You can’t pour from an empty cup

I learned self-care starts with having healthy boundaries

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It’s impossible to say yes to everything and have time to look after yourself. PHOTO: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

By: Maya Beninteso, Peak Associate

I had a friend — let’s call her Willow. This friendship progressed to the point where we confided in each other regarding difficult topics — like any other close friend. But, over time, I became less of a friend and morphed into her (100% unlicensed) therapist. Of course, I wanted to support her, but not to the extent she expected. I tried to rationalize my therapist-esque role in her life by telling myself she needed my support. But, there is a fine line between being supportive and full-on therapy sessions — that line is called a healthy boundary. 

The day I realized this friendship did not possess healthy boundaries also happened to be one of the most significant days of my life. Without going into too much detail, this was a day I needed Willow’s support the most. I went to her house and she, knowing I had just experienced a hard day, didn’t ask me how everything went and decided to use me for another “therapy session.” I tried telling her I was in no position to support her but she started venting anyway. When I reiterated that my mental state was pretty poor she instantly got aggressive and said I was being a bad friend. 

This is where I should have reasserted my boundary. Instead, I internalized her words and genuinely believed I was not living up to my mandate as her friend. Was I a bad friend? How could I have navigated the situation differently to make her feel more supported? My rumination was interrupted by a text apology from Willow and, without hesitation, I forgave her. 

I have since learned that apologies without change are manipulation, something I wish I knew before the following incident.

A few months later, I went over to her house again one evening. My mother and I have a ritual of watching reality TV shows together and I eventually decided to leave to do just that. As I got up to leave, Willow told me I couldn’t. I thought she was kidding and I laughed, but her face remained serious and I realized she wasn’t kidding. She physically blocked me from leaving her living room and it took me a solid 10 minutes to convince her to let me go. Then, like a mature adult, she proceeded to steal my shoes. 

After yet another five minutes, she gave me my shoes back. That meant that I could leave, right? Wrong. Willow stood in front of her front door, physically blocked me from leaving, and asked, “Are you not going to hug me before leaving?” For context, Willow and I never had a friendship that included physical touch and she knew I wasn’t comfortable with it. I said no and I had to ever-so-lightly slide her over to leave through her front door. 

I sprinted to my car, promptly left, and I never returned. 

During my reflective drive home, I had tears streamed down my face. I realized I was not valuing and asserting my own boundaries and had let Willow walk all over me, resulting in a toxic friendship. In the weeks following that experience, I struggled with asserting the final boundary of ending my friendship with her. After weeks of dry-texting Willow, and failing to respond enthusiastically, I finally conjured up the courage to send a lengthy text detailing how I felt. I expressed a lack of interest in continuing the friendship, especially considering the numerous incidents that appeared to escalate in nature. It was difficult, but I finally communicated this boundary and have consistently held it for the past year and a half. I do still see Willow occasionally, but I have remained firm on my decision to end the friendship.

I allowed Willow to drain me when I already felt empty. In hindsight, I should’ve heeded the warning that a former colleague and friend used to tell me. She would say, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” I would shrug it off as if my cup wasn’t experiencing a full-on drought due to my lack of boundaries. I just never knew a person who I considered a close friend would be the one to stretch me paper-thin. 

Shortly after resolving my situation (and attending numerous therapy sessions), I had an epiphany. I was always checking in with others, but I never had the self-compassion to check in with the most permanent person in my life: me.

I started journaling as an opportunity to check in with myself and I started communicating my boundaries to loved ones. You cannot expect others to read your mind — you need to take charge of your boundaries and communicate your needs. I found this to be quite challenging but, nonetheless, I needed to take care of myself first. 

If you need to cancel plans with a friend because you need the day to yourself, that’s completely valid. Just try your best not to do this last minute. Take the time to regroup and rest. This will likely feel daunting — I know it did for me — but what’s the harm in placing boundaries? If someone doesn’t respect the boundaries you place, then they are not someone you want to be associated with. You deserve to have your boundaries honoured. I didn’t lose Willow. I let her go.

While my experiences were difficult, they further provided me with perspective and a sense of empathy. Before venting to my friends, I always ask if they are in a good, safe mental state to be on the listening end of a rant. And, at the end of my rants, I always end on some sort of positive note. 

And, on that note. . .

My dear readers, here’s to setting healthy boundaries and filling our cups.