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Boundaries: The Ultimate Self-Care

Ashlee Edwards, LPCC-S
Counselor, Insight Clinical Counseling and Wellness, LLC

High levels of anxiety.

Feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.

Compulsive behaviors (i.e. overeating, overworking, substance abuse).

Feelings of resentment.

Feeling unable to express emotions and opinions out of fear of judgment or negative pushback.

Not having a strong sense of self or who you are as an individual.

Lacking purpose and/or direction.

Do any of these struggles sound familiar? Do you deal with a lot – if not all – of these issues regularly? If so, then there is a pretty good chance you need to implement healthier boundaries in your life.

So, what are boundaries?

Simply put, a boundary is a limit. But more specifically, a boundary is a personal limit that allows us to be defined separately from others. Boundaries play a role in so much of our lives – physical space, personal space, beliefs, emotions, time and energy, values and morals, sexuality, property/possessions, etc. Our boundaries are often influenced by (but certainly not limited to) our culture, religious beliefs, lived experiences, family dynamics, and personality. Boundaries can be physical, emotional, and even digital. Boundaries should be present throughout all of our relationships – with friends, romantic partners, family members, co-workers, bosses/supervisors, etc. (see below for more examples of boundaries). Our personal limits, in terms of time and emotional investment, can help us determine what we want our boundaries to look like throughout our various relationships. Our personal limits can – and more than likely will – change as we experience different stages of life and major life events. These changes are why it is important that we are continuously checking in with ourselves and reevaluating boundaries if need be.

And why are they so important?

Even though a boundary is a limit that is used to separate us from another person, it is important to recognize that a boundary is truly a representation of the relationship that we have with ourselves. In order to assess the healthiness of our boundaries we have to frequently ask ourselves if our current boundaries are helping to honor what our needs, goals, feelings, and/or values and morals are? Or are our boundaries catering to others? For people who struggle with co-dependency or people pleasing tendencies, it is not uncommon for their current boundaries (or lack thereof) to be unhealthy and focused on accommodating others instead of themselves.

There is certainly a correlation between boundaries and our mental and emotional health. Healthier boundaries promote healthier mental and emotional wellbeing. Setting appropriate boundaries within our relationships can help us gain a greater sense of self, and improve our self-worth by allowing us to establish what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in a relationship. Repeat after me: it is NOT selfish to prioritize yourself, including what your wants and needs are in a relationship. Creating the opportunity to prioritize ourselves can help to improve our self-esteem, especially in a society that so often tries to convey to us that to prioritize yourself is selfish. And to be selfish is not acceptable. Prioritizing yourself is actually just a great way to practice self-care.

But how do I actually set healthier boundaries?

Two of the main components to setting healthier boundaries are understanding your core values, and being assertive (in both your communication and your follow-through). Understanding your own core values can help you prioritize and set healthy boundaries in all aspects of your life. Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Write down what the 10 most important values are to you – now let’s narrow this list down to the top three or four. These are now your core values. For each core value you are going to ask yourself:

1. What will I allow given this value?

2. What will I tolerate given this value?

3. What will I not allow given this value?

Next, it’s time to transform these core values into boundaries and state these boundaries using clear, straightforward, and assertive communication. Communicating boundaries should be stated in terms of what you want and what you like, versus what you don’t want or aren’t liking. For example, instead of saying “I don’t like when I have to cook dinner and clean up the kitchen afterwards while you sit on the couch and watch TV,” try using an approach that sounds like “I feel frustrated and unsupported when I have to cook dinner and clean up the kitchen by myself because it feels as though all of the household responsibilities are on me. I need your help with one of the two tasks.” By using “I feel” statements we are taking ownership of the feelings we are experiencing (instead of placing the responsibility of our feelings onto others), describing the behavior/situation in a non-blaming way, explaining why we feel the way we feel, and clearly stating what we need from the other person.

It is important to note that experiencing resistance from others can be common when you begin setting boundaries, and this resistance can lead to feelings of discomfort (i.e., guilt, shame, remorse, etc.). These feelings are not indicators that you are wrong for setting boundaries. As humans, we aren’t typically big fans of change – so we find a way of living that works for us, and we don’t change unless we are forced to. And even then, we tend to be resistant (at least at first). So, if you are someone who has never set healthy boundaries but are ready to do so, understand that some people in your life will likely push back and resist. Setting healthy boundaries will not disrupt a healthy relationship; a relationship that is disrupted due to boundaries was likely not a healthy relationship to begin with. However, a single boundary violation does not immediately translate to an unhealthy or toxic relationship. We all have different values and morals, so boundary violations within our relationships are bound to happen – even in the healthiest of relationships. The difference is learning to recognize who is unintentional in their crossings, and who intentionally or continually disregards your boundaries. Be quick to clearly and assertively communicate the boundary violation with the other party. Those who are made aware of the violation but continue to disregard the boundary time and again are likely the relationships you need to re-evaluate. Don’t hesitate to create distance or limit communication with those who fail to respect your boundaries.

In conclusion…

Setting healthy boundaries can be hard. Recognizing that some of our relationships are unhealthy can be hard. Making the decision to limit or cut ourselves off from toxic people can be hard. Fortunately for us, we are very capable of doing hard things. Start by understanding yourself better – what are your core values, where do you need to implement boundaries in your life? Be assertive and be consistent. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Therapy is a great (safe) space to begin to identify and work through our healthy and unhealthy relationships, and learn how to implement healthy boundaries.

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