Often when we hear the word “self-care,” the smell of lavender may waft into our nose, or the soothing image of a warm bath and an audiobook. Maybe we’ll contemplate the deep release of a relaxing massage. All of these are wonderful ways to relax and take care of ourselves, as are vacations, being in nature, great food, yoga, and meditation. However, I’ve found the biggest form of self-care, the best way to prevent stress and burnout, is to set and communicate boundaries.

I’d much rather prevent burnout than run my energy tank down to empty and fill it back up. I want to create a life where I don’t feel burnt out or I’m running on empty. I know that burnout can sometimes be unavoidable, especially when you are trying to balance all of the things that need your attention, and that sometimes can come all at once. We have some non-negotiable responsibilities in life, right? And life can seriously be a lot.  

When I feel stressed or overwhelmed, I like to take a moment and focus on that feeling. I like to shine a light on the overwhelm. When you have a flashlight you can adjust the light beam, you can make the light broad to cover a large area, or you can twist the top to focus the light beam on a specific area. That is what I like to do with my overwhelm. I like to keep adjusting the focus of the light until I understand my feelings more. What feelings are inside the overwhelm? Is it concern, anger, or sadness? Are those feelings related to health, work, or relationships? Once I understand my feelings, I focus the light beam a bit more. Was I upset about a situation, and if so, what was it that really affected me?

When I use this visualization to understand my feelings, I almost always come back to boundaries. Lack of boundaries or a boundary not being respected gets me into a state of overwhelm. The definition of a boundary is a limit of a subject or sphere of activity. Are there areas of our lives where we might want to limit a subject or sphere of activity? As a mother, wife, business owner, and many other things, I find my attention, energy, and time to be precious and I like to be intentional about how I give and receive it. To be able to do this, I had to get very comfortable with setting boundaries for myself and for others. Releasing the guilt around these boundaries was also very important. I find this to be one of the hardest and highest levels of self-care. 

I was not born someone who valued boundaries. It was quite the opposite actually. I glorified being busy and was constantly taking on a lot of responsibilities. I thought of myself as physically strong and a determined organizer, which meant I could take on a lot. I was also a people pleaser. Separately, I’m a people person — I generally like people and even now, if I can help someone I will, but it has to be balanced with taking care of myself. 

In addition, the spiritual path that I have practiced for 20 years values service to others. I received a lot of attention for being kind, helpful, and a good worker. However, operating in this way got harder and harder as I took on more and more. Then when I became a parent, I had more stress and less energy; it became harder to serve others from a loving, heartfelt place. I became angry, passive-aggressive, and stressed out.  

I would say I was a parent for about 10 years before I realized I was unhappy and stressed because I was uncomfortable creating boundaries. I read a story about a mother with older kids telling a mom with three small children she didn’t have to bring the snack to swim practice because she was in the thick of parenting. It shook me. It was as if someone told me I did not have to do everything. I opened my eyes wide and started to look at my life in a new way. 

I started asking myself why was I doing all the things I was doing? Why was I taking on other people’s responsibilities? Why was I giving other people and projects so much of my attention when my marriage and my family desperately needed me? Why was I putting in more of an effort than the people I was trying to help? What was being so stressed, tired, and angry doing to me? Was I doing this all out of love? Was I even doing a good job? Was I doing it because if I did not, I felt the world would crumble? Was I doing it to distract me from my feelings? 

It was for many reasons, but at the core, I was unhappy and trying to distract myself. Instead of fixing what was on the inside, I just kept adding more to the outside. It was like putting on lots of bandaids and expecting them to heal internal bleeding. It was not helpful — taking on more responsibilities only made me more unhappy.

What followed after this is what I call my “chrysalis time” — just like when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly it has to create a chrysalis and turn to goo, my wings of freedom also did not come easily. My life got gooey. I had to get quiet and listen to my inner knowing. I had to make tough decisions to let many things go, to say no a lot, to have difficult conversations. I had to be authentic and vulnerable. It kind of sucked, but it was also amazing. I think we go through many chrysalis stages in our lives if we can get quiet and listen to what is inside us. When we try new ways of being, get vulnerable, and keep going, I think we have many transformations in our lifetime. 

I am someone who believes deeply in energy and vibration. When I decide I want to do something, I do it filled with love and I do it well. It feels amazing and it not only brings me great joy, but also the person or project with whom I am working. There are of course times when I feel stressed and some of my responsibilities and deadlines all fall on the same day, but this is the exception and not the norm. I still have an active, involved life but because I have consciously chosen what is in my life with love, it feels more manageable. I am less resentful. 

I still believe in hard work and a job well done. I still believe in hustling to make your dreams come true. I appreciate fighting for something you believe in. I value experiencing inconvenience to help someone else, but the energy and intention behind it has to be clear and with love. Inconvenience is fine, being uncomfortable is sometimes needed, but burning yourself out and harming important relationships in your life to bend over backwards is not. 

If there is something that does not feel good about a situation, I know I have the skills to talk about it in an open way without guilt. I am confident I can establish, adjust, or withhold a boundary if I need to. I know not all conversations have to be awkward and even if they are, that is alright too. Boundaries seem restrictive, but the honesty and structure they have created has given me wings to fly, and that is one of the best forms of self-care I can imagine. 

If you’d like support growing your own wings, and exploring how to establish boundaries for yourself and your family, I’m here to help (in a healthy, boundary-honoring way of course).

Rachel Maietta

Rachel Maietta is a mom, certified parent coach, preschool teacher, and founder of Wholehearted Parent Coaching. She has worked with children of all ages, and loves to support parents. If you are interested in coaching and would like to start a 10-week parenting journey, you can receive a free consultation. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram for blogs, ideas, and parenting information, or use the form below to contact her directly.