How to set boundaries (with love)
Due to parental responsibilities, you lost the opportunity to go to checkmate today? Sarah Ezrin believes that if you’ve been nursing, you’ve been doing yoga. In honor of the release of her new book, The Yoga of Parenting (Shambala, 2023), Sarah Ezrin shared a free lecture on Wanderlust TV in which she said that if you were in the parenting role and not the pigeon pose, you were still doing yoga. We’ve excerpted a chapter of the new book below, and you can check out our writer’s review of the book here.
Limits for breakfast
I start setting boundaries from the moment my alarm goes off in the morning. Borders come in all shapes and forms. I think many of us assume that boundaries are just what we set with the other person or how much of our personal life we share with the world (think of the saying “This person has no boundaries”), but most days, even before the sun begins to rise, I have already set boundaries for myself, my husband, children, work, family, friends, and even our dog.
Setting boundaries is a way to protect my most valuable resource: my energy—how and where it is spent. They are a way for me to reduce how much of myself I give to anything or anyone, since my impulse is to give everything to everyone and everything. And they are constantly changing. Just because I feel the same way today or want to focus on one area doesn’t mean I’ll feel the same way tomorrow. Just because I feel the need to take a hard line this month, or conversely, be completely unhinged about something, doesn’t mean I’ll do it again next month.
The very first boundary I set most days of the week is choosing to wake up long before the rest of the world so I can meditate and write. This is a limit I set for myself and others, as it means I go to bed much earlier than most and usually can’t do any outside duties in the early morning, including emails or work meetings . Getting up early gives me time to fill my cup, both literally to enjoy a hot cup of tea (which isn’t possible when my kids are awake) and metaphorically because I spend those morning hours doing whatever I want to do. I write. I sit quietly. I cuddle with my dog (although, as mentioned, I often tell him in the morning, “Not right now, dude. I need some space”).
Being able to focus completely on each of these things, without distractions or needing other people, turns each task into a ritual. I would even dare to say that they become my yoga practice, my sadhana. Note that a mat is not required. But the fact that my morning time is special does not mean that I owe it to him. In fact, I’m much more self-indulgent than I was years ago.
For years in early adulthood, my boundaries with myself were incredibly rigid. It started early in college, around my studies and food, and quickly seeped into every other area of my life. Even when I started to become “healthier” by doing yoga, for example, my self-discipline bordered on masochism. I would force myself to do rigorous asana practices regardless of whether I had the energy. I would withhold any pleasure in the form of food or even intercourse. By prioritizing my body size, asana practice, and career, I robbed myself of the joy of life.
Ironically, during that same time, the boundaries I maintained with other people seemed almost non-existent. I would absorb the pain and hardships of my family members and intervene in everyone’s problems. There was a reason I stayed in psychology for so long, including starting a master’s degree in marriage family therapy: I thought it was my job to “fix” everyone. I would also say yes to commitments I knew deep down I didn’t want to make, putting the disappointment of others over my own mental health. There was almost no balance between my extremely strong personal boundaries and incredibly porous social boundaries.
Ever since I started a family, I’ve been trying to turn myself in the exact opposite direction. Now I try to be more lenient with the boundaries I have around myself, but stricter with the boundaries I have around others. I find that balance is more sustainable when people rely on me 24/7. For example, I allow myself to sleep past my alarm if I need to, and skip asanas if I’m exhausted (something I wouldn’t have dared to do ten years ago!). I’m much more willing to take a hard line and say no when asked to do something for someone that doesn’t feel authentic. My two new favorite words are “Google it”.
Healthy borders are living, breathing things. They exist on a spectrum because we always need to adjust one way or the other to find new ways of balance. There are times in our lives when our boundaries need to be firm and at other times they need to be more flexible.
Can we be present and aware enough of what we need right now in this moment to know when to make those adjustments?
When a successful person becomes a father
As I alluded to earlier, my yes and no have always been a little backwards when it comes to separating my personal life from my work life. Shortly before I met my husband, I was so exhausted and overworked that my health suffered. I binged and purged every weekend and then restricted and binged all week (and that’s when I was “healthy”). I would go months without days off, unable to say no. Sometimes I would teach a lesson just minutes after a major life event, such as a death in the family or a breakup, working through strong emotions as I worked instead of taking the time to process.
When an injury prevented me from not only teaching asana, but also from practicing it (two things that I firmly defined my entire life by), things began to soften for me. First, my injury was so severe that I had to give up some work commitments, something I had never done in my entire teaching career at that point. For a people pleaser, my work obligations are like a blood oath. Of course, if I say no, I will ruin my career and I will lose any new opportunities and never go to teach again.
Spoiler alert: none of this came to pass.
Instead, fast-forward seven years: I’m happily married, have two beautiful boys, and can honestly say that by learning to balance saying yes and no, my career has been able to flourish along with my family .
Would I be deeper in my foot-behind-the-head poses if I continued to prioritize my asana over my relationship and family development? Maybe, but I wouldn’t trade newborn and toddler hugs for putting my foot behind my head.
No is not a bad word
It is not easy to learn to say no to the ones you love the most. Some brain researchers say that we are wired to associate the word with negativity, and that opposite parts of the brain activate when we hear “no” versus “yes.” I know many parents who try to never say a word to their children. I try to set positive limits in other ways, like acknowledging what my kids can do or explaining why something might not work right now instead of just saying no outright. They say a toddler hears no four hundred times a day, so I understand the hesitancy, but may I suggest something perhaps a little controversial?
What if saying “no” isn’t necessarily bad? What if saying no is a necessity? What if we could retrain our brains to understand that saying no actually means saying yes to something else? Mostly yourself? As Ann Lamott summarizes in her funny and rude book Instructions for use: Journal of my son’s first year, ‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Author and activist Glennon Doyle also explained this well in a recent episode about her We can do hard things podcast, saying that a big way to tone down your bias toward people please is “the intellectual honesty of knowing that every ‘yes’ is a ‘no’ and every ‘no’ is a ‘yes.’
This is absolutely true for me. When I say yes to please others, I end up saying no to my own needs. It makes me feel overwhelmed and overwhelmed. My work suffers and my relationships suffer when my self-care suffers.
Our children also learn boundaries through our modeling—how to set them and how not to respect them. I’m already seeing clear evidence that my oldest, Jonah, even as a toddler, is asking to set his own boundaries, and I’m working hard to respect them. For example, when we have people visiting or we go with the family, he (like me) loses strength after a few days and needs a break from all social activities. Before he could talk, he told me about it, needing constant contact with me, acting much more relaxed when lying quietly together in a dark room than when he was the center of attention (that part of him is not like me). Now that his verbal skills are better developed, he is literally asking to stay in bed for a few days or stay at home instead of going out or being with other people.
Can we respect our children’s boundaries when they demand them? Can we take no for an absolute answer when they don’t want to do what we’ve asked them to do? For example, physical attachment to a family member, eating a certain food, or not wanting to go somewhere that we have planned for them? Where is the line between setting your own limits and listening to your child’s needs?
This is where the bond of empathic parenting comes into play. If we are meeting our child’s needs, then we can assess on that particular day and at that particular moment whether we can agree; or if there comes a day when our child is simply too difficult to gauge what/if any limits need to be set and followed. Don’t forget to go back to all the skills we honed in the first part of the book, such as becoming sensitive to life force energy (both yours and your child’s). Practice grounding your body and/or breath. Observe the oscillations of your nervous system. Remember that any of these simple actions (if not all) can help us connect with our children and therefore understand more clearly what our children really need so that we can say yes to their no “.
From The Yoga of Nurturing by Sara Ezrin © 2023. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Colorado.
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga teacher, and content creator based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and their dog. Her willingness to be unapologetically honest and vulnerable, along with her innate wisdom, make her writing, classes, and social media wonderful sources of healing and inner peace for many. Sarah often participates in Yoga magazine and LA Yoga Magazine as well as for the recognized media organization Yoga International. She also writes for parenting websites Healthline-Parenthood, Terrible motherand Maternal. She was interviewed for her expertise The Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, and Bustle.com, and has appeared on television on NBC News. Sarah is a highly qualified yoga teacher. A world traveler by birth, she leads teacher trainings, workshops and retreats in her home state of California and around the world.
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