Setting boundaries with others can help stave off some of these problems, said Tawwab, who wrote Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. But the increased pressure during the pandemic to multitask at work and at home has made setting boundaries even more difficult, she noted, forcing people to reevaluate their lives and learn to say no.
“Life is full of choices, and I see boundaries as choices,” she said. “People will always want you to do something. If we always do what people want us to do, we will be very busy.”
In a discussion with CNN, Tawwab helped illuminate choices so people can take back control of their lives, set healthy boundaries, and enjoy rewarding relationships.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What connection have you seen between pandemic burnout and the workplace and setting boundaries?
Tauwab: A lot of us were already burned out, and the pandemic really got us there. It prompted us to assess the factors that led to burnout. For many of us, it was work and the unhealthy relationships we found ourselves in. The pandemic has highlighted something that was already there.
CNN: How do you think these factors contributed to “Great resignation“?
Tauwab: At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us were put in situations we could never have imagined. We now know that life can be flexible, we know that we can handle multiple roles. People are trying to figure out how to make a living without doing it all their lives. We are in a state of reevaluating what feels important. It may not be worth exposing ourselves to the things we deal with at work.
CNN: For someone who has never set boundaries but knows a change is needed, where do you start?
Tauwab: Start with your feelings. Where do you feel frustrated or angry? When these feelings come up, what do you do in response? Do you tolerate it or are you trying to make a difference in your life? It will help if you start making a difference by saying, “This is a room I need to say no to.”
We need to create spaces where people can focus on what they need without being overburdened with tasks.
CNN: Why is it so hard for people to say no?
Tauwab: It’s not about always doing everything someone asks of you. Sometimes you have to back down, sometimes you have questions and sometimes you need support. You need to figure out how to balance the energy between wanting to be liked and wanting to be a good worker.
CNN: How do you find that balance and how do you know which side to be on?
Tauwab: Realize your capacity. When do you get anxious or frustrated when you do something? When do you notice your mood shifting towards your co-workers or loved ones because you are irritable? Explore how you feel when asked to do another project. What’s in store for you? Are you getting anxious? Do you have time to build this in? Do you start having a physical reaction when you take on too many things? That’s where you learn to set boundaries.
CNN: In your work as a therapist over the past two years, have you seen associations between increased anxiety, borderlessness, and work-related stress?
Tauwab: I think anxiety in the workplace shows up as an unintended slowdown. You unintentionally become more careless in your duties. You falter, worry about getting things done, or worry about how that person might feel if you say no. There are concerns about the way you can fulfill your job responsibilities. I’ve seen it show itself most in a slowdown and a lack of drive and determination.
CNN: What guidance do you have for people who know they need to have a difficult conversation?
Tauwab: People have said no before, and I think our brains are fooling us. You know how to say no to some things, but you don’t know how to say no to everything. There are other areas in life where you say no – why are you comfortable in those areas? And why do you feel uncomfortable in these rooms? We need to ask ourselves, “Why do I think this is going to backfire? Why do I think this isn’t well received?” Often it is a tale we tell ourselves and seldom is it the truth.
CNN: What about sensitive conversations where the stakes are higher? For example with a boss, parent or parents-in-law.
Tauwab: Start with vulnerability. It can be helpful to tell people, “For my sanity, I can’t commit to doing this extra thing because I’m already thinned out.” Use words to describe what mental health is. What you may be going through is anxiety or feeling overwhelmed, and you might say, “I’m overwhelmed with tasks. I’m very frustrated because I can’t find the right words to say no. So when you challenge me, it makes me feel like it’s unsafe to say no.”
CNN: What if this person thinks you’re disrespectful or rude? How are you directing this conversation?
Tawwab: I think a lot about family. Explain that you understand your parents were probably different, and list things you have in common: “We believe in love, community, connection, togetherness. I think it’s okay if I disagree. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in love, community, connection, togetherness. It means I have different opinions about some things, but I still love family even if I try to have some things that are different for me.
CNN: In the last two years, people have started learning things that make them work and live better. What tips do you have for self-drivers to prevent possible burnout?
Tauwab: We drive most cars in the zero to maybe 80 range and mostly around the 40 to 55 mile mark. You cannot exist at 80 and you cannot exist at zero. Many of us will try to exist at this higher number and it is like racing through life.
You miss all the important moments because you are unable to slow down. Sometimes there is something about taking the scenic route because life is meant to be enjoyed. Deliberate slowing down is important. We need to practice being less productive and figure out how to recover.
CNN: Have you had to set new boundaries or break down old boundaries in the last two years?
Tauwab: I’ve practiced intentional boundaries in timing.
Sometimes in our race to be busy and productive, we just say yes. Sometimes a yes today is a yes tomorrow, so I’m like, ‘Will that roll over into Christmas? So let me say no in advance. Because I know I won’t be available – I’ll be watching everything Hallmark and Lifetime has to offer.”