Honouring our personal boundaries supports mental wellness. A cancer diagnosis often requires us to get clear about our boundaries, which can be hard at the best of times. On top of that, a cancer diagnosis and treatment can cause our boundaries to change. For example, when navigating who to tell about our cancer diagnosis and how much to share, it is important for us to find ways to establish and maintain healthy boundaries.
Interpersonal boundaries can be broken down into five components:
- Psychological boundaries: how much we share about our thoughts, beliefs and opinions
- Emotional boundaries: how we communicate and receive feelings
- Physical and sexual boundaries: how we engage with each other through touch and intimacy
- Material boundaries: how we share our belongings
- Time boundaries: how we respect our time and the time of others
Boundaries exist on a spectrum. At one end of that spectrum are those of us who say “No!” to everything and build a wall of protection around us. At the other end are those of us who say “Yes!” to everything and can end up feeling like a doormat. What we each need to find is a space in the middle – a combination of yes and no. Sometimes people find prioritizing their own needs daunting and uncomfortable, but over time it often brings us more peace. It also can help decrease the resentment that builds when we do not set the boundaries we need.
Below are some common boundary-setting scenarios and suggestions for how to navigate them.
1. Deciding who to tell and how much to tell.
You do not have to tell everything to everyone. How much and with whom we share things is a personal decision. At the beginning of diagnosis, some find it helpful to gain clarity about their treatment and diagnosis before sharing with folks outside their main support circle. Others may find it important to tell people how much they feel comfortable sharing. Saying something like: “Please don’t put this on social media” can also be an important request to make.
2. Creating your own healing environment, including who is in it.
Friends and family members might have an idea about how they want to support you – with offers to drive you to appointments, making you certain foods, or planning a party for when you finish treatment. Others might think you want to be left alone and try to give lots of space. Distinguishing what type of support works best for you and requesting it is all part of creating a healing environment and boundary-setting.
3. Saying “No” to unsolicited advice.
Despite best intentions, sometimes the support that we receive can end up increasing our stress, such as when we are getting unwanted advice. It can be helpful to communicate things like: “I appreciate that you want to support me, and at this time I have all the information I need. I will reach out in the future if I am interested in what you have to share.”
4. “No” is a complete sentence. So is “Yes.”
Boundaries help keep what you do not want out, but they also allow you to accept the support you need. As the saying goes: “No human is an island”.
5. Tell people when the conversation becomes stressful.
Sometimes we need to stop others from sharing unhelpful stories. You may have experienced someone saying to you, “Oh I knew someone who had your type of cancer… They didn’t do so well.” Often the underlying intention is to connect, but the outcome can be increased stress and disconnection. Remember that it’s ok to say: “I’m finding this stressful. Can we talk about something else instead?”
6. Preserving energy is important.
Think about how and who you want to spend your time with. It’s ok to say: “Not today, but perhaps we can connect later.” It’s also ok to reach out to a certain people and let them know: “I miss you. Do you have time to connect?”
7. Share your personal preferences with your health care team.
Some patients feel empowered with more information; others find less is enough. We are all unique and have different preferences, and it can help for your health care team to understand what feels best for you.
Boundary-setting is an important topic, and one that is often best explored with a trusted care provider. As author and therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab writes: “People don’t know what you want. It’s your job to make it clear. Clarity saves relationships.” For most of us, learning about our boundaries is an ongoing process. If you would like to continue this exploration, please reach out to schedule a session with one of our Supportive Care Physicians or Counsellors.