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boundaries

The importance of setting boundaries

The importance of setting boundaries

Recently, boundary-setting has been coming up often in conversations, in and outside the office. I noticed that for many, “boundaries” as a concept seems to be ambiguous—yet it plays out in so many domains of life. If you’re asking yourself whether your own boundaries may need a check-up, here are some hints.

Do you ever feel like you invest more than your return in relationships with partners, family, friends, or even strangers? Perhaps you feel resentful, or that you are being taken advantage of. You might feel a little bit annoyed all the time, or you might feel outright mistreated! You worry about the disapproval from others if you were to choose to say no or do what’s right for you.

Perhaps you often feel compelled to “fix things” for those who are close to you (emotionally, or otherwise). Maybe you worry they won’t think you’re a good friend, partner, son, daughter, (etc) if you don’t do what they are asking from you. Maybe worse, you fear that setting a limit would lead to argument or confrontation. So you might say “yes” when you mean “no”—out of habit, or just to avoid unpleasant interactions. At work, or elsewhere, you go above and beyond to ensure that another person’s comforts, wants, and needs are satisfied in a situation (but at the expense of your own!). Although it may feel “unselfish”, you eventually come to feel anger and resentment towards others. In fact, despite your efforts to ensure the other person is happy, relationships may not be working so well. While most people occasionally struggle with boundary questions, if it sounds a little bit too familiar too often, it might help to give your boundaries some reflection.

So what are boundaries?

In the context of psychology, boundaries are a conceptual limit between you and the other person. Simply put, it’s about knowing where you end and others begin. Knowing what’s yours and what’s not. Acknowledging that every adult is responsible for themselves. Having a functional boundary (one that works) means taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, and NOT taking responsible for the actions and emotions of others. Of course, this plays out a little differently when you ARE actually responsible for someone else (like a dependent or a child).

According to personal space theory (Scott, 1993), we have boundaries, and can regulate how permeable they are—meaning what we let in and out—when it comes to the physical, mental and spiritual environment.

Maintaining boundaries is about being the gatekeeper of your life in order to keep yourself safe and well. Imagine you are a castle, with front door, moat, and drawbridge which you can lower open or raise shut at your will (Peck, 1997). If you keep your front door unlocked and drawbridge laid open all the time, anyone is free to walk in, do as they please, and stay as long as they like. On the other extreme, if you keep the door shut and locked, and the drawbridge up, you end up isolated, and miss out on connecting with others. Many go from one of these extremes to the other. However, we know that the healthiest type of boundary is one that is appropriately and purposefully open to some people, in some situations, some of the time, and closed to others, at other times (Scott, 1993). In our day-to-day, how well we communicate these boundaries can either protect or jeopardize relationships (Scott & Dumas, 1995). Think of times you did something you did not want to do because someone asked you and you felt obliged. The simmering anger that ensues could damage the relationship; if you let it boil over, you might say something passive aggressive or even fully lash out. 

How do I keep my boundaries in check?

The first step is to create time to get to know yourself, and practice feeling worthy. Often when we allow our boundaries to be crossed, we feel as though we are being generous. Perhaps because we feel (or have been taught) it’s the only way to ensure being a “good person” or the only way to confirm our worth or value. Practice feeling worthy. Not because of your achievements or generosity toward others, but because like every person—you are!  Show yourself you are worthy by being kind and compassionate toward yourself and taking good care of your emotional well-being (to start, see Andrea’s daily mental health boost tips on Instagram), Lisa’s blog posts about the critical vs compassionate voice here and here, or Miss psychlife’s tips on self-care here. It may feel as though a good relationship means you take care of others at your own expense, and you hope that in return, they will take care of you in the same way. This is what creates boundary chaos. Instead, respect and nurture yourself by taking care of you first. You may be asking yourself whether doing this is selfish—it is not. By meeting your own needs, you respect yourself and the other by taking responsibility for your own well-being. You preserve your integrity so that you can communicate your boundaries to others and maintain equal, respectful, and resentment-free relationships.

The second step is about defining your edges. In each situation, asking yourself what you are responsible for and what is outside your scope. If your partner wants you to do something, asking yourself, “would I like to invest in my relationship in this particular way”? If so, you can do it within your boundary. Then ask yourself, does doing this come at the expense of my well-being in a significant way? And will my resentment grow if I do it? If the answer is yes to either, there is a good chance this is outside the boundary. Give yourself the power to own the choices you make, and avoid doing anything that you will come to resent. Make choices that you feel are right for you—not because you feel like you have to, or fear the consequences, or think “that’s what it takes to be a good person”—but because you feel content with the choice regardless of the outcome. 

The third step is more concrete: Practice assertiveness! First noticing when you want to give in—to do something that would create resentment or come at the expense of your own well-being. Then, communicate your stance respectfully. You can apply this with family, at work, and even with strangers. For example, you might feel guilty because you don’t visit your family as often as they’d like you to. Make a personal choice regarding how often you would like to visit, and express your choice firmly. You are not responsible for how they feel about your choice. At work you might go above and beyond your job requirements at the expense of your own time with friends and family, which can lead you to burnout. Despite your fears (“what if I lose my job?”), you can start by setting limits on how often you work above and beyond (or choosing not to at all) and communicating these assertively (saying “I am not available to work on the weekend”).  To learn more about how to practice assertiveness, check out Lisa’s post here, or these online modules that take you through it in detail.

To summarize, when boundaries are blurry or loose, we do things we don’t want to do, often at the expense of our emotional and physical well-being. This leads to constant frustration within the self and can damage relationships with others. Being responsible for minding our own emotions and actions rather than those of others is essential to keeping our relationships (and ourselves!) healthy. Of course, boundaries are not always simple and can look a little different for everyone, so explore this with your therapist to learn about how it all plays out for you.


Danit Nitka received her PhD from the Clinical and Research Psychology program at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and is a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Peck, M.S. (1997). The road less traveled and beyond: Spiritual growth in an age of anxiety. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Scott, A. (1993). A beginning theory of personal space boundaries. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 29(2), 12-20.

Scott, A., & Dumas, R. (1995). Personal space boundaries: Clinical applications in psychiatric nursing. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 31(3), 14-21.

Scott, A. (1998). Psychometric evaluation of the personal space boundary questionnaire. Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, 1(2), 46-53.

Blog Swap - MissPsychLife on Self-Care

Blog Swap - MissPsychLife on Self-Care


Guest post from MissPsychLife

MissPsychLife (AKA Dr. Brooke) is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Brisbane. She began her blog as a way of sharing her passion for psychology and the promotion of self-acceptance, self-growth, self-care and self-love in other people (as well as herself she says!). For more of Dr. Brooke's awesome tips check out her Facebook or Instagram


We all know the feeling. It has been several months since your last holiday, work is crazy, you feel exhausted every day, perhaps you’re staying up a few hours too late at night to get that extra episode of Game of Thrones in. You aren’t sleeping well because you keep thinking about that presentation you have at work in a few weeks time. Forget about the gym because seriously who has time for that? The dog hasn’t been walked for weeks, and heck- let’s just order a pizza tonight because who has the energy to cook when you are working such long hours and barely have time to scratch yourself?

Hello daily grind and hello road to burnout!

We have all experienced this. Winter is renowned for it when the days are much shorter and colder (yes colder- even in Brisbane. It’s all relative!!) and it doesn’t take long after returning from a holiday for this all to set back in again. Life is busy and it seems to just be getting busier by the minute.

It’s times like this that we might wish we were a yoga or meditation guru- those people who just seem to have their sh#t together and don’t ever get stressed! (I’m sure that’s not actually the case but it does seem that way sometimes when you are in yoga class staring at the instructor thinking “how is she always so Zen?”). But most of us don’t have our sh#t together, let’s face it. Overall, we do ok. But adulting can be hard and stressful and most of us don’t prioritize stress management and take time for ourselves nearly enough. I am guilty of this at times just as much as the next person. So….. How do we find that extra time in an already crazy busy life to look after ourselves?

“Self-care” is a term that is being used a lot on social media at the moment (Yay!) and I know it certainly comes up a lot in my work with clients too. But throwing the term around and actually applying it are two very different things…..So what is self-care and why should you even bother?

Some definitions suggest that self-care is any activity that is purposely enacted to improve or add to physical, psychological and social well-being. Vague I know……. and probably very much open to interpretation. One person might think going into work on a weekend to get more work done is “adding to their psychological well-being” while others (including me in most cases) would disagree and say it’s important to have time away from work. So ultimately, I think the term “self-care” should apply to anything that promotes and enhances the level of balance that we have in our lives.

Evidence suggests that when we spend time engaging in activities that are in line with our values balanced across multiple domains (work, social life, intimate relationships, spirituality, health and well-being etc.) that we tend to be more psychologically resilient. It’s no surprise really…. like most things in Psychology, it is just common sense. When we spend too much time at work, we feel blah…. When we don’t spend enough time at work and only focus on binge drinking on weekends and staying on the couch all day, we feel blah…. When we spend all our time doing for others and never doing for ourselves, we feel resentful and end up feeling blah. So, balance is the key.

I work with clients every day who have lost sight of balance and are now paying for it with depression, exhaustion, strained relationships, inability to continue working… And I have experienced first-hand what it’s like to be totally imbalanced and I certainly will never let myself get back there. When I was in my final years of Uni, I was already working as a psychologist 4.5 days per week. I would go to work from 8am until 5pm. I would do 45-minute bumper to bumper drive home. I would get home, cook dinner, have a very brief conversation with my partner of the time, and then head to the study to work on my doctoral thesis until the early hours of the morning. I’d then get some sleep…. If my mind would let me. Then I would be up again early the next day to do it all over again. I’m no superhero. I’m human. I needed 7 to 8 cups of coffee each day to cope. And by cope, I mean to just get by. Needless to say….. My body and mind suffered. I started needing more sick days.  I lost too much weight (I can’t believe the photos when I look back on them! My arms were so thin even though I was still eating three meals a day). I had headaches nearly every day. My stomach was in knots. I was a bit of an emotional wreck…. and definitely not the most fun person to live with. My work suffered too. Thankfully I managed to still hold it together to treat my patients, but my paperwork was appalling. I fell behind which then made me even more stressed. I withdrew from friends and family because I was “too busy” for that. Overall, it was pretty miserable. But the scary thing is I didn’t really notice how imbalanced I was. It had become my normal.  Thank God my boss pulled me aside one day and asked what was going on. She had noticed things were slipping and she was concerned.

So, after I submitted my thesis, I visited Thailand for three weeks, I ate, I slept, I relaxed, and I reflected. I knew a change was needed and that’s exactly what I did. I rearranged my work and got a different job so that my workload was less intense. I started spending more time with friends and family. I moved house closer to work and my social support network. But most importantly, I gave myself permission to slow down.

It took some time. I think about six months after I went to Thailand I was still having difficulty sleeping in on the weekends. I would wake up in a panic. My mind just didn’t want to slow down. But gradually, with more and more balance, things slowed down and I realized what it meant to be normal and balanced, and truly relaxed.

So, the moral of the story. Slow your asses down, balance your life out and take care of yourselves. It’s important. I’m just grateful I learnt this lesson early on in life, instead of having a breakdown in my 50’s when I would have run myself into the ground.

Here’s some tips for self-care that I often suggest to clients who are burnt out or lacking balance…. Remember. It’s ALWAYS better to be proactive rather than waiting until you are utterly exhausted. I can’t stress this enough. Doing small things towards your self-care regularly is what’s going to ensure you avoid the dreaded burnout.

Tips for self-care:

  1. Check in with yourself regularly – recognizing that you need to up the self-care requires you to regularly check in with yourself and notice early warning signs that perhaps things might be getting on top of you. No this doesn’t mean waiting until you blow up at a colleague at work to recognize you are stressed. It will be more subtle and can be different for everyone. Perhaps you aren’t sleeping quite as well. Perhaps you are feeling just that little bit more irritable in evening traffic or your mind is busier than normal and unable to focus. The earlier you catch it, the more effective your self-care strategies will be. However, nothing beats having regular self-care strategies tied into your weekly routine – it means you have to think about it less and it just happens.

  2. Don’t be afraid to say no – this is something my Mum has always told me and she couldn’t be more right. One of the trickiest things for some people is being able to say no to requests from other people, be it colleagues, your boss, friends, family or partners. Saying no politely but confidently when you don’t feel able to do something is important for maintaining your own sanity, but also healthy interpersonal relationships. Don’t worry- the sky won’t fall down if you say no. The person will survive. I dare you to try it.

  3. Watch out for guilt – if you are someone who struggles with the last point or if you are someone who is used to always being busy, watch out for guilt when you say no or when you consciously choose to slow down. I’ve had to battle this over the last four days. I’ve spent a lot of time at home relaxing and not doing a whole lot and would occasionally get pangs of guilt thinking “I really should be productive”. Notice these thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them go. You are actively choosing to refresh yourself and will be better for it in the long run.

  4. Take time out, alone, at least once a week (or more if you are introverted and need alone time to recharge) – spending time on your own doing something that you find relaxing and fulfilling can be incredible refreshing. What you do is different for everyone as we all enjoy different things. I find working on projects like painting furniture, tidying, or blogging to be enjoyable, as well as reading a book in the sun or having an at home pamper session, or even just a simple cup of tea (Barry’s tea all the way!).

  5. Disconnect – spend a few hours disconnected from technology. This is definitely the one I struggle with the most. We have all become so dependent and addicted to technology that leaving our phone off for a few hours while we have breakfast with a friend (gasp!) can seem impossible. But go on- try it. You will feel more connected and mindful in the moment and will experience your present moment more.

  6. Connect - do something to feel connected with others. If you feel you have been neglecting your family or friends, reach out and connect in some way. Even if it’s just a phone call, or a coffee. Check in with someone you love and really see how they are going. If you can do this in combination with the last point- you will connect even more (yes I just suggested, you connect and disconnect at the same time.)

  7. Be mindful – do a task mindfully- this means, notice every aspect of that task. Touch, taste, sound, smell, sight. This can be very grounding and relaxing. Sit outside for half an hour and try your best to stay focused on the sounds or the feel of the breeze on your face. Yes, your mind will wander, many times. That is ok. Just keep redirecting it back to the present moment and try not to get frustrated with yourself.

  8. Sleep routine – I really can’t stress enough the importance of good sleep. I never used to value it much and always stayed up late. But with conscious effort now to get my minimum 8 hours it makes such a big difference. If for any reason I get less than this now, I feel confused about how I used to cope. Set a bed time, and stick to it. It might take a few nights for your body to adjust but you will thank yourself for it.

  9. Schedule regular mini breaks – having something to look forward to can make the daily grind much easier to bear. Look ahead at your calendar and pencil in some long weekends, whether you go away or just stay home. Knowing you have that little break is always nice.

  10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – we all need help. We are social creatures who depend on one another. Yet so many of us are bad at asking for it- me included in that at times. Look at your workload and life load and assess where you might be able to get help.

  11. Relaxation/meditation/yoga - this is an obvious self-care exercise. It is shown to reduce stress and is a nice way of scheduling “you time”. In my previous post “10 ways to boost low mood” I suggest a few apps you can use, including the headspace-au meditation app.

  12. Exercise/go for a walk – this is another obvious one. Some of us enjoy exercise more than others and that’s ok. You don’t need to be an athlete. Take the dog for a walk or even just yourself. The fresh air really does work wonders.

Now go forth and care for thy self. Let’s all get on board with self-care and try to do at least one small thing towards our self-care daily. I know I will be!

Dr Brooke @MissPsychLife xx