You Are Not Required To Set Yourself On Fire. Really.

I spent a lot of time over the last week with the saying “You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm”. I built some cool memes to share around, and I then created a bunch of stuff for my stores on Etsy and this website. And of course, that led to me thinking about the saying a lot.

So let’s talk about what it means. “You are not required to set yourself on fire” is a pretty radical statement. It’s visual. It’s a bit frightening. You find yourself thinking of flames when you see it. All of that is good because this is the opposite of what many of us were trained to believe.

“To keep other people warm”. I mean, the whole phrase together is a bit absurd. Of course we don’t set ourselves on fire to keep others warm. That would kill us.

Oh.

Ohhhhhhh.

Using the “You Are Not Required To Set Yourself On Fire” in Real Life

So that’s the point. We “set ourselves on fire” by ignoring our own long-term needs and goals. We keep other people warm, a temporary, possibly not necessary condition.

“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm” sets a huge boundary. Do you maybe want to build a fire from scrap wood for the other person? Do you want to let them know where to get kindling? Those are fine. You can even teach them how to build and maintain a fire. But you are not required to, and you won’t, set yourself on fire to warm them.

So let’s use this metaphor in some real-life examples:

Work:

Suppose your boss calls and says that they need you to come in on your weekend when you’d scheduled it off to take a long-awaited trip with your family. If you cancel your trip and go to work, you are setting yourself on fire. Perhaps instead you could take a 15-minute consultation call. Or you could agree to be available by email. Or you could call a colleague and have them fill in and help.

Family

Now suppose your child, parent, or sibling has a serious addiction. They call you up and beg for a place to stay, but the last two times they did, they stole from you. It’s reasonable to assume they’ll steal from you again. Allowing them to stay at your house before they have changed their behavior would be “setting yourself on fire”. Instead, you could help them get into rehab. You take them out to lunch and feed them, let them know you love them, and help them get into a homeless shelter. Or you could help them access mental health care.

Partnership

The most common place, I think, where we are trained to believe the opposite of “You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm” is in romance. Suppose your partner tells you that they don’t like your best friend, Jax, who has been your friend since early childhood. They ask you to stop hanging out with your friend. Before even talking about how big a red flag this is, you just don’t want to give up your friend. If you dumped your friend, that would be setting yourself on fire.

Telling your partner that they have no say in who you chose to be friends with is an option. So is agreeing that while your friend is important and so is your partner, you’ll arrange your social life so that they are rarely in the same room. Finally, in this case, dumping your partner is on the table.

In General

Ask yourself how heavy or “how hot” the thing that you’re being asked to do is. How will it interfere in your life? Will it stop you from doing something that defines you? Could it get in the way of your physical or emotional health or safety? If the answer to either of the last two questions is “yes”, a person is asking you to set yourself on fire. And you are don’t have to do that.

Give yourself time to think about your answer before answering. Excuse yourself from the room or put your phone away for a bit. Figure out how you can help them build a fire that is safe for you, or teach them how to build a fire. Perhaps at this point your move is to refuse to help them keep warm at all.

When you’re ready, prepare yourself by knowing exactly what your boundary is, call in support if needed, and answer them.

Be Prepared for Consequences

People generally don’t like being told “no”. Some of the people who are asking you to “keep them warm” will not like the solutions you offer. And that’s okay. There is room for negotiation in the middle. However, if the only solution the other person will accept is for you to “set yourself on fire”,

On Boundaries: No Is A Complete Sentence(Opens in a new browser tab)

Four By Four: Protecting Your Physical Boundaries

Remind Yourself Of Your Boundaries

Head over to my Etsy store and grab a coffee mug, T-shirt, or a blank bullet journal that will let others know your boundaries are firm. When your co-worker asks you to “set yourself on fire” for their comfort, just raise your mug and say no.

On Boundaries: Scripts for Setting Your Material Boundaries

What Do I Do Next?

Jennifer Liles is the owner and webmistress for Jenni's Space and Responsive Mental Health Services LLC. She is dedicated to mental health and human rights for freaks, geeks, and queer folk. She uses the Jenni's Space label for places where she combines education about, advocacy for, and celebration of mental health and human rights. This information is primarily for neurodiverse people, people with mental health issues, people who are on the queer spectrum, disabled people, and Black and Indigenous and other people of color. There are also discussions for privileged people about privilege and how it intersects with human rights work.