Growing up in an Indo-Caribbean family, I never heard the phrase “setting boundaries” or even knew what that meant. My parents immigrated to Canada from Trinidad in 1988 and I was born a few years later, their firstborn daughter in a new land far away from the home they were used to. It was instilled in me from a young age to always be polite and courteous, pursue an education and to do what was expected of me as an eldest daughter, as well as conforming to societal standards.
At the age of six, my dad enrolled me in karate lessons so that I could learn to defend myself as a young girl. I spent seven years attending weekly karate lessons when all I really dreamt of was playing with dolls and going to dance lessons with other young girls my age.
In my early teens, I started working part-time jobs as my parents had expressed how important it was for me to earn and manage my own money. During the day I excelled in school and in the evenings and on weekends, I picked up extra shifts. While all of my parent’s efforts in making me a well-rounded individual definitely paid off, I rarely got the opportunity to stop and ask myself what it was that I truly wanted.
As I got older, I began to realize that my need to please others ran much deeper than just doing what my parents expected of me. Angry customers at my job made me cry, and I buckled under the stress of juggling university classes with extracurricular activities and part-time jobs. I knew that I couldn’t meet the expectations of everyone, nor did I want to.
Alhamdulillah, in the summer of 2021 I decided to seek out a therapist to finally address my people-pleasing tendencies, and to help me set firmer boundaries and work on my self-esteem. I had seen a lot of mental health posts on social media and wanted to jump on the bandwagon to improve my overall well-being. Little did I know that therapy would be way more substantial than any typical Internet fad. It would essentially be the gateway to me learning more about myself and improving my relationships with practically everyone in my life.
I started searching for a therapist who would understand the cultural and social issues of POC and could speak to some of my experiences as a Trini-Canadian Muslim woman.
After a couple months of searching, I met with Yusra Baloch, Founder of Wellness Care Counselling in Toronto, Ontario and registered therapist and social worker. Yusra was able to provide a safe space for me to express the issues I was facing and receive guidance and care. Throughout multiple sessions, we have worked together to improve my ability to communicate and set boundaries in my home and work life.
Yusra strongly believes that “setting boundaries is an essential part of self-care and maintaining healthy relationships. By communicating needs and expectations clearly and respectfully, women can create healthier and more fulfilling relationships.” She also asserts that, “it’s so important for women to prioritize their well-being and know that it’s okay to say no.”
Recently, I spoke with Yusra to gain insight on some of the ways Muslim women can set and maintain boundaries in their homes and lives. If you struggle with people-pleasing, or you’re simply feeling burnt out from the ceaseless weight of the expectations of others, please keep on reading as help is on the way. Below are five simple and effective ways that you can begin setting boundaries in your own Muslim household.
1. Limit calls and emails
While it’s easy to get caught up in work and take on extra tasks beyond your scheduled hours, Yusra stresses the importance of limiting calls and emails. “Women can set boundaries in the workplace and at home in various ways. One approach is to create a balance between personal and professional life by avoiding checking emails or taking calls after work hours.” So, as tempting as it is to take calls on your lunch break or look at emails in bed, it can be detrimental to your mental health to do so. Remember that your brain needs a break; you’re not a robot after all!
2. Learn to say no without guilt
As Yusra says, “another effective way of setting boundaries is to avoid overcommitting yourself, which means not saying yes to obligations when already overloaded. Additionally, it is important to ask yourself how you feel about a new obligation before committing.”
This notion of taking time to reflect on our abilities and capacities before agreeing to take on a new task, never occurs to most of us. Overcommitting is one of the quickest ways to burnout. Never feel guilty for saying no, as it’s much better to fully immerse yourself when you are willing and able, than to spread yourself too thin and be unable to adequately execute.
3. Take time off and rest
As Muslim women, we need to understand that our bodies are an amanah from Allah SWT, and that we need to take care of ourselves just as well as we take care of everything else in our lives. Eating nutritious and healthy foods, as well as exercising daily has many health benefits beyond the physical. For example, going for a jog or hike outside can de-stress you by exposing you to fresh air and natural scenery. Taking time to regularly exercise has also been linked to mental health benefits such as reduced anxiety, enhanced mood and improved self-esteem (1).
Take initiative when it comes to your well-being, and if you feel ill or need to rest, plan some time off and let the world wait.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “There are two blessings which many people do not appreciate: health and leisure.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Keeping ourselves healthy, taking care of our bodies and resting when necessary should be some of our top priorities.
4. Delegate tasks to others
If you are feeling overwhelmed and overburdened, you may be able to call upon your support system for some help. Islam teaches us the importance of helping others, cultivating community and being kind to one another. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends and family members, and to delegate tasks as needed. If you have children at home, get them involved with chores and ask them to clean up after themselves if they are old enough.
5. Communicate clearly and consistently
Though mental health issues continue to be a taboo in some communities, and there remains a stigma around getting help, you should never suffer in silence. Yusra believes that, “one of the most common stigmas around mental health in minority communities is that seeking support for mental health is perceived as a sign of weakness. This stigma can lead to individuals suffering in silence and not seeking professional support. Also, women in minority and POC communities find it hard to set and maintain boundaries due to societal and familial expectations. Women may feel obligated to follow these expectations or else fear rejection and social exclusion.”
You can help break the stigma by communicating clearly and consistently on your needs and advocating for yourself. While it may take some time, proper therapy can give you the tools you need to be more confident in speaking up and breaking down the barriers you may face in doing so. If you have difficulty maintaining boundaries and consistently upholding them, a therapist can help keep you accountable. Yusra suggests therapy as a way for women to “learn communication tools and techniques”, and to continue “regular self check-ins that help track progress and maintain good mental health.”
In this day and age, setting boundaries should be as commonplace as getting a haircut, changing your tires or mowing your lawn. Contrary to what culture and traditions may have us believe, women can and should speak up about the ways in which they want to be treated. According to Yusra, “healthy boundaries allow women to prioritize their own needs so they can better support themselves and others.” After all, you can’t fuel the people around you if your tank is constantly running on empty. So, speak up for yourself, take a mental health day, delegate tasks to others or just simply say no. After all, kindness and firmness are not mutually exclusive.
Fox, K. (1999). The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition, 2(3a), 411-418. DOI: 10.1017/S1368980099000567
Alissa is a 30-year-old freelance writer and government program worker residing in Toronto, Canada. With a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Toronto, she is passionate about creative writing and finding her voice. Besides work, she loves to cuddle up on the couch with her cat and practise self-care by watching a good rom-com.