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Nedra Glover Tawwab: ...that it's okay to have boundaries

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: Have you ever wished you could set healthier boundaries with your family, friends, co-workers, and others in your life? Do you feel your mental health has suffered because of a lack of healthy boundaries in various aspects of your life?

Jan: If so, you'll get some great suggestions from our guest on this episode, relationship therapist, Nedra Glover Tawwab. She's the author of the new book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. Nedra, thank you so much for joining us.

Nedra: Thank you so much for having me, Laura and Jan.

Jan: We were so excited when we saw your book. We knew we had to talk with you and wonder why you decided to write this book in the first place. What motivated you?

Nedra: For many, many years, I have been practicing with my clients and learning how to implement and set boundaries. That's in marriage, that's at work, with their children, with family, and so many other areas. I wanted to share what I've learned and what I've taught others in a book.

Laura: You say that most relationship problems come from a lack of boundaries. I found that either you don't think you'll need them initially or it's awkward to set them. How can we actually set them and stick to them from the start?

Nedra: In new relationships, it's typically easier because you're getting to know each other so you can say outright, "I don't like people to just pop up at my house." It's the relationships we've been in for a while that are a bit more complicated to set those boundaries, particularly family. We've had those relationships so long, and it's hard for us to figure out ways to restructure them, but it is absolutely possible. As we grow and change, so do our boundaries. And just like other things in our life, we change. Letting people know where we're at today with our needs and expectations is a really important part of being in healthy relationships.

Jan: How do you define boundaries, so that we're all on the same page, and understand exactly what we're talking about?

Nedra: Boundaries are expectations for yourself and others that make you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. They can be verbal, or they can be behavioral. What I mean by that is, you can say what you need, and you can also maybe take space, which is a physical thing. To say, "I'm not answering this call from someone", that is a physical boundary that you are setting. There are many ways to set boundaries. I think what has previously been talked about a lot in the literature is saying, "No" as the only way to set a boundary. But setting a boundary could be having a morning routine or asking someone to bring a dish to the potluck. Those are also things that you can declare in your relationships with people.

Laura: It seems like it's especially hard to set boundaries for work right now with so many people working from home, and the line between our careers and our home lives are becoming pretty blurred. How do we separate them and create boundaries for both?

Nedra: The easiest way to set a boundary is to figure out what's not working, make a list of those things where you need help and you need more structure. For some of us, it has been getting out of bed, getting right to work, and feeling like Groundhog Day because we don't have any break in the day from work to home duty. Maybe waking up a bit earlier to have some space before you start work, taking some time for yourself, going for a walk, reading a little bit, those things could help.

I've seen a movement of people starting to reclaim that drive time by taking that time that they use to drive into work to actually go for a walk or talk to a friend to engage in a practice that feels restorative before actually starting work. We have the opportunity, even in the pandemic, to figure out what new boundaries could look like, or even how to restructure some of the things we were doing. Yes, we're at home, but we can still have parameters around what our work schedule looks like, when we're available, and when we're not available.

Jan: What have you been hearing from the people you work with in your therapy practice about how they've encountered issues with boundaries during the pandemic because maybe everybody's under the same roof, and it's just tougher than it had been before. What are you hearing?

Nedra: We've had to figure out new ways to create space, particularly for parents who are working at home with kids, or even if their kids are still going to school or daycare. Just being at home, lots of folks feel the need to maybe watch a little bit of TV, start dinner early, do laundry. All of those things causes spillage, which extends the work day because now you're working in the evening because you were doing laundry when you should have been answering emails. I think some structure, and remembering, too, yourself, that you are still at work even if you're wearing sweatpants, you're still working. Having those really clear work hours and adhering to them, not allowing the structure of being at home to take away from what your task is, which is work. Even if you do take breaks, make sure it is built into the day and not something you're doing while you should be working.

Laura: Kids are home, they have school, their parents have work, how can parents set boundaries with their kids and make it so that the kids feel like the parents are available?

Nedra: I remember when, early in the pandemic, I have two small children, and my kids will say, "You work all day." I'm like, "These are my regular work hours, you're just not here typically. I'm not working all day, I'm working like seven hours, not even eight." It was really interesting because we were all in this space together and it looks really different to kids.

One of the biggest concerns that I'll have post-pandemic is how will kids respond to having their social activities cut, being at home with parents while they were working, not being in the classroom settings, those things will all have some impact. As much as possible, parents, it would be helpful if you could create some of those structural things that make kids feel as if they are in the classroom. I know at the beginning of the pandemic, lots of folks were purchasing desks and kind of setting up classroom scenarios in their home. That's really helpful because kids having their own space, separate from you, is a really important physical boundary. Everyone working together at the dinner table, you working and the kids working on the other side might not create those barriers you need.

Let's face it, some people can't even work with their partners. I've seen people saying things like, "My co-worker, my husband, is not the best co-worker. When he gets on calls, he's loud, he's yelling, and then I'm like, off-task because I'm looking at him." In the home, we have to figure out situations that work and maybe even if those situations have to rotate, we'll have to do that as well. It may mean someone working in the bedroom and someone working in the dining room; someone using the office, someone working on the back porch. But figuring out a configuration that actually works, and not trying to make it work in places can be really helpful in terms of setting boundaries while everyone is at home again.

Jan: I know you also talk about technology boundaries and how important they are. What are some suggestions you would want to pass on with regard to that?

Nedra: I don't know the exact statistics. But right now, I've been reading a lot about more people using social media since the pandemic, more people watching TV, and just being highly engaged in all of the technology, which makes sense because we're at home. I think boundaries come into play when you feel like it's getting in the way of you doing other things you want to do, it's taking away from you being able to function, you noticing your mental health being impacted, particularly with social media. In fact, you are starting to feel more anxious after looking at certain things, or even depressed. Those are indications that you may need some boundaries with technology.

Here's the beautiful thing, you get to create what that looks like. It doesn't have to be what everyone else is doing, or what you've heard worked for one of your friends, it could be something you create. Some beautiful rules could be not waking up and grabbing your phone, but just pausing until maybe after breakfast, or at least until you get out of the bed and brush your teeth before hopping on social media. That's just one idea, but there are so many that we can implement that could really be useful.

For kids, I've seen a lot of parents say, "No tablets and video games, Monday through Thursday, maybe on Friday. Figuring things out that actually work for your family, because there are some kids who aren't impacted by watching a little TV after school, and there are others where you start to notice they become a little moody or agitated. It's really important to consider what works for your family, and what you need to do. I always say, in general, follow what you feel. When you feel your energy being depleted, when you're feeling angry, upset, anxious, or sad, think about how you're using technology, how you're using social media, and if there are any ways that you can maybe cut back or even shift it.

On social media, one of my favorite things to do to minimize the amount of people I follow and watch my energy in that space, if I'm following someone and they're posting, maybe a little bit too much of a particular topic, I think it's okay to mute them for a little bit. I noticed, a lot, when big things happen in the world, there are some people who will post, post, post, post about it, and that doesn't always work well with my energy. I take that as an opportunity to pause them for a bit, and I go back to it in a week or so and it seems like they've returned to normal. Sometimes we just need to hold off for a little bit and just allow ourselves to breathe without social media.

There are so many boundaries that we can have with social media. In my book, I have an entire chapter dedicated to social media and technology because it is such an important piece of our everyday lives. Even work emails, that's technology. The amount of emails that we send back and forth throughout the day is really interesting, even when we're on vacation. One of the things that people dread is returning to the office after vacation because they know they'll have 200 emails. Even letting people know, "These are the type of things that I do not need to be cc'd on. These are the type of things that I do need to be cc'd on.” That could be a way to set a boundary to kind of cut back on some of that back and forth, or some of those technology things that are unavoidable in some cases, but we can certainly figure out new ways to manage them.

Laura: Sometimes I think the hardest thing is self-control and making ourselves actually stick to that commitment of not checking social media in the morning. That's one I've tried many times, "I'm not going to check it first thing in the morning." I'll maybe do it for a day and then I break on the cycle, and then I'll go for another day and then eventually it's forgotten. How do we keep those commitments to ourselves?

Nedra: Self-discipline is a boundary because it's really you setting limitations with yourself and sticking to them. I would say self-discipline is the hardest boundary because it is much easier for us to say to other people, “This is what you need to do. This is what I expect. This is what I need.” And it is so hard to turn that on ourselves and to say, “Okay, don't pick up your phone. Don't do this. Don't do that.” It's like punishment to not be able to do things that are unhealthy for you, it's just like this restriction. But we have to say “No” to ourselves too, it’s actually a very healthy practice and not always say, “Yes” with the phone.

Some practices that I think is really helpful is not sleeping with the phone by your bed. Sometimes I will literally toss my phone across the room, like just toss it across the room, not throw it, but toss it so I can't reach it when I get up in the morning. Even if I fall asleep with it, I just toss it a few feet. I can't reach it when I get up in the morning so I have to get out of the bed and do something before I can grab that phone.

Laura: Oh, interesting.

Nedra: I've caught myself at nighttime, I'm like, "I don't feel like getting off the bed again." So I just kind of slide it across the floor like, "I don't know where it landed, we'll see in the morning." But I won't be able to just reach over and grab it, and that's really helpful for me because it really ensures that I'm not getting up and checking my phone.

Jan: I was wondering if you think that women have more trouble setting boundaries than men. My gut tells me that they do, but you're the professional, what do you know?

Nedra: That is really tough. I've seen a lot of information about boundaries geared towards women. I do know that you will have more women interested in self-help, you will have more women interested in actually going to therapy, I think that's where that theory comes from. But I think most people have issues with being assertive and with boundaries, even some of the men that I work with have issues with boundaries. It's not one of these things that it's like, “You're a man, I know I'll never have to talk to you about boundaries.” I think it looks different. With men, it tends to be their expression of boundaries is more aggressive. With women, their expression of boundaries is typically a little more passive or passive aggressive. I do think that men and women have had issues with boundaries, I just think they're expressed differently, and sometimes because of that, we interpret them differently.

Laura: We've all found ourselves in situations where we don't want to go to a party, or a dinner, or some sort of outing, but we have trouble saying, “No” because we don't want to hurt the other person's feelings. You say that people will continue to ask if we haven't declared for sure that we aren't going, and that saying, “Stop” can save you from pushing people off. Can you give us an example for how to say, “No” in a way that isn't rude and won't ruin a relationship?

Nedra: The challenge here is that we overfocus on the perception, and it really gets in the way of us being able to deliver. Someone saying, “No” is not rude. If you say it, “Hey, can you come to my party? It’s on the 29th. I'd love for you to be there.” And you say, “Oh, no, that doesn't work for me.” That person could say, “Oh, my gosh, you're so rude to me.” Did I sound rude to you when I said, “No, that doesn't work for me?”

Laura: No.

Nedra: Right. And so, it's one of those things that we can't determine what others may think is mean or rude because it's really based on their fantasy about how we respond, and what they need from us.

Jan: Interesting.

Nedra: There are times, if we are being aggressive, and we say, “No, I'm not coming to your party, why did you invite me?” That's a bit too far. But in most cases, even saying, “No, I cannot” can be stated as, “Oh, my gosh, they were so rude to me, cold.” And it's all because you said, “No, I cannot.” The perfect words do not exist because we have no clue how people will respond. We do have a really hard time saying and receiving, “No.” We just talked about not even wanting to say, “No” to ourselves, and we certainly don't want anyone to say it to us. We don't even want to say it to ourselves, and we don't want other people to say it to us. We have to really get a little more comfortable with not taking it personal when people tell us, “No”, which I think will make it a little more comfortable for us to share that with other people.

Jan: How can you handle it if someone is trying to guilt you into doing something that crosses a healthy boundary for you?

Nedra: There are two reasons that we experience guilt. One is that we are actually doing something wrong, and the other is we feel like we're doing something wrong. In most instances, as it relates to boundaries and relationships, it's like we feel like we're doing something wrong. It’s really important when people are guilt-tripping you, to be clear about the type of guilt you're feeling. Is it real guilt, or is it false guilt? If it is false guilt, how do you deal with the discomfort of displeasing others, or having them respond to something in a way that you didn't expect?

Some of that looks like reassuring yourself that you did something that was healthy, and you actually didn't do a bad thing. It might look like taking a moment to engage in a self-care practice. We cannot control if someone guilt-trips us, but it is helpful to recognize when it's happening, that way when they do it, it doesn’t think as bad, it's not as impactful because you're aware of what's happening. Guilt-tripping is powerful when we are unaware of what's happening, and we do feel bad, and we feel terrible. But once you start to believe, "I really can say, “No” to things", or "I can have a different expectation", or "Something different I want to do with my time", the less you'll feel guilt here and the less the guilt-tripping will actually work on you.

Laura: We can't change people to be who we want them to be, but we can control the role that they play in our lives and how we react to them. But it's hard to do if it's a parent or a family member where we feel somewhat obligated to keep the relationship going. What advice do you have in that situation?

Nedra: We can keep relationships going in a way that better works for us instead of forcing closeness that doesn't exist. I think our relationship can look all sorts of ways. I've seen it where people really force themselves to regularly spend time with people that they don't like because they think they should spend time with this person, but they don't like to spend time with the person. I wonder what it would look like if we cut back and maybe have some more space in the relationship. Maybe the relationship will improve if you've figured out a way to deal with them that's not in this way that doesn't work for you.

Sometimes it is really saying, "This is the problematic part of our relationship and I would like us to work on them." Sometimes, if someone can't work on it, it can be taking space or stepping back altogether. You'd have to maybe try a few things to figure out what works because everyone is different. It's hard to have a one size fits all approach to how we handle difficult relationships with people. But our relationships can look a variety of ways. You two, you’re a mother-and-daughter pair doing a podcast together, there are some folks who can never do that, and that's okay too. We can't all say, "We need to be super close", because some of us cannot be. We have to figure out what works for us.

Jan: I know that you say that there are six areas of boundaries: physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional, material, and time. In your experience, what area is the most common to have issues with?

Nedra: Time is the biggest area. We just talked about that with the phones, waking up and grabbing our phones, saying no to people when we can't do things, really figuring out how we like to spend our free time, not being available when we actually are available. I think that's one of the areas that is most commonly violated, whether it's by other people or us doing it to ourselves. I think the more egregious areas are probably, for sure, the sexual boundaries. But I think the thing that we do daily and consistently is probably time boundary violations.

Laura: Nedra, you know our show is called Nobody Told Me! At the end of each show, we ask our guests, “What is your nobody told me lesson? What is it that nobody told you about setting boundaries, which we know there's a lot because you wrote a book about it.

Jan: A great book.

Laura: A great book about it. But what's the one thing that you wish you knew early on in your life because it would have saved you from some very tough times?

Nedra: Nobody told me that it was okay to set boundaries, I didn't learn that it was okay until I was an adult. I was reading, I was going to therapy, and I learned about boundaries. I thought I was doing these things, and agitating people, or receiving all of this pushback, and it was for doing very healthy things, I wanted some very healthy things. Nobody told me that it was okay to have healthy boundaries until someone told me and I was like, "Oh, my gosh. You mean I'm on the right track here? I can say, "No" to this person? I don't have to honor this request if it doesn't work for me? Wow." Because the pushback I was receiving said the exact opposite. No one told me that it was okay and healthy to have boundaries in your relationship.

Jan: That was what I was wondering about when I was asking you about whether women find it harder to set boundaries because I think women tend to be people pleasers and it's like you hate to say, "No" to somebody. You want people to like you and all that, and sometimes that goes against setting a healthy boundary, I think.

Nedra: Absolutely, I think that we're taught from the time we can state whatever our need is; to be kind to people, to not upset people, don't say that, don't say this. I see it all the time with kids where it's like, "Don't say that to that person. Eat, just eat their cooking." All these things we tell them so we're making sure they're being nice to people. On Valentine's Day, I've had kids say, "I don't like this person in my class, do I still have to take them something?" And that's valid. Are we making kids like everybody?

It's one of those things that we are taught to please others because it's the nice thing to do. But how do we, maybe, not like things? How do we say, "No" because we don't like everything, we don't want to do everything? There may be some very helpful times for us to say, "This is too much for me, I can't help you with this."

I think teaching kids to be pleasers really takes away from them being able to use their voice and they become adults who have issues with using their voice. And now, we are reclaiming our voices. We are relearning that we can say these things that we need, we can ask for help, it's okay to talk about certain things, and there are other things we may not want to talk about. We're relearning all of these things that were very organic for us at some point.

Laura: You have all these great ideas, and we would love to help sell as many books as possible. Where can people find the book and connect with you?

Nedra: I'm most present on Instagram, and my name there is @nedratawwab.

Jan: Alright, super, super. We wish you the best of luck with the book and we think that your suggestions have probably helped a lot of our listeners, given us something to think about.

Nedra: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me today.

Jan: Our thanks again to Nedra Glover Tawwab. Again, her latest book is called, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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