Boundaries, Not Walls: 6 Ways to Draw Healthy Lines that Honor Your Intentions
Boundaries have always been something I’ve struggled with. Hell, I didn’t even know what setting boundaries meant or looked like until maybe 6 months ago. Now that I’ve seen my perfectionism for what it is, I have enough distance to recognize the difference between self-love from self-sacrifice.
Like most women, I was led to believe that part of my purpose was to please others by making them happy and putting their needs before mine.
As is true for many of my clients, I was spreading myself thin by not putting my needs first, running on empty, and treating this endless drain like something to be honored. And if I did something for someone else and neglected myself? I would lash out and become resentful, like a martyr.
When I began to notice that my self-care was non-existent and that I was giving my time and energy away to things that depleted me, I began to research boundaries, specifically how to form them and how to stick to them.
For most of us, “healthy boundaries” is scary and unfamiliar. I think we have assign this kind of meaning to boundaries because we equate it with being fenced in and isolated, in a constant state of FOMO that we keep telling ourselves is good for us.
“If I say no to happy hour tonight, what if I miss out on all the fun and can’t join in on the recap tomorrow?”
“My husband’s old high school friend (whom he hasn’t talked to in 10 years) just invited us to our wedding. If we decline, they’re going to be pissed.”
“I never look forward to Thanksgiving anymore because our family is always on the road trying to visit all our relatives. It’s just too much. I secretly wish we could have the holiday to ourselves, but I feel like it would stir up drama and we’d be permanently uninvited.”
Any of these scripts sound familiar?
Afraid of seeming rude or disappointing others. Afraid of unknown reactions that we can’t control. Afraid of alienating ourselves and missing out on communities we’ve built.
Afraid, afraid, afraid.
Setting sustainable boundaries is a skill in overcoming fear and the perception of fear. It’s a skill that most will never adapt to…because it’s easier to disappoint and dishonor ourselves than do the same to others. Without setting boundaries, we let other people’s perception of us regulate our behavior instead of regulating our own without compromise.
Here are some ways you can begin to practice putting down boundaries without boxing yourself in:
1. Get out of autopilot and tune into your feelings.
I recently finished a book that used the phrase “JOY versus ANNOY”. I loved that simple comparison between two words that come with huge emotional triggers any of us can relate to. The question, “Does it bring me joy or does it annoy?” is a great litmus test and prevention against future resentment, especially when deciding whether something will fill you up or wring you out. Resentment typically comes from being either not appreciated or feeling taken advantage of. Resentment rising up from an otherwise normal request or interaction is a clear signal (if you’re tuned in) that you feel like someone else is imposing their expectations, giving too much of your emotional energy without resting and recovering. Being aware of the feelings that arise when you’re feeling resentful, annoyed, and frustrated is a starting point for defining what your boundaries will look and feel like.
2. Give yourself permission.
Boundaries that protect you from these ‘energy leaks’ are one of the greatest forms of self respect. Not only do you respect your energy as a precious commodity, but you recognize the value of time spent on seeking out activities that fill you up rather than fatigue your spirit. When you decide to put yourself first, there can be a lot of guilt, self-doubt, and fear attached…especially if you’re hearing pushback from family members, friends, or other negative perpetrators that you’re trying to set some distance between. Knowing that you deserve more is a hard concept to grasp because we constantly feel that we should be reduced or put down in some way, that settling for less is who we really are. It’s not. This is our permission slip to want – and have – more.
3. Others might take your personal choices personally.
When you begin to build fences around yourself that prevent others from gaining full access to your time and energy, you might get some people who will try to test the strength of your fortress. Anticipate this and know how you’ll respond. Needy friends, toxic co-workers, or unrelenting family members may not get what you’re doing at first and in return get upset with you. Why don’t you like them anymore? Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re suddenly too good for me? A lot of what might come out of them may come from a place of lack of self-awareness that causes them to resent your resentment towards them. Instead of gentle curiosity into why your sudden pull-back from your usual self-sacrificing tendencies, they may attack you instead of doing the necessary work on themselves.
4. Practice self-awareness.
Speaking of self-awareness, can you think back to a time when you didn’t set a boundary that you wish you had? Can you remember when you held your tongue or hated the entire time you were present at an event? Whether it’s someone you decided to hang out with or a situation you put yourself in, take note of the feelings that flood back. How did the person or situation make you feel? How did it affect your mood or energy the rest of the day or week? List your feelings. Now look back and identify those words as your “PBS” or personal boundary system. Anytime you need to decipher if setting a boundary is necessary or not, use your feelings you listed out as your gut-check. Keep them folded up in your wallet, on your lock screen, or on your desk. Whenever you’re tempted to violate your own boundaries, reference those feelings and honor their meaning to you.
5. Begin small and build up.
New skills take practice – especially setting boundaries. Begin drawing lines that don’t feel scary to you. Maybe it’s little things like:
• Turning your phone to silent after a certain time in the evening, or set it to Airplane mode in the morning while you ease into the day through a workout, yoga, or meditation. Carve out a time without interruption, and then get back on the grid when you feel properly refreshed.
• When you aren’t feeling well (digestion issues, flu, cramps, whatever!) cancel a commitment without feeling guilty. I know it’s hard, but try being upfront about the reason why -- simply tell them you aren’t feeling well, and see your honesty as a sign of strength, not weakness.
• Take your time returning emails or phone calls. It took me awhile to learn this one myself, but the world will not crumble in your absence, not because your presence isn’t important, but because others will learn that time and silence can serve as powerful boundaries.
• If all these seem scary because they deal with other people and their reactions, try setting internal boundaries with yourself. If you’re procrastinating on your self-care or know you’re not getting the 7-8 hours of sleep you know you need, these are great places to gently correct yourself and try again if you mess up. When you’ve mastered how you speak to yourself while setting internal boundaries, you’ll likely feel more confident when it comes to setting boundaries with others, too.
6. Make self-care a priority.
When you make yourself a priority, your needs are met by yourself and no one else. That kind of self-reliance is powerful mojo. When you block your ex from texting you like clockwork at 2 AM on a Friday…when you refuse to let your mother come over unannounced…when you don’t let guilt trips bother you…you’re flexing new muscles of emotional strength and finding new motivation to respect yourself by depending on yourself. Boundaries are the gateway you use to keep your energy in, your worth intact, and anything that violates either of those things out.
Have you tried setting important boundaries in your life? Are you still on the fence about what boundaries you need in your life? Share your boundary-setting experiences below with our tribe!