setting boundaries

Tips to setting boundaries for your mental health

Setting healthy personal boundaries, and being able to recognise and observe the boundaries of others, is crucial to establishing strong, respectful relationships. But what are healthy boundaries? 

Boundaries in many ways can reflect our relationships with ourselves. Setting limits requires a confident sense of self-identity, and to work best for us, our limits should be neither too rigid – preventing adaptation and growth – nor too porous – leading to a difficulty to ever say ‘no’. As esteemed author and communicator Brené Brown notes: ‘Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others’. 

Types of boundaries

  • Physical boundaries Honour your autonomy and personal space. Physical boundaries mean you have the right to say ‘no’ to physical contact.
  • Sexual boundaries Protect your right to consent with sexual contact, to ask for what you like sexually and for honesty from sexual partners. Sexual boundaries also encompass unwanted comments, innuendo or ‘jokes’.
  • Intellectual boundaries Value your views, thoughts and ideas. These boundaries can be violated when your understanding or beliefs are dismissed or belittled.
  • Emotional boundaries Refer to your feelings. Emotional boundaries include expectations of confidentiality, as well as respect for the validity of your feelings and your reactions to emotional experiences. Instances of oversharing can also impinge on emotional boundaries.
  • Material boundaries Set limits on what you will share – both in terms of money and possessions – and with whom.
  • Time boundaries Involve how you wish to spend your time and your allocation of time to various pursuits. Time boundaries often include setting limits (and saying ‘no’ when necessary) to avoid being overcommitted or overworked.

Signs that you need to set firm boundaries

A lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect many aspects of a person’s life, causing relationship issues, stress, financial burdens and wasted time, and resulting in psychological distress. Some common signs that your personal boundaries need attention include:

  • Feeling disrespected by other people, but not saying anything or standing up for yourself.
  • Engaging in people-pleasing behaviours to the detriment of your own emotional or financial wellbeing.
  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed or burnt out, or that you have no time for yourself.
  • Feeling resentment toward people who ask for your help – or even avoiding people you think may ask for something from you.
  • Frequently daydreaming about just ‘dropping the ball’ and disappearing.
  • Feeling taken advantage of in particular situations or by particular people – whether it be financially, emotionally or physically.
  • Feeling responsible for others’ happiness.

Steps to setting healthy boundaries

A lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect many aspects of a person’s life, causing relationship issues, stress, financial burdens and wasted time, and resulting in psychological distress. Some common signs that your personal boundaries need attention include:

Recognise the barriers to boundary setting: we may not be used to setting limits, uncomfortable emotions may arise from the endeavour, including guilt, a fear of rejection and a fear of confrontation. These emotions need to be confronted and processed to establish confidence in your own decisions.

Acknowledge your feelings and prioritise your comfort: this may start with self-reflection and time spent on deciding what you wish to accomplish in regards to setting boundaries. Think about what you need to feel safe, seen and supported, using your own personal values as a guide.   

Communicate your boundary requirements firmly, consistently and respectfully: open and honest communication is necessary to ensure your boundaries are understood. You can be assertive but fair using ‘I statements’ to convey your needs. These statements focus on your reactions to unwelcome situations, explain why you are having that response, and lay out what you need to regain personal equilibrium. An ‘I statement’ could look like:

‘I feel  ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲  when  ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲  because  ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲  . What I need is  ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲ ̲ .’

Naming your emotions and perspective can ensure your request is seen as such – a request and not a criticism. Remember, however, that you don’t need to say sorry for attempting to establish personal limits; indeed, you cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologising.

Remember that boundary setting takes time and commitment: this is a process and consistency is key. It may take emotional work to maintain and reinforce your limits, but letting newly established boundaries slide can only cause confusion. Clear boundaries show our respect not only for our relationships with others, but also with ourselves.

Seeking support in establishing boundaries

Emotional support from friends, family, a spiritual community or support group can be helpful if you’re struggling for a sense of clarity around your personal boundaries. Defining and asserting your boundaries may be tricky, however, if it is a loved one who you feel is impinging on your sense of self. If you’re experiencing challenges with establishing boundaries, or if someone is causing you difficulty by crossing them, never hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.

Using evidence-based Positive Psychology methods, our experienced Happy Minds therapists can equip you with the tools to create your own courageous sense of self, which includes establishing and maintaining healthy personal boundaries. Reach out to the team on 0431 666 050, fill out the contact form on our website to request a call back or email us on [email protected]. We can provide psychology and counselling services from the convenience of your own home via Telehealth or face-to-face in our Ocean Grove office.

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