Kate McGovern

How to Set Healthy Boundaries to Improve Your Mental Health

It’s taken me many years to understand the importance of setting healthy boundaries. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of a year-long program of narrative exposure therapy for my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in early 2020 that I really began to understand what setting boundaries could look like for me. I have emotional dysregulation, which means that I don’t always behave in a socially acceptable way. The dysregulation mostly occurs when someone behaves toward me in a way that triggers a highly exaggerated emotional response. Without healthy boundaries in place, this behavior could look quite volatile and uncontrollable. With healthy boundaries and clear communication with others, everything is calmer and easier for me to control. This creates a safe framework for me to hold space for conversation and to inform people about what I will and will not tolerate. What do healthy boundaries look like? Setting healthy boundaries is a form of self-care, and it can allow people to understand what you feel are acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. Boundaries can help keep you safe and grounded and let other people know that you have agency. In practice, a healthy boundary could look like telling someone that communicating in a raised voice isn’t OK with you and that the conversation can’t continue until it stops. It could also mean asking people not to call in-person at your house unless they are invited because people knocking on your door unexpectedly makes you anxious. A healthy boundary could even be asking someone to respect your time and not be late when you agree to meet them. It’s often worthwhile to take some time to consider which changes you may want to make and which boundaries you might need to set in your life. What happens when we set and reinforce boundaries? If you’ve never done it before, drawing these lines can feel uncomfortable — not just for you but also for the people around you. It can bring up a lot of emotions and maybe a bit of resentment too. People may not be used to you setting rules and limits. While this might cause some upset at first, stay firm and be polite when you explain what you plan on doing moving forward. People often don’t appreciate change — even when it’s for the better. Remember, though, that your priority is safeguarding yourself and your mental health and that others’ discomfort is their own responsibility. What can you do when you want to apologize for your boundaries? In the past, I sometimes felt really guilty for setting boundaries — especially when I saw that family or friends felt put off by my decision to put new guidelines in place that helped me navigate my life and mental health in a way that was kinder to myself. If a person makes you feel bad for setting a healthy boundary, that’s a surefire indication that you were right to set it! You don’t need to apologize for living your life in a way that’s more compassionate towards yourself or for asking for help from others to make your life feel easier. What can you do when someone oversteps? There will be occasions when people forget — or worse, completely disregard — the parameters you set. If it’s the former situation, then a polite reminder will probably do the trick. If it’s the latter, then you may have to be more assertive in maintaining the boundary that you’ve set. I will give someone the benefit of the doubt once — with a reminder that their behavior is unacceptable to me. If it happens again, I create distance until the behavior is rectified. On the rare occasion that nothing changes, then that person no longer gets any of my time. It doesn’t matter who’s testing you — you have the right to set and maintain healthy boundaries regardless. Having spent the time since ending therapy setting and maintaining my own boundaries, I can honestly say I’ve cut a huge amount of emotional chaos and exhaustion out of my life. All humans have their own struggles, so go ahead and arm yourself with the tools to keep your life balanced and happy.

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Ali Holmes

Trichotillomania: Don't Tell Someone to Stop Pulling Out Her Hair

Body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) are like a mixture of an anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) without quite fitting into either category. The most common BFRBs are trichotillomania (hair pulling or picking) and dermatillomania (skin picking). BFRBs can happen consciously, where the person recognizes their behavior but cannot stop; or unconsciously, where the person doesn’t realize they are performing a behavior; or some combination of conscious and unconscious. I have lived with an extreme case of trich for 14 of the 22 years of my life. I have lived with dermatillomania for longer than 14 that, but the derm I experience is mild comparative to the trich. I am writing this post because I am fed up with people telling me to stop pulling at my hair. Before I was diagnosed with trich, my parents would occasionally tell me to stop pulling at my hair. They didn’t do it a lot because I think they knew it embarrassed me to be caught doing a behavior I had been told was “bad,” “not normal,” etc. They no longer tell me to stop pulling at my hair because they learned that telling someone to just stop a behavior doesn’t actually work. When you tell a person with trich or derm to stop a behavior, it often does more harm than good. Because our society identifies these behaviors as “abnormal,” many people with trich or derm hide them and then feel shame about performing them, even if they have little physical control over whether they perform them or not. When you tell a person with trich or derm to stop a behavior, you are calling attention to their disorder, acknowledging that you see them doing this behavior and that it is not good.* This is often shameful for the person and will not stop them from doing this behavior in the future; it may, however, encourage them to find new ways to hide this behavior. Approaching someone close to you about a behavior you find concerning can be tricky (no pun intended). L ike with any health disorder, knowing how to talk to someone you are concerned about isn’t easy. The two most important things, from my perspective, when speaking to someone about trich or derm are: 1) Let them know you are only pointing them out because you are concerned and want them to be healthy and 2) Ask what they want from you. Maybe they want someone to talk to who is empathetic, or maybe they would prefer to keep this part of their life between them and their doctor. *This situation may be different if this person has specifically asked you to help them identify when they are pulling or picking. Image via Thinkstock.

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