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How to Set Boundaries to Protect Your Mental Health

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Boundaries are about speaking up for what you need and taking care of yourself when those needs aren’t met. The hard truth is: you don’t always get what you want but putting it out there gives you a fighting chance.

Let’s define boundaries first so we are on the same page. Boundaries are limits you set for yourself that determine what you will or won’t participate in.

Examples of boundaries include:

1. Saying no.
2. Speaking up for what you need.
3. Not offering to fix other people’s problems.
4. How much give time or money you give.
5. Privacy needs.
6. Amount of physical space you need.

There is a lot of confusion about setting boundaries. Honestly, most of us (including myself) find setting healthy boundaries a challenge. But it gets much easier the more you do it!

Here’s what the struggle looks like.

Sharon finds herself thinking:

“I have say no the next time my sister asks me to babysit all weekend. I can’t keep doing this. I need to get my own stuff done.”

You secretly make this commitment to yourself. You’re ready to carry it out. You wait until she asks again so you say nothing.

A week goes by and you forget about it. Your sister buys tickets to a play she’s been dying to see. You know it’s been rough for her lately. She could really use some “me time.” She asks you to take her kids for the weekend.

You say yes without thinking about it. You have to help her. She doesn’t have anyone else. At first, you’re happy to do it. She really appreciates it and you are glad to help out — again.

After getting home, you remember something about wanting to set a boundary. Resentment sets in. You think you can’t back out now — she has tickets! You feel sick that you did this to yourself again.

Why boundaries are so tough.

Setting boundaries is the ultimate test in self-care. Taking care of others may come naturally to you. Or, it’s just easier to help out rather than risk upsetting someone else.

Knowing you need to set boundaries isn’t enough. At some point, you need to take action. But somehow stuff gets in the way.

Here’s some tips to support you for next time:

1. Fear of what others think.

When you fear what others think, you’re assuming the negative. That provokes a sense of powerlessness and frustration. You have no control over what they think, but trying to guess what’s happening reinforces self-doubt.

Tip: When the fear takes over, get a reality check. There is no way to know for sure what someone thinks of you, but trying to guess is where you get a little “nuts.”

2. Assuming they’ll be mad or upset.

If you grew up with a raging or unpredictable family member, this one might call to you. Notice that you are assuming the outcome without knowing for sure. Even in intimate relationships, be careful to check out any assumptions.

If they look mad, ask them “Is this about me?” If they say no, you’re off the hook. Always check it out.

When I first started saying no, I was shocked that nobody really cared. They just said OK and moved on. No biggie (but to me is was a huge biggie because of the next one I’ll be talking about).

3. Trying to avoid conflict.

Do you ever say yes to avoid a fight? I used to feel sick with resentment because I couldn’t set a boundary if my life depended on it. Not a great way to live.

Assuming that setting a boundary will trigger an argument is catastrophic thinking. You assume the worst which makes you feel more anxious. You exacerbate the fear by assuming it will happen.

Tip: Stay in the moment and use positive self-talk, like “Everything’s going to be OK” or “It’s OK to speak up.” Most of what you fear never actually happens.

4. Not wanting the hassle.

It’s much easier to avoid the hassle and keep quiet. At first, you feel like you’re saving the day, but there is a price to pay when that’s not your truth. Stuffing what you need creates hopelessness. You go unnoticed and that feels lousy.

Tip: Give yourself permission to have wants. The people who love you want you to take care of yourself. Don’t let self-doubt keep you quiet.

5. Thinking it’s not that important.

When boundaries aren’t a priority, your needs don’t get voiced. Giving yourself permission to set a healthy boundary is an act of self-care. Challenge old beliefs that get in the way. Feeling bad about yourself keeps you pleasing others and neglecting yourself. You absolutely deserve to get your needs met!

6. Fear of being seen as selfish.

Being seen as selfish is the ultimate codependent trap. Again, this goes back to worrying about what others think. If you’ve jumped into their head, assuming the worst, you are probably off-center. “Being centered” is being balanced emotionally and spiritually. You feel comfortable in your own skin.

Tip: Don’t try setting boundaries when you’re off-center. Find a practice like yoga, mindfulness or something you love to help you get centered. This builds confidence when you set a boundary.

7. Not knowing where to start.

The last obstacle is not knowing where to start. No one learns this stuff in school. You may not have seen healthy boundaries growing up. So how do you actually set a healthy boundary?

– Speak up and ask for what you want.
– Be open for some negotiation.
– Be clear and specific in your request.
– Always have a plan B if they say no.
– Don’t do it unless you are calm enough to handle the response.
– Try not to take the no personally. It’s not about you.

What do I do now?

These obstacles will come up, so don’t be discouraged when they do. Be willing to explore old beliefs that no longer serve you. Do some writing about why boundaries are difficult. That’s a simple way to identify and work through old beliefs.

When setting healthy boundaries, you are responsible for getting your needs, not the other person. Getting a no is part of boundary setting. It’s a risk to be vulnerable, but that’s why having a plan B is important.

Plan B is finding an alternative so you have options. Have a few people to ask instead of the same person over and over. Learn ways to meet your needs by finding what I call “comforting behaviors,” like reading a good book, cuddling with a warm blanket or being with a pet. These habits empower you to take care of yourself, which is the goal of setting boundaries, right?

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Thinkstock photo via as3d

Originally published: September 8, 2017
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