Why it’s important to set boundaries
Why is it important to set boundaries? Many times, when it comes to stress, anxiety, burnout and other mental health challenges, we are told we need to change our habits and routines in order to reach inner peace again. For example, we may work too much, or we may watch too much Netflix (and therefore sleep too little), or we may give too much of our (free) time to family and friends and keep almost none for ourselves.
But, how do we change all of these habits when they have become part of our personality, part of the relationship that people have created with us, part of our comfort zone? Boundaries. The word that will save the day. The word that will help us create our action plan towards more mental rest.
What are “boundaries”?
Boundaries are a clear indication of what is our responsibility and what is others’; what makes us happy or calm and what makes others; what is helping us and what is helping others. Boundary setting is not a selfish act, but rather an act of self-love, and at the same time an act of respect to others and our relationship with them. Boundaries are not strict rules that control others or keep them away - we can set boundaries and still be kind.
Why we need boundaries
Why do we need boundaries? We need them so:
- We can separate what is our responsibility and what is others’, otherwise, it’s too confusing. Especially as over-responsible people often take on more than they should/can/want.
- We cannot take care of anyone else, if we don’t take care of ourselves first. We can offer our time, energy, help, support to others, but if we don’t offer time to ourselves, we will soon burn out and collapse. Taking care of others only is great and very kind but it is not sustainable if we don’t take care of ourselves first.
- We feel more in control and more confident. We know the “why” and the “how” of setting boundaries, we don’t hesitate when we say no, we don’t allow others to overwhelm us or convince us that we are selfish.
- We can think more clearly, since we know what our needs, wants, and responsibilities are, and what others’ needs, wants, and responsibilities are.
- People respect us more. They respect our time and our energy more (how many times has a friend or relative asked us for something that took an important amount of our time or energy, but then they didn’t need it as much as we thought?).
- We love ourselves more. Having boundaries is the most profound act of self-love. It’s a concrete way to say to ourselves and show to others that “we are important”; we also have needs; we also deserve rest; we also deserve support and help from others.
Types of boundaries: “tight” or “loose”
One categorisation of boundaries is concerning how “tight” or “loose” they are.
We don't ask for help, we keep our distance in order to avoid getting rejected, we avoid sharing information about our life, we have few close relationships.
We overshare information about our private life, we have difficulty saying no, we get too involved in others’ problems, we tolerate disrespect or even abuse, we depend on other people’s opinion.
We value other people’s opinion, but the most important one is our own, we don’t compromise our values for other people, we share information about our personal life in an appropriate and balanced way and only when we think that there is enough trust and safety in the relationship, we accept when others say no, we know what we need and want and we communicate it in a respectful way.
Other types of boundaries
Another categorisation of boundaries is regarding the area that they concern: physical, emotional, time, sexual, intellectual and material.
Physical boundaries include our needs for personal space, our comfort with touch, and our physical needs to eat, drink and rest. These boundaries are crossed if someone doesn’t allow us (or we don't allow ourselves) - intentionally or unintentionally - to rest or satisfy our hunger or thirst (eg. no lunch break) or when someone doesn’t respect our personal space and our body.
Emotional boundaries exist when people respect our feelings and energy. When we/others know when and how to share their feelings. Those boundaries are violated when we are criticised for what we are feeling or when we are being asked questions that make us feel uncomfortable or when we feel we need to hide our needs and our feelings because there is no room for them.
Time boundaries are about understanding what is important and what is not; it’s about setting priorities. These boundaries are crossed when people demand time from you, when they ask you to work without getting paid, when they show up late to a meeting.
Sexual boundaries are about consent, respect and privacy. These boundaries are violated when there is unwanted touch, when we are pressured to engage in sexual acts, when we are being lied to about health history and contraceptive use.
Intellectual boundaries are about respect for our and others’ opinion and about the time and energy we spend on communication. These boundaries are crossed when people force us to accept or act upon their opinion, also in cases of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
Material boundaries refer to our possessions and property, how we share them and how much we allow others to use them. These boundaries are crossed when people are using our possessions without our permission or to manipulate and control our relationship.
What kind of boundaries do we need most?
In order to protect ourselves, we need to set the boundaries we mostly need. So first, we need to identify these boundaries. Pay attention to the situations when you are low in energy or want to cry or feel frustrated.
Here are a few ideas of what you might need in order to get less involved in stressful situations and be more at peace:
Boundaries for others (friends - family)
- How much of our time we want to give to them without feeling pressured
- How they can talk about our feelings
- Which topics we feel comfortable talking about (having children, divorce, religion, politics, are some examples)
- How balanced our conversations are; talk about their concerns as well as ours
- When they are welcome to call us and when not
Boundaries for our work
- How many hours we want to work (that can be specified in our contract, but if we want to change it, we can consider it and discuss it with our manager)
- Whether we answer emails/ pick up the phone/ WhatsApp during the weekend or after working hours
- How we will discuss our (mental) health challenges with our manager and how this will be respected and treated, if it’s related to work relationships or workload
- Whether we talk about personal issues with our colleagues/boss
- How many breaks we need and how often
- Which days we can assign to which tasks (e.g. emails on Mondays and Thursdays only)
Boundaries for social media and other numbing habits
- How many hours we will spend on social media
- Which accounts make us feel calm and happy, and which trigger our stress
- How many hours we want to sleep and until what time we watch movies and series
- No social media in the morning or before bed
Boundaries for our (mental) health
- Our needs for food, drink, and rest at specific times are non-negotiable
- Our need for exercise
- What we need for emotional support
- How and when to say no
- How to talk about boundaries, the changes in them, why they are important especially now
- How to support others but in a way that it’s not overwhelming for us
- How to offer alternative solutions (e.g. “I’m sorry you are feeling bad. I cannot come over right now. Shall I call you tonight to check with you and arrange something for tomorrow?”)
- How to defend your feelings without allowing people to minimise them
Boundary-setting is not easy
Especially when it’s something new we introduce in our relationships with others. No one likes changes in the beginning and people always try to push back when it comes to boundaries. However, when you get the hang of it and you start practising it with firmness and consistency, your life will become less overwhelming and more peaceful.
What boundaries do you need most at the present moment?