Maintaining healthy boundaries is essential for your mental health, and overall wellbeing, as well as avoiding burnout. Unclear or unenforced boundaries can often leave you feeling depleted, taken advantage of, or resentful. These feelings can be extremely harmful to your sense of self-worth and your relationships. Learning how to establish boundaries will ultimately protect your wellbeing, and help you to be happier and more successful, both at work and in your personal relationships.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are limits or guidelines that you set for yourself on how others can behave towards you, in order to protect your physical or emotional needs and sense of peace. Setting and maintaining boundaries can be challenging for some, but like any skill, it can be improved with some practice. Boundaries can be different for everyone and will come in many different forms. Here are some common categories that they fall into:
Maintaining emotional boundaries can be challenging but proves very important. Stating and standing up for your emotional needs can feel frightening, especially if it is not something you are used to doing. This just means you need to practice more until you get quite good at it. An example of setting an emotional boundary would be, for instance, if you stated to a confidante “this is a very vulnerable subject for me, and I would really appreciate it if this information could stay between us”, prior to sharing personal information. This makes your expectation of privacy very clear to those with whom you are sharing and provides the receiver with the opportunity to agree or disagree with the expectation. Additionally, a great way to show respect for the emotional boundaries of others would be to ask your confidante if they have the capacity to support your emotional needs at the moment and be understanding if they decline.
You want to be helpful. It is customary and understandable – whether at home or at work. You often fill up your schedule because you may feel if you can help, there is no good reason to say no. But what you will rarely hear is that you don’t need a good reason to say no; all you need is the desire. In order to be truly helpful to others, you need to be in a good place which means you need to protect your time. Filling up your schedule to the point where you have no time for yourself or activities that energize you is how you become depleted. If you spread yourself too thin, your personal happiness will suffer.
It’s important to remember that your time is extremely valuable, and finite, meaning you only have so much of it and need to spend it wisely. One example of protecting your boundaries regarding time would be to identify the time you need to do the things that make you a happy human and create a schedule that makes sure those needs are met. You need eight hours of sleep. You need exercise. You need to eat. You need to spend quality time with people you love. You need to write or read or (insert your favorite thing to do here). You have needs, and you are the only one who will defend or enforce them – so build them into your schedule and make them unmovable. Once you have your list of non-negotiables, you’ll be able to determine how much time you have leftover to assist others with their needs.
Physical boundaries are those having to do with protecting your personal space, your privacy, or your body. It’s essential, especially during a global pandemic, that you stand up for your needs with regards to your own personal space, and that you respect the needs of others. Requesting and maintaining your own personal space has never been more acceptable or understandable than it is currently and could be used to your advantage. The pandemic has gotten you out of hugging strangers and awkward high-fives, so with the bad comes some good, but you will still need to state any other physical boundaries that make you more comfortable. An example of asserting a physical boundary could be walking away from your workspace to grab some lunch, in order to clear your head or get some fresh air. It may also look like keeping your personal space organized in a way that helps you feel at ease.
What boundaries are not?
Boundaries are not selfish. Protecting your well-being is not selfish. Sometimes setting boundaries might mean declining to give help or your time to others, and this may, at first glance, seem selfish. However, ultimately, it’s exactly the opposite. To understand why, consider the oxygen mask principle. When you’re on a plane, they always advise you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, even if you are flying with small children. And why is this? Because if you don’t put on your own mask, you will run out of oxygen, and then you will be no help to anyone. The same idea applies: if you don’t look out for your own needs, your ability to function and realize your own happiness will suffer and you will be of no help to others.
How to start protecting your boundaries:
Start paying attention to your needs.
Sometimes when life gets busy, it’s easy to forget about your own needs, but a little bit of self-reflection goes a long way. Your emotions are a very powerful indicator of what your needs are. When a situation causes you to feel a strong emotion, take note of it. You could be feeling upset that someone used a rude tone with you, stressed because you don’t have enough time to complete a project before a deadline, or happy that someone asked you before sharing an emotionally charged story. These emotions are all tools that you could use to help you understand what’s needed to support your own wellbeing.
Determine what your boundaries are.
Once you’ve gained a better understanding of what your needs are, you’ll be well-prepared to determine what boundaries you should implement in order to support these needs. You will likely know that a certain boundary is necessary when the idea of having that boundary provides you with relief. For example, if you’ve noticed that being pushed for time is causing you distress, this is a sign that you should implement some time boundaries. Maybe this means being more disciplined about staying on track, letting colleagues know that you won’t respond to work calls or emails after a certain time, or saying no to meetings or projects that are not essential.
Assert your boundaries.
This is arguably the most difficult component of setting boundaries. While it’s sometimes easier in the moment to just “let things go”, it’s much healthier, in the long run, to advocate for your needs. Being firm with your boundaries will ultimately have positive effects on your life and your relationships with others. For the best results, make sure that when you state your boundaries, you do so from a calm and grounded place. Additionally, make sure that you are being direct. If you aren’t direct and firm in stating your boundaries, it will be difficult for people to understand what they are and whether you are serious.
Remember that being assertive and instituting boundaries does not mean that you are being rude or mean; as long as you are being respectful of others, you are well within your right to stand up for yourself. Advocating for yourself can be very difficult, especially if you’re not used to it, so it may be helpful to start with smaller boundaries until you feel more confident. The more you start asserting your boundaries, the more comfortable it will become for you and those around you, allowing the peace you deserve in your life to be realized.