over the kitchen. Then I went to the bathroom and felt even worse; wet towels from the night before combined with dirty sports clothes. This is before I’ve even had my coffee and I’m feeling rage.

"Next thing, my husband told me that my car had no petrol in it; he’d used it the night before, along with the fact that we also were out of milk. I just lost it. I shouted at everyone, then I cried then I felt anxious all day. What’s going on?"

Sophia was worried about herself. She felt misunderstood, unheard, and unappreciated. She described herself as an unpaid housemaid and she was feeling exhausted.

I explained to Sophia that perhaps she needed better boundaries. She was allowing all of this to happen. For years, she had picked up after three kids and a husband. She had cooked, cleaned and taken care of the family.

“Who takes care of you?” I asked her. Sophia burst into tears.

People pleasing

Sophia is an example of the woman that I see daily. She feels that she has to provide for everyone. She has to fix, help and please. She is what we term a ‘people pleaser.’ When we dug deeper Sophia told me that her mum had struggled with mental health issues and Sophia had quickly learnt that she gained self-worth and validation from being the helper and fixer. She was the ‘good girl’ for doing all the chores and helping her mum when mum was feeling low.

Now, Sophia had reached an age when her body was unable to handle the constant stress hormones and she was feeling exhausted, burnt out and resentful. Her body was in a constant state of fight or flight and releasing stress hormones daily. As well as this, she barely had time to eat and she lived on caffeine to help her get through each day. At the end of each day she put the kids to bed and reached for the wine. Sophia was reaching peri-menopause and was finding that she was unable to sleep and was waking up sweating hour upon hour. The wine and caffeine were not helping here.

Setting boundaries

Sophia needed to learn to put her own needs first. Her family was more than capable of putting their own laundry away or doing other chores, yet Sophia felt that by telling them to help out that she would be being unkind. I helped her to reframe it that she was helping her kids to become capable, respectful adults.

I also helped her reframe the idea of over helping or rescuing and fixing. If we constantly rush to rescue or help, we might be taking away the ability for that person to learn a new skill or manage alone. In many ways, sometimes we are enabling them in their victim or helpless role.

People never like it when we set boundaries. People don’t like change and if someone suddenly becomes more assertive and is putting their own needs first it can throw them, but we are ultimately doing them and ourselves a favour. We are expressing our needs and these needs clearly state that we matter and are important. When this is the message, we gain more respect.


When people do not have boundaries in their relationships then they can become overly invested in the other person’s feelings and actions. This can be termed ‘co-dependency.’ There is a blurred line between where their emotions end, and the other persons begin. Co-dependents often take responsibility for other people’s actions and feelings.

Oftentimes this is because when we are growing up clear boundaries are not modelled to us. There were clearly blurred lines between the parenting responsibilities in Sophia’s and her mother’s relationship. Sophia felt, from a young age, that she was responsible for her mother. Sophia was repeating this with her children. Because she had always helped, fixed, and provided for her family she felt that to suddenly stop would make them feel like they had done something wrong. Her feelings were blurring with what she thought her family might feel.

What can we do?

The key to changing any behaviour is awareness. When a client enters counselling it is often because they have become aware that the way that they are living their lives is no longer helpful or serving them well. They want to make changes. If you have recognised parts of yourself in Sophia then you have become aware.

If you are not used to putting yourself first or saying no and setting boundaries hen this can feel like a huge, scary transition. We take it slow.

Look at your life now and ask yourself how much you do that can be done by others or can be gently let go of? This might mean that you no longer walk your neighbours dog three times a week or that you don’t say yes to making cakes for the cake sale at school. This is about asking yourself what is important in your life? What matters? It’s a case of digging deep and thinking about what are your priorities in life?

For instance, for Sophia she realised that it felt important to her that she finally attend the yoga class that she had been promising for herself one hour each week. She also wanted to make sure that she spend quality family time on a Friday evening to sit down and watch a movie with her children instead of cleaning and catching up on emails. For this she had to set herself some personal boundaries.

Sophia began to let go of saying yes to things that she didn’t want to do or where she was not really needed. She stopped picking her 14 year old son up from the school that was only a mile away which freed her time up each afternoon since she was no longer stuck in school traffic for half an hour! She began to realise that it was these small changes that began to make a difference to how she felt about herself. Sophia stopped feeling like a doormat and began to feel more empowered.

If you need help in understanding what is important to you in order to set better boundaries then reach out today. I can help you to feel empowered and stop the people pleasing cycle.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a registered member of BACP with a level 7, PGdip in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I have been in private practice for six years. I am qualified to work with many issues which: habit changes, abuse, trauma, anxiety, relationships, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, and domestic violence.

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