Setting your boundaries for the sake of your mental health
Setting your boundaries is key to taking care of yourself and your mental health. But putting that into practice is easier said than done. How do you set your boundaries? But more importantly, are you respecting your own boundaries and are you getting others to respect your personal and emotional space?
By Danielle Germain, M.A., Clinical Director, Relief
Setting your boundaries: luxury or necessity?
Defining a person’s limits
Everyone has their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, sexual and other limits. They vary from one person to another depending on that person’s personality, skills and interests, etc. Some limits are more socially accepted than others, 4 such as our ability to lift a heavy object. Emotional and mental health limitations, however, are often misunderstood and even judged. We have a tendency to want to explain and justify ourselves—not to mention the guilt we feel.
When you set a “healthy” boundary, you are putting your well-being, i.e. your values, preferences, vision, opinions and interests first. “Unhealthy boundaries” are generally defined as the absence or lack of boundaries (e.g. checking your work email at any time). In some cases, boundaries can become too loose or rigid (e.g. refusing to interact with your partner’s family or friends). 5
Why set boundaries?
While setting your boundaries is good for your mental health and well-being, the opposite is also true. Neglecting to set your boundaries can lead to feelings of discomfort, regret, frustration, anxiety, fatigue and even burnout. 6
Burnout is often caused by the lack of set boundaries between your personal and professional life. 7 Boundaries become especially blurred among parents juggling their family and professional responsibilities, but also by healthcare professionals 8 and caregivers 9 who put the health and well-being of others before their own.
By setting boundaries, you are not only seeing to your well-being, but you are asserting your own identity. As psychotherapist and author Tracey Cleantis states: “Saying no is being aware of who we are. It’s a way to take responsibility for your self-care and that can be a tremendous source of comfort.” 10
How do you set your boundaries?
Setting boundaries rarely comes naturally. It is something you must learn and practise. Here are three steps to get you started on the right track.
1. Setting your limits
To set your boundaries, start by identifying them! An exercise in honest self-reflection must be carried out:
- Try to recall experiences that led to moments of you feeling exhausted, stressed out or overworked. You may even have had physical reactions such as nausea, headaches, increased heart rate and chest pain. Such feelings and reactions are “tells” that a boundary has been crossed.
- Try to identify patterns: is an area in your life more impacted (e.g. work, school, family, friends, relationship, etc.)? Is there one person in particular who does not respect your boundaries? Is there any time during the day when your boundaries are crossed more often? Ask yourself if a specific means of communication is more likely to annoy you (e.g. email, social media, etc.)?
- Think about your rights as well: the right to make mistakes, to feel tired, to not please everyone, to be respected, to not feel guilty, etc. As stated by Judith Belmont, psychotherapist and author: “When you set your boundaries, it’s important to determine your basic human rights.” Knowing your values can also help you in your self-reflection exercise. What values were violated when a boundary was crossed? 11
2. Communicating your boundaries
No one can read your mind to know your boundaries, even those that seem obvious to you. It’s up to you to make sure they are known to those around you.
- Choose the right time to identify those boundaries. Communicate your boundaries ahead of time or as soon as they have been crossed. Above all, do not wait too long and avoid raising them in times of crisis.
- Be clear, direct and firm. To make sure your boundary is respected, it must be clearly understood by those around you—there’s no place for ambiguity! Communicate in a firm manner, because your boundaries and your well-being are non-negotiable. This can be intimidating at first, as you learn to express your vulnerabilities, but it is the only way to set healthy boundaries and relationships.
- Focus on being coherent and constant in conveying your message. It is much easier to apply your boundaries when they are rooted in your values and beliefs. Set an example by respecting your own boundaries, and those of others, to encourage those around you to do the same. Be consistent in your message and avoid saying sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no”. Those around you will understand where you stand in terms of the boundaries you set and you will not need to repeat them as often. 12
- Don’t feel like you need to justify yourself. “No” means no. You don't need to explain yourself or feel guilty. You can, however, be polite and use some of these go-to phrases: “I would have liked to help you, but unfortunately, I’m not available at the moment.”
- Speak in the first person. Share how you feel, why you are reacting the way you are, and what you need so you feel better. Formulate your replies as follows: “I feel when____because____. I’d like to ____”. Here is another example: “I feel depressed when you talk to me about the problems you’re having in your relationship, because I’m feeling lonely being single. I’d like to talk to you about something else.”
- Tailor your response to the situation. Setting your boundaries with your family and friends generally makes it easier for you to identify your emotions and vulnerabilities than if you were to do so with your co-workers. Opting for a more rational, solution-oriented approach is sometimes better when you speak to your employer or to colleagues. 13 For example: “If I work on this project, it will impact file X, which I’ll have to set aside. Which project would you like me to prioritize?
3. Determining the impact
Your boundaries may be crossed even when you have communicated them in a clear and easily understandable manner. Best to be prepared for this! Plan how you will react if your boundaries have been crossed. What actions will you take? They must be realistic and easily put into practice. You can identify the impact along with your boundaries. For example, if a friend calls you every day and you are left feeling drained, you can say: “I really enjoy our talks, but once a day is a bit too much for me. Could we maybe talk once or twice a week? [Boundary] I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I’ll have to ignore some of your calls. [impact]”
Think about the measures you would take if a person repeatedly disregards your boundaries. You could, for example, decide to distance yourself or even put an end to a relationship that you consider toxic.
There are many reasons for not setting your limits. You want to please, be liked, not disappoint, avoid conflict, etc. But your mental health and well-being will suffer as a result. It is therefore to your advantage to set and enforce your boundaries. If you need support, contact a psychologist or an agency such as Relief to guide you on the path to your mental health.
Relief (formerly known as Revivre) is anagency that supports people living with anxiety, depression or bipolarity, and their loved ones, so they can continue to move forward. Active in the field of mental health for over 30 years, Relief developed a centre of expertise and support that includes a network of partners across Canada. Recognized as an authority and leader in common mental disorders, Relief developed a truly innovative social program in the form of a unique self-management support concept. Its bilingual services are a key component of the community services and support ecosystem.