Learning Self-Care and Boundaries is Like Learning a New Language

You’ll struggle in the beginning, but pretty soon, you’ll get the hang of it.

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If you grew up not knowing how to practice self-care, put yourself first, or create healthy boundaries, then learning these things is like learning a new language.  You’ll struggle at first, as you learn what the definition of each of those are.  Then you’ll be able to spot people with healthy boundaries, or that make time for self-care.  Last, you’ll be able to practice these self-loving things on your own.  

When I was a teacher, I taught pre-kindergarten for many years.  One of the requirements to qualify for public pre-kindergarten in Texas, is that you speak a different language at home than English.  Those early days of school could be really difficult.  I would have to find a way to get the students to walk in a line (imagine herding cats, with each one going a different direction), help them understand that I needed them to come to the floor for instruction time, and reassure them that their parents were definitely coming back to get them.  These were four-year-olds, so they learned really quickly, as long as I was consistent.  Within about two weeks, they could follow most of my instructions.  

Many co-dependents and people-pleasers struggle with self-care, putting themselves first, and creating healthy boundaries because they usually grew up in a dysfunctional household, with an addicted parent, a narcissistic parent, a parent with mental illness, or some type of neglect.   They never learned this language of self-worth.  

If that resonates, you will notice that you may have a string of difficult relationships, from coworkers, to friendships, to family relationships, to romantic relationships.  You probably have been told that something is wrong with you.  “You’re too sensitive!” “Why do you stay with that person? I would have left a long time ago!” “Why are you always so stressed?”  Or, you may have blamed yourself for all the problems in your life.  “What is wrong with me?”  “Why does everything always work out for ________, but not for me?”

Learning the Language of Self-Worth

Just like my pre-kindergarten students, if learning the language of self-worth, which is self-care, prioritizing yourself, and setting boundaries, is new to you, first comes the awareness that you don’t know what you don’t know.  Awareness usually comes in the form of pain and heartbreak.  They can be really hard lessons.  You begin noticing that other people don’t seem to struggle as much.  You are aware that they somehow behave differently than you have. 

Next, you’ll go about the business of learning what each of these things look like.  What is self-care?  No, it’s not just getting your nails done, or treating yourself to your favorite meal, although, those can count.  What does a healthy boundary look like?  How do I prioritize myself, so I can make sure that I am looking out for my own emotional, mental and physical health?  You’ll start noticing other people that have learned these skills, maybe a celebrity, a public figure, or a friend.  You’ll wonder how they do it and ask questions.  You might read books, listen to podcasts, watch YouTube videos, buy an online program or hire a coach.  

Then, you will practice.  You’ll probably make some mistakes, like you’ll skip your exercise one day because you don’t have the energy, or you’ll set a boundary that is not strong enough, or that is too strong.  Keep in mind that this is a learning process.  My students didn’t learn all the English words right away.  They learned a little at a time.  First, they learned to say “Hi”.  They understood more words than they could speak in the beginning, just like you’ll be able to spot people that prioritize self-care before you’ll actually be able to do it yourself.  

Finally, one day, you’ll notice that you feel happier, more confident, more fulfilled, and you’ll realize that you have learned the self-worth language!  You won’t be perfect.  There will be setbacks here and there.  A new job will alter your schedule, you’ll meet a new person that challenges your boundaries, or some other life change will present itself, and that is totally okay.  Just the way my English learning students came across new words they didn’t know, but were able to understand with a little help, you’ll learn new strategies too.  

Allow yourself to take baby steps.  Forgive yourself for mistakes you make along the way, and recognize that you are still learning.  Celebrate the fact that you are further along than when you started.

By the end of pre-k, when my students were ready to move on to the next grade level, it was hard to remember that they didn’t know any English when they came to my classroom.  Many of them came back to visit with their little siblings, who were starting the first day in pre-kindergarten.  I was thankful that they could help guide them to the classroom, and help them get settled in their seats.  They would explain a little bit about how to navigate the classroom.  

My students, who struggled so much at first, were able to model for the younger children how to speak this new language, just as you will model for your own children, grandchildren, and other people in your circle, how to speak your new language of self-care, healthy boundaries, and putting yourself first.

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