Boundaries are the structural framework from which we architect our lives. In other words, having healthy and firm (but not rigid) boundaries are the key to spending your time how you want to while having nonexistent or flimsy ones trap you in a neverending cycle of doing things you don’t want to do. This could look like having conversations that are uncomfortable or even triggering, feeling obligated to attend social events even though you’re dreading it, or finding yourself in relationships that you notice leave you feeling drained.
Regardless of the context, not being able to intentionally choose how you use your time can lead to anger, resentment, and eventually burnout (emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion). Now that you know why boundaries are so essential - how do you set and maintain them? For the answers, keep reading:
The first step to evaluating and adjusting your boundaries is to pay attention to how you feel before and after the activity, conversation, or situation you’re curious about. Remember that energy levels and emotions are typically reliable indicators of what we do and do not want to spend our time doing. Taking just a few seconds to reflect on this is the essential first step to doing some “boundary maintenance.”
For example, if you’re finding yourself dreading or putting off social time with a friend lately, ask yourself why. Is it because you’ve got too much going on at the moment and simply need to use the little free time you have to care for yourself? Or is it because when you get together you leave feeling drained, hurt or resentful? If you’re finding yourself in the latter situation, it’s probably time to reevaluate that relationship.
Set boundaries in your healthy relationships too
It’s important to remember that we can love and want to spend time with those in our lives and still need to set and maintain our boundaries. We can love our parents, partners, children, and friends dearly yet know when we need to spend time apart, excuse ourselves from a conversation, or decline an invite.
For example, if you’re an introvert, you know that you have a kind of “social battery” that is drained by social interactions. This doesn’t mean you don’t love spending time with others or that you aren’t outgoing! This just means that in order to recharge, you need some alone time so that you can show up again as your full and healthy self the next time. For this reason, you might say “yes” to a family dinner on Sunday but “no” to a friend’s get-together the following Monday.
If the relationship isn’t one you can let fizzle out, do this
What if you know a relationship or situation isn’t the healthiest for you, but you feel you have no choice or power to change it? We’ve been there - this is normal. We all have people or activities in our lives that we’ve realized don’t make us feel great about ourselves or force us into situations we’d really prefer not to be in.
For example, imagine you have a neighbour who appears to have never heard of the word “boundary,” and who really you’d even describe as inconsiderate and completely oblivious. Say they walk in your backdoor unannounced or take supplies from your garage without asking. This upsets you but you don’t know how to proceed as you can’t just tell them off. This kind of situation often happens with family too. (Imagine an in-law showing up unannounced to drop off food when you’re in the middle of a meeting or in an important discussion with a friend or partner). What do you do when you can’t eliminate the person or situation causing you strife? The answer is fairly simple - plan ahead.
Often in such situations, our boundaries are violated because the other person has complete control (e.g. they show up unannounced when your house is very much not ready for company or you’re in a terrible mood). The way to cope with this is to make the balance of control a little more even. If you have a friend who wants to see you more than you’re capable of at this time, simply make plans with them in advance so that you both know you’ll see each other and you’re not leaving anything up to chance. By taking control and letting this person know that you want to see them, this tells them that you value the relationship yet also demonstrates your firm but kind boundary.
Have go-to exit strategies for conversation topics you’re not comfortable with
There is a common saying, “Everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is true. Another hugely important part of maintaining healthy boundaries is understanding that everyone may react differently to conversation topics based on their experiences. For example, maybe your coworkers are ranting about the 10-car pileup on the highway driving into work - but you’re still recovering from a serious car crash and listening to them is triggering feelings of panic or fear in you. If simply excusing yourself from the conversation is not possible, you may want to say something like, “This topic is hard for me right now, I will catch up with you guys later.” It may take your coworkers by surprise at first, but your mental health is more important.
The more we destigmatize respectful boundary setting, the more normal it will become and the more authentically we’ll be able to show up. By developing and modelling our own boundaries, we encourage, inspire and give permission to those around us to also do their own boundary work - allowing genuine connections between ourselves and others to flourish.