Caregiving – Is Setting Boundaries Selfish?

Joelle Besnette

By Joelle Besnette

Oh no you didn’t!  Setting Boundaries and Fielding Curveballs

Caregiving, by choice or by circumstance, is a challenge.  By definition, Caregiving, or “Caregiver” means giving of yourself to others; to varying degrees, it is self-sacrificing.  Women in particular are often raised to view self-sacrificing behavior as noble, normal, and non-threatening; we often struggle to reconcile that part of us that wants to give to others with the part that needs to tend to ourselves.  After all, if we take time for ourselves, something or someone else will not have our attention. There is a cost involved in taking care of ourselves.  

Taking Care of yoursel

Some common thoughts arise when we consider self-care options:

  • Is self-care selfish?  Or worse yet, disloyal?
  • Self-care isn’t top priority; my responsibilities are to others, so they come first.
  • After I’m done doing x, y, and z, then I’ll take care of myself.
  • If I don’t fulfill my responsibilities, it will be a disaster. 
  • I’m the only person who can do this, and do it right.
  • If I take time for myself, others will disapprove of me.


Much has been written about advice and self-care for the caregiver.  We’ve heard it before: You can’t effectively help others until you’ve taken care of yourself. 

Ask for help. Delegate. Talk to a supportive person.

Turn off your devices for a time.

Blow off some steam (in an appropriate manner).  These are all great ideas; they’re easy to talk about, but much harder to do…and to do without feeling guilty, or at the very least, inadequate.  

It’s tempting to think that self-care is just a matter of swapping out one thought for another.  It’s not selfish to take a shower when you desperately need one, even if it will set you back 10 minutes, right?  The truth is that there IS some truth to our self-talk, to our concerns. Some people won’t agree with your decisions.  You might even hear an “Oh, no, you didn’t!” (or at least think it to yourself). Others may see you as disloyal, despite your best efforts and best intentions.  This is especially hurtful when it comes from those close to you, or to your loved one. And sometimes when we postpone a duty or delegate it, it doesn’t work out.  Things might even end up worse than before, or at least more complicated than they were. Sometimes that’s still okay, but sometimes not. It all comes down to how you interpret and internalize things.

Self-care isn’t just a matter of dropping everything to take an hour for yourself.  It often involves planning ahead. For those who tend to go with the flow, this can be difficult.  It means thinking about alternatives, and identifying people who are willing and able to step up to the plate and help.  It means carving out a block of time. It is setting firm boundaries, which is often the most difficult part for those who are naturally compassionate, self-sacrificing, or just plain people-pleasers.  


But what if you’re not a people-pleaser?  I have to admit, I’m not much of one.  In my own experience when my mother was ill with Cancer, setting boundaries wasn’t all that difficult.  I’d had lots of opportunity to practice this over the years! The most difficult parts for me were the curveballs.  For example, at one point my mom was transported across county lines to a large hospital for short-term treatment. By that time, she was bed-ridden.  Sure, she received treatment, but then had no way to get back. My husband and I were incredulous; how can this happen in a city of a million people, at a well-respected medical center?  They were going to treat her, and then she’s left to her own devices?

Now, my husband and I live 1200 miles away. My brother and his family also live several hundred miles away. My mother’s friends were elderly, many of whom were no longer able to drive 30 miles into the city, if at all.  I spent all day on the phone, trying to find some way to get her transportation. I was on the verge of flying out there myself to get her out of there. So I was floored when an old friend of mine, who worked a mile away from the hospital, refused to help. Finally, I got a call from my mom – a young social worker was able to secure her a ride, apparently against company rules, and discreetly made sure she got where she needed to go.  An angel in our family’s eyes!

Recommended: Ted Talk – Self Care for Caregivers

There were numerous other curveballs.  One in particular was so unexpected. It came from a woman my mom knew for many years.  I’ll call her Diana. They met at work in the early 80’s. My mother was a talker, sometimes known to go on about one story for a solid 45 minutes.  But Diana could talk for hours. Literally. My mom would come home from work every so often and complain that she couldn’t get anything done because she was Diana’s captive (read:  hostage) audience. And when I was younger, I thought Diana was adorably entertaining. She was pretty, well-dressed, and always wore gorgeous jewelry. I was also mildly amused that someone managed to out-talk my mother to the point of exhaustion.  

After my mom died, Diana approached me during the funeral.  She mentioned she had a real estate license and was interested in selling my mom’s house, if that’s what our family decided to do.  I was already in a state of shock from my mom’s passing (despite it being expected); now I was taken aback at Diana’s nerve. However, I knew that underneath it all, she meant well.  At least, I think she did. It can be hard to differentiate between an ascetic and a narcissist. Anyway, I pulled out a mental script I’d used many times, “Thank you for the offer. I need time to think it over and discuss…”  

Soon after, my brother and I sat at our old kitchen table to sort through some of the business related to settling the estate.  He was the executor, and he wanted to know my thoughts on selling the house. Fortunately, we were on the same page; we agreed to sell.  I had to tell him about Diana’s offer, but it just wasn’t sitting well with me. I knew somehow this would end up way more complicated if we agreed to hire her.  At the very least, I knew there would be emotional strings attached and I wasn’t willing to do that.

Now, my brother is an expert poker-face, but when I told him my thoughts, I saw a glimmer of relief pass over his face.  We went with another realtor, and the house sold quickly and without complications.  

About a year later, another curveball:  out of nowhere, I got an email from Diana.  Just checking in, it’s been a year since mom passed, and 5 paragraphs later I just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you and your family.  Hmm. I kept my response friendly enough, but short. In other words, this was my way of setting boundaries. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not about what happens as much as it is how you interpret it. 

Caregiving on SeniorLivingFAQ



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