“No” Is Not a Bad Word! The Art of Using Boundaries as Self-Care

The Power of No, No is self-care, No is a complete sentence, No is empowering, No is not a bad word

“No.” – Hamlet, Act III, scene iii, line 92, William Shakespeare

Caregiving is a lot of work. It can be rewarding but it can be oh-so tiring. There never seems to be enough time in the day. As you adjust your schedule and priorities for the person (or persons) you are caring for, you start to feel like your needs are secondary to everyone else’s. It feels like even little things that are important to you no longer get the time or attention they deserve. Then you start to feel guilty for wanting a little “me” time. Then you feel like maybe you aren’t cut out for this caregiving stuff. 

Or maybe that’s just me. I have a therapist to help deal with some of the stress that comes with being a caregiver. Through our time together we have discovered that part of my trauma response is to be a people pleaser. I’m not great at creating or enforcing healthy boundaries, but I’m working on it.

Boundaries can be physical, mental, or emotional. They can be as simple as taking care of yourself first — putting on that proverbial oxygen mask before helping someone else.

But how do I enforce a boundary when I am a caregiver and a wife? Am I supposed to be at his beck and call at all times? No, but I lack the confidence to say so. That said, I am starting with simple but gentle and kind “nos.” I am allowed to say no. No is not a bad word. No is a complete sentence. No doesn’t have to be a negative; it can simply be an expression of my own needs. If Russ, my husband, presses me after I say no, I try to share why or how I am feeling. Already, we have navigated a few “but you used to” conversations as I learn and enforce my limits. Maybe I say “no, this is no longer my responsibility, we need to find a way you can do it,” for example when dealing with medication reminders. Sometimes I simply say “no, I don’t want to,” which is also a complete thought. 

When I first started articulating my boundaries I felt SO guilty and selfish. Since I am not the injured/disabled one, shouldn’t I be able to take on more? Nope. I also realized that I was setting a poor example for our daughters. If I don’t want someone encroaching on their boundaries, I have to model good examples for them. The truth is, the guilt arises but I'm doing better at letting it go. It's not so much ignoring as it is recognizing that the guilt exists and questioning why it’s there. Why was I feeling like I could not have an opinion or limit? The more I started recognizing the guilt, the better I could address and enforce the boundary. 

Saying “no” is only one step to establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries while caregiving — the first of many steps to building confidence and autonomy. Here are a few more tips I have learned:

  1. Find your limits – Start to recognize what is realistic for you. You are unique and your physical or emotional limits are your own. No one else can set your limits. When you start to recognize when your boundaries are being crossed, you can start talking about it.
  2. Communicate openly – Share your feelings with your veteran/loved one/person you are caring for. Let them know your limits and boundaries and what your expectations are. Even if they have trouble remembering, communicating your needs and your feelings is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship.
  3. Set a schedule – Schedules help keep everyone on the same page. We might not always have dinner right at 6 pm each night but we know that once the evening routine starts, there is a set list of actions to accomplish before bedtime. This is absolutely essential with two little ones and a memory-impaired spouse. I make certain to keep evenings free of any meetings/events so we can keep our routine on track.
  4. Reflect on your mental health – As you discover your needs and limits, remember to check in with yourself. What emotions do you experience as you start to set these boundaries? If you are anything like me, you might start to feel guilty. This is normal! Set those boundaries anyway. 
  5. Assess your physical health – As caregivers, we often overlook our needs. It is the nature of caregiving. But your health is important, too. Get your annual check-ups, go to those doctor appointments, see the dentist, etc. And also, eat healthy foods and move your body. I have long felt guilty for not working out “enough” only to realize that everyone’s baseline is different. It’s not about getting the right number of steps in a day, it’s about feeling good and being physically active. Find the right fit for you.
  6. Get help“It's dangerous to go alone!” to quote the 1986 video game, Zelda. Seek support from professionals, friends, or caregiver support programs. Caregiving can take a lot out of you. If you care for a veteran, consider signing up for the VA Caregiver Support Program. Even if you do not qualify for the comprehensive support program, the general support still offers classes, coaching, and resources. The virtual conversations in my local VA Caregiver Program have been instrumental in helping me navigate some of the more difficult aspects of caregiving for invisible injuries.
  7. Take a break – Find a family member, friend, or professional to provide you with some respite care. There is no shame in needing a break.
  8. Prioritize self-care – I know I have already blogged about it, but it warrants repeating. Self-care is essential as a caregiver, whatever that looks like for you. Read more about basic self-care

Even though I espouse these tips, it has taken me quite some time to create and enforce boundaries. I was always the “yes” person and that meant I started to neglect myself. I always said yes. Yes, I can take on all these extra responsibilities or tiny tasks for my veteran spouse, my children, my parents, my neighbors, work — you name it. If someone asked, I probably said yes and found a way to make it work. Now, I have started saying no. Even to my therapist! She recently had a conflict with our normal meeting time and while trying to reschedule I told her I could not interrupt our evening routine. She applauded my boundary-setting.

Creating boundaries can feel awkward or wrong when you first start setting them. You might even get pushback if you haven’t done it before. But don’t stop. Maintaining boundaries can feel even more uncomfortable if you are used to giving in and taking on more than you should. But the truth is healthy boundaries are vital to maintaining healthy relationships.