Healthy Boundaries, Balanced Minds

It’s been over a year since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. One day prior, my office shut down as our director advised staff of the need to “work from home as much as possible in the coming weeks.” What we thought would be weeks, turned into months. Now here we all are, one year later. In that year, we all experienced some of the most unprecedented events of our lifetimes, including the loss of a half-million Americans, civil unrest, political unrest, economic hardship brought on by the pandemic, and increased occurrences of racism against Asian Americans.

All of our lives have changed, yet we made it through –
which is no small feat.

The pandemic has brought on more instances of burnout, with more individuals feeling less engaged, less connected, and less productive. As our homes became our offices, schools, and sanctuary, one thing this past year has shown me is the importance of boundaries and its impact on mental health. Knowing what’s draining our energy and what’s adding to our energy – as well as having boundaries that are aligned with our values – strengthens our ability to honor our needs and wants, improves our overall wellbeing and mental health, and shows how we expect to be treated.

Healthy boundaries are key to our everyday self-care. We need them to ensure we go to bed on time, eat when we’re hungry, and keep the needs of others from becoming higher priorities than our own. Boundaries are necessary to keep the demands of the world to reasonable levels and help us honor our promises to ourselves.

Having healthy boundaries allows us to make ourselves a priority, whether that’s in self-care, career aspirations, or within relationships.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to identify and defend your boundaries, especially if you’ve never done it before. But without them, you put yourself at risk for being taken advantage of, being overworked, receiving poor treatment, and being surrounded by people who have no idea that they are hurting you.

Warnings of not enough boundaries:

  • Feeling like you’re neglecting yourself and your needs
  • Feeling burned out – stress, anxiety, brain fog, insomnia
  • Feeling angry at yourself and the world
  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed
  • A person is asking too much of you, and you’re having trouble saying no

We often want to be team players, but “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout” says Dana Nelson, Ph.D., writer of Self-Care 101: Setting healthy boundaries. “[Boundaries] give us permission to say no to things, to not take everything on. They help us hear requests as questions – to which one potential answer is actually “no” – rather than as demands.” Some teachers say that setting boundaries helps them avoid burnout and stay in the profession longer. This indicates that healthy boundaries at work help people find more fulfillment and less stress in their professional life—leaving room for a better personal life. Setting healthy boundaries can have many benefits, including helping people make decisions based on what is best for them, not just the people around them – an autonomy that is an important part of self-care.

How to build your own personal and emotional space

Setting boundaries for yourself and honoring those boundaries is not a textbook science; but you can learn ways to set clearer rules and assert your space. Whether it’s with your family or when it comes to strangers, here’s how to get started. Boundaries can be determined through exploration of self-awareness. First, you have to get to know who you are, how you want to live, what your needs are emotionally, physically, etc., to be able to communicate it to others.

The word “boundary” can be a bit misleading since it can express the idea of keeping oneself separate. However, boundaries are actually connecting points that provide healthy rules for navigating relationships, intimate or professional. They serve to establish one’s identity; and specifically, help people define one’s individuality and indicate what they will and will not hold themselves responsible for. They are a deeply personal choice and vary from one person to the next and are shaped throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, they aren’t as obvious as a giant “no trespassing” sign. They’re more like invisible bubbles.

Our boundaries are shaped by:And can be set for our:
Whether we’re introverted, extroverted, or somewhere in betweenPersonal space, emotions, and thoughts
Our religion Sexuality
Our heritage or cultureStuff or possessions
Our life experiencesTime and energy
Our family dynamicsCulture, religion, and ethics

“We have all come from unique families of origin,” explains Jenn Kennedy, a licensed marriage and family therapist in a 2018 Healthline article. “We each make different meaning of situations. And we may change our own boundaries over the years as we mature and our perspective shifts. One standard cannot hold for all. Rather, each person needs to find that level of comfort within themselves.”

Know Yourself

Before you can begin defining boundaries properly, you must first understand the needs and rights you have. Think of your fundamental human rights and the kinds of consideration you naturally afford to even strangers around you. These include:

  • The right to privacy
  • The right to respectful treatment
  • A right to failing and learning from failure
  • The right to guilt-free “no’s”
  • A right to equally important needs as everyone else
  • A right to not meet others’ unreasonable expectations

These fundamental rights are the center of your boundaries. They are non-negotiable rights that must be met, and you owe it to yourself to always uphold them. With these as your baseline, you can begin considering other boundaries. Explore and think about:

What are your values?

Your boundaries relate to your moral philosophy. What morals and ideals do you base your opinions and goals on? What is a priority to you? Identify 10 important values, then narrow that list to five or even three. What are ways in which those three are challenged or tread upon? This will aide in letting you know if you have strong boundaries or not.  

What does your gut say?

Do you sense a knot in your stomach, lump in your throat or notice other body signs of anxious feelings?

Take note of moments when you wish you hadn’t said ‘yes’. Your instincts can help you determine when someone is violating your boundaries or when you need to set one up. If you feel like something violates a yet unspoken limit or makes you uncomfortable, it’s time to set a boundary.

Once you identify your rights and choose to believe in them, you’ll find honoring them easier. When you honor them, you’ll stop spending energy pacifying or pleasing others who dishonor them.

Know What Drains Your Energy

Think of your cell phone. When the battery begins to drain, you pay attention to the percentage left, and charge it before it gets to a certain point. Now, put yourself in place of that cell phone, your batteries (mind, body, soul) need a recharge too. Remember, you are not a robot. You are a person who needs their energy to give it your all in your everyday life. Do not allow the expectations of others make you overextend yourself.

How do we do this? By saying “no” to unnecessary requests and things that will not serve us well.

Know you can say no without an explanation and without providing any emotional labor to the person you’re saying it to. Do you need to go meet with your friend? Or is your body telling you to take that nap? Did you want to attend that event, or do you feel obligated to because someone asked? Make sure you are doing things because you want to. This allows you to control how your time is spent. Some days you just want to lay in bed and watch Netflix all day, and that is OK. If it’s what you want to do, do it.

Additionally, you do not need to have the same boundaries or comfort level for everyone. Boundaries allow us to have different range depending on the situation, to aid in maintaining enough energy to care for ourselves. Understanding that just because you may be happy to lend a hand to your best friend on moving day doesn’t mean that you also have to do the heavy emotional lifting when someone texts about their latest drama, is important in boundary setting. Do not allow the fear of others’ response or the guilt of being assertive in enforcing boundaries allow you to doubt the validity of your limitations. “You deserve the right to comfort and stress-free relations, and you deserve to be respected. Permit yourself to take up space, require basic respect, and defend yourself because you’re worth all of that” – Power of Positivity.

Know What Gives You Energy

Self-care is crucial for positive thinking and overall health and happiness. Set aside some time for yourself and take a mini vacation to allow yourself to breathe. Through self-care you will begin to see results and energy levels lifted. You can make boundaries for yourself to promote your own wellbeing, for example:

  • Take a lunch break to rest and nourish yourself, as well as put space between yourself and work
  • Go to bed on time to take care of your body
  • Pause each day to pay attention to your sensations, thoughts, and feelings – maybe even a short meditation or yoga practice

When it comes to work and home life, you must allow yourself to take a break. You may be thinking, take a break at home? Yes! Just finished cooking a big meal for the family? Try asking your partner if they can do the dishes – cooking is a lot of work. For work, take that 15-minute break. Allow your mind an opportunity to focus on something less stressful; sit outside or go for a brief walk, anything to decompress, and come back to your desk with a fresh and clear mind. Use your vacation time! And try to protect your mind as much as you can. My boss started enforcing boundaries by scheduling ‘self-care days’ where she took one day off a month to do something for herself.

Note that boundaries can be flexible 

Do not draw them in permanent ink. It’s good to think about them occasionally and reassess – especially as you go through the many different phases of life. My boundaries do not look the same this year as they did last year, and that’s completely ok. Remember to always be gentle with yourself and that practice makes perfect as you explore what you need and want, and learn how to express and honor those needs.

The important thing about practicing fulfilling self-care is to have healthy boundaries and to communicate them to loved ones. The people who genuinely love you, care for you, and deserve to have you in their lives are those who will respect your boundaries. We all deserve some time to rest and recharge so that we can be our best, not just for ourselves, but for our families, too. Start thinking hard about what your limits are today, and you’ll be thanking yourself later!

Since completing my undergraduate studies, I've dedicated my time to supporting and empowering individuals with behavioral health issues. This blog is to be a platform for the behavioral health community; examining the history of behavioral health and the progressions made within the field while providing information and resources to those who need it.

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