One of the best uses of your time and energy, in service of your mental health, is to create and maintain healthy boundaries in all aspects of your life. Many of us are guilty of living our lives (professionally and personally, in whole or in part) within the confines of limitations. Limitations are the point at which you cannot do more or an external restriction prevents you from doing more. For example, you’re working late into the night and falling asleep at your computer (biological limitations), your neighbor asks for your help carrying a heavy box upstairs but you are not home, a client wants to schedule an urgent meeting but you are scheduled to be in court at that time.
Structuring your life with limitations can make you feel like you are “doing all that you can” and it relieves the guilt of saying “no” without a good excuse. The downside of living your life within limitations is that you feel a lack of control in the important areas of your life. Letting a limitation determine your availability makes it impossible to set priorities for yourself. It also makes self-care and maintaining your mental well-being very challenging.
Boundaries, on the other hand, act in many ways as the opposite of limitations. Boundaries give you the control in determining your stopping point. Boundaries are self-imposed restrictions designed to foster appropriate interactions, enforce healthy expectations, and increase an internal sense of control in one’s life. Boundaries are good. Boundaries are essential for mental well-being. But boundaries are challenging to create and can be even more challenging to maintain. The downside of living your life within health boundaries is that you must face the uncomfortable feelings associated with telling people “no” without pointing to “a good excuse” that is outside of your control. The secret to maintaining boundaries is the ability to tolerate this discomfort.
This discomfort is usually highlighted whenever a boundary (saying “no”) is met with someone asking “why?”. Why can’t you meet me then? Why can’t you work late tonight? Why can’t you cancel plans this weekend and focus on my concerns? The dreaded “why” questions are the most common reason for people abandoning boundaries and simply working to the point of a limitation. If this is true for you, here are some tips:
- Start with setting small boundaries: Say “no” to small requests, something that you could say “yes” to, but instead practice saying “no” and sticking to it.
- Give yourself time to think: Instead of saying “yes,” say “I’ll have to get back to you on that”. Many times, we say “yes” automatically only to discover that it was not the best response we could give. An intermediate step between and automatic “yes” and an awkward “no” can be the “I need to check my calendar and get back to you”. Stalling can help give you a moment to think and resist acting impulsively (even if that impulsivity is with good intentions).
- Prioritize your time and energy: Spend some time thinking about what is truly important to you and then make plans to prioritize those activities or events over other things that might pop up.
- Practice sitting with discomfort: Telling someone “no” can be uncomfortable. Seeing that person express negative or sad emotions as a result can also be uncomfortable. So, instead of trying to make the discomfort end as soon as possible, just let the discomfort exist. You will survive, as will the other person.
- Plan to be tested: Whenever a new boundary is created, it will naturally be tested. This is human nature. So, think about ways of responding to those tests. On recommendation is to avoid justifying your boundary but instead focus on alternatives. If you say you cannot work late tonight, suggest a different time that you can devote time to the matter at hand.
Operating within healthy boundaries allows us to prioritize activities, to practice good self-care, to be a good role model for others, and to have an appropriate sense of control in our lives. Despite the initial discomfort of setting and maintaining boundaries, the payoff is worth it.
Shawn Healy, PhD