Setting Boundaries as a Ward Against Anxiety

At the long-ago recommendation of Erik Wecks, a local-to-me author and friend, I started reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

(I’ve been picking up books like this lately because I want to dig deeper in my work – both my fiction and my non-fiction. The authors that I admire the most are the ones who bare their souls on the page – something that’s hard to do if you’re someone like me who hates digging in to her own feelings.)

In it, Brown talks about learning to let ourselves be vulnerable in order to live more “Wholehearted” lives. To get a taste, check out this TED Talk she did a few years back.

Brown’s insights on the way we as humans shield ourselves from being vulnerable have been eye-opening to me. I haven’t come across a single chapter yet that doesn’t cause me to say, “Oh, yeah. I do that.”

Last night, though, I didn’t just see a glimmer of myself reflected – instead, it was as though I came face-to-face with myself in a mirror.

Numbness as a shield against anxiety

In the section, Brown talks about how people try to shield themselves from uncomfortable feelings like vulnerability and anxiety through alcohol and pills, drugs, television, and anything else that takes the edge off the pain.

We’ve all done this, at least on occasion:

  • A glass of wine – or three – at the end of long day.
  • Binge watching a TV show until we fall asleep on the couch.
  • Scrolling manically through social media and email to keep from thinking why we’re so anxious in the first place.

What struck me last night was an observation she made on how her research participants could be divided into two camps:

Group A defines the challenge of anxiety as finding ways to manage and soothe the anxiety, while Group B defines the problem as changing the behaviors that lead to anxiety.

“Clearly, I’m in Group A,” I told myself, despairing. “I’m constantly stressed out, always trying to do too much.”

Brown goes on to talk about how differently Group A and B deal with things like email and voice mail:

  • Group A goes to great lengths to control everything, answer everything, deal with everything.
  • Group B goes to great lengths to minimize the distractions: unsubscribe, tell people they won’t be available, set expectations and boundaries.

And the strangest thing happened. As I read on, I realized that somehow, even though I still think of myself as being in Group A, I’ve transitioned into Group B.

I’ve spent years trying to do it all and failing miserably. Too overwhelmed and anxious to sleep, finishing a bottle of wine on a Wednesday night just to try to dull that both of panic jolting through my chest so I can finally relax.

When my husband used to tell me that I needed to cut back on things because I was too stressed, my answer was that I should be able to do it all.

That I just needed to get better, faster, tougher. Smarter. That my inability to do everything was because I was a failure.

This quote from Brown hit me hard:

“The participants who struggled the most with numbing, Group A, explained that reducing anxiety meant finding ways to numb it, not changing the thinking, behaviors, or emotions that created anxiety.

“I hated every minute of this part of the research. I’ve always looked for better ways to manage my exhaustion and anxiety. I wanted help “living like this,” not suggestions on how to “stop living like this.” My struggle mirrored the struggle that I heard from the folks who talked the most about numbing.”

Learning to set boundaries

Reading this last night made me realize that slowly and without even quite realizing it, I’ve learned to set boundaries in my life.

Now, when I find myself overwhelmed by responsibilities, I take a look at how I got there and create a plan for avoiding that path in the future. I create new sets of rules and boundaries for myself. I add new items to the list of things I say “no” to.

As I read through the section, I began to realize just how many boundaries I’ve set in the past year:

  • I set aside time in the week for writing fiction, and tell my clients I’m unavailable.
  • I no longer check my email first thing in the morning.
  • I honor myself and my pre-existing deadlines by saying no to work I don’t have time to do.
  • I keep from letting the world hijack my day by not listening to the news or checking social media in the mornings.
  • I no longer work on evenings or weekends, except in very rare cases.
  • I no longer say yes to social events I don’t want to go to.

Until I read this chapter, I hadn’t realized just how powerful these boundaries have been in reclaiming my life from anxiety.

I waited so long to set them because I was afraid – afraid to say no to clients, afraid to say no to friends and family. Again, it’s as though Brown is living inside my head when she writes these words:

“We have to believe that we are enough in order to say, “Enough!” For women, setting boundaries is difficult because the shame gremlins are quick to weigh in: “Careful saying no. You’ll really disappoint these folks. Don’t let them down. Be a good girl. Make everyone happy.” For men, the gremlins whisper, “Man up. A real guy could take this on and then some. Is the little mamma’s boy just too tired?””

It took me too many years to realize how to set boundaries, because a voice inside my head kept telling me, “Who are you to say no? Who are you to think you deserve the weekend free? Who are you to be all high and mighty?”

Well, I have an answer.

I’m me.

And I don’t have to answer to anyone for the boundaries I’ve set for myself.

What are the boundaries you’ve set up in your life? How do they help you cope with anxiety and overwhelm? Let me know in the comments!

Dealing with overwhelm

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to deal with overwhelm.

Some days, I can feel myself skirting up against the cliff that is total burnout, only to shift myself back on course at the last minute with a weekend off with friends, or taking a long bike ride in the middle of the afternoon.

As my freelance business picks up, I’ve also come up against some pretty pressing deadlines in my fiction biz – which means that my usual strategy of dropping the fiction to accommodate client projects won’t work.

A very regimented productivity and scheduling system allows me to make it all work pretty seamlessly, and, guys, I’m now taking weekends off from client work – an amazing novelty after my first 18 months as a freelance writer!

But overwhelm is still a constant companion, always hanging out in the wings and ready to pounce.

Since it’s been on my mind, I’ve been writing about it a lot recently on GovLoop.

I don’t feel like I have a complete solution just yet, but I do feel like I’m circling closer to one.

How I deal with overwhelm

Step 1. Write down EVERYTHING I need to deal with – from ‘hem the curtains’ to your most pressing deadline. Just get it out of my head. This in the absolute first step – otherwise I get so stressed out by the sheer load of things that I won’t be able to concentrate and accomplish what I need to.

Step 2. Take my most pressing deadlines and prioritize them – by work load, by due date, whatever.

Step 3. Figure out which ones are negotiable. Are any of these projects less pressing than others? If I need to push things back, I talk to those clients and see if I can create a more realistic deadline for myself. This is a last resort for me, since I hate hate HATE missing deadlines, but if I know a client won’t have time to look at it for a few days anyway I’ll sometimes ask for an extension. I’ve found most people are pretty understanding.

Step 4. Understand which items are urgent-must-be-done-today (like write a blog post for a client, or respond to an email), and which are important to my life’s work, but could be put off until tomorrow (like write 1000 words).

Step 5. Schedule those important things to happen first, because I know I’ll always find time for the urgent things. But I won’t always make time for the important ones if I don’t do it first thing. (If I’m on the edge of overwhelm, however, I’ll scrap Step 5 in favor of Step 6.)

Step 6 (optional). Figure out which things are causing the most amount of stress and anxiety. Do them first, even if they’re completely not related to your real priorities. For me, they’re often things like “clean the kitchen” or “pay these bills” or “rearrange the office and figure out what smells like rotting bananas.”

I set a timer for 30 minutes and sprint through as many of these items as I can, and when the timer goes off, I take a deep breath and try to assess if I’m still as stressed out by life, the universe, and everything. If doing the dishes has made me feel better, I go back to Step 5 and try to tackle actual work that needs to be done.

How do you deal with being overwhelmed? I know I’m not alone as a writer who’s day job is also writing. How do you figure out what needs to get done first, and how do you make sure your most important work actually happens?