How to set healthy boundaries
We often hear about ‘boundaries’ but what exactly are they and how can you set them to support your well-being? Let’s start with a simple dictionary definition:
a line which marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.
A boundary is simply the line you draw in the sand about a certain subject. This may be to do with your own habits (like how much time you spend on social media) or behaviour you’re willing to accept from others (like limiting contact from relatives who cause you emotional harm).
The idea of setting boundaries is to support your mental health, at its core – it’s an act of self-care. It’s a way of recognising and building a sense of self-worth. So, now we know what boundaries are and how they can support us, how can we set them up?
Consider what boundaries will serve you
Look at the various areas of your life, including work, relationships, social media, physical health and mental health. Ask yourself what, in those areas, feels draining to you right now. Are there any habits or behaviours of your own that you’d like to change? Are there any behaviours of others you’d like to change?
Take some time to write down what boundaries could help you right now. What measures could you put into place that would help you feel better? Could it be to stop working at a certain time each day? Could it be to not take part in discussions about certain topics? Make a note of them somewhere you can come back to and reflect.
Communicate these boundaries
If your boundaries are going to affect other people, it’s important to communicate this with them. For example, if your boundary is to stop working at 5PM each day and you work with people who often contact you after that time – tell them about your boundary. Explain that you won’t be available after 5PM, and if people want to contact you they should do so via your work email, which you will respond to when you return to work the following day.
Being clear about your boundaries leaves no room for confusion or miscommunication. Sometimes you need to remind people of your boundaries, don’t be afraid to do so. By speaking up and setting boundaries to support your mental health, you encourage others to do the same.
Enforce your boundaries
This can be the tricky part. Perhaps you have communicated your boundary about not working after 5PM, but a work colleague texts you at 7PM about something work-related. Enforcing your boundaries means not responding to that text and responding to your work colleague the following day.
If you choose to reply to the text, you negate your boundaries. Enforcing them means not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. Getting comfortable saying ‘no’ is a big part of boundary setting and you may find it helpful to do some deeper work on any people-pleasing tendencies you have.
Check-in with how you’re feeling
Our boundaries can change and evolve over time. Because of this, it’s important to continually check in with yourself and how you’re feeling about the boundaries you’ve set. Do they still feel good to you?
Try to notice how your body reacts when your boundaries are crossed. Do you feel more tense? Anxious? Stressed? Do you get more headaches or struggle to sleep? Notice your red flags and keep them in mind. Increasing your self-awareness is a great way to help with this. Activities like journaling, meditation and mindful movement (like yoga) can all be useful.
Be kind to yourself
If the concept of setting boundaries is new to you, it’s likely that you’ll feel uncomfortable at first. You may find feelings of guilt come up or worries that you are selfish. We want to remind you that by taking care of yourself, you are in fact supporting others. You can only truly be there for others if you practise self-care first – the saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ is a cliche for a reason. It’s true.
Try to show yourself some compassion as you work through the process of setting boundaries. Acknowledge the discomfort, go gently and keep going. Over time it gets easier.
If you’re finding it difficult to set and stick to your boundaries, you may want to call for reinforcements. Working with a coach can give you the accountability you need to follow through and enforce your boundaries, helping you reach your full potential.
By putting these boundaries in place you are taking a great step forward in valuing yourself and this has a ripple effect that can cause amazing waves of change.