Why Healthy Boundaries Could Change Your Life – And How To Set Them
Much like the musical genius of the Backstreet Boys, healthy boundaries – the behavioural expectations and limits we set to preserve our mental health, time and energy – are often underestimated and misunderstood. But don’t dismiss them; a few tweaks to set and strengthen your boundaries can transform how you feel day to day.
Spending your time prioritising and meeting the needs of other people – and, in turn, letting your own goals, desires and needs slip to the bottom of the pile – can mean that you never have enough time, energy or money left for yourself. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm, fatigue and a loss of self.
On the other hand, researchers and experts resoundingly agree that people who maintain strong boundaries are more compassionate, less prone to insomnia and overthinking, manage stress more effectively and enjoy better relationships. In the words of self-development queen Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong: How The Ability To Reset Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, And Lead: “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” While it might feel quite confronting to hear that always saying ‘yes’ for fear of upsetting or inconveniencing someone else could be making you a less compassionate person, it’s the truth.
As for stress management and avoiding burnout, a study by the University of Illinois found that workers with greater boundary control – for example, those who keep email alerts off their phones and who don’t work outside paid hours – had reduced stress levels and were less prone to negative thinking.
Humans are wired to seek safety in the familiar, even if it leaves us feeling depleted, resentful and stuck, so be aware that new boundaries require trial-and-error and a hefty dose of self-compassion. Remember that you can take control of your own boundaries, and lean on the following advice to help you get there…
5 Steps To Setting Helpful, Healthy Boundaries
- Look inwards – To carve out time and energy for your needs and wants, setting boundaries for yourself is just as important as creating boundaries with others. It could be as simple as scheduling a reminder for morning stretches, making (and keeping!) regular dentist appointments or ring-fencing money for healthy ingredients before you spend on eating out.
- Match your values – Before rushing in with new hard and fast rules, identify what really matters. For example, if your health or family is the most important thing to you, then choose boundaries that protect your time and energy, so you can spend it on your health or your family in a way that brings you pleasure.
- Start small – The smaller you make new habits or behaviours, the greater your chance of making them stick. If you want to read more, start by reading one paragraph or chapter a day. If you want to reduce your workload, deprioritise or delegate one task to begin with.
- Listen and learn – Often your inner voice will try to sabotage your efforts to build new boundaries with phrases like: ‘taking time for yourself is selfish’; ‘they’ll think I can’t do my job’; ‘I’ve always been a people-pleaser’. Once you’re aware of the beliefs that come up for you, you can begin to challenge their truth and move past them.
- Watch your language – Avoid apologising for or diminishing your boundaries; stating them firmly gives other people less opportunity to question you. There’s research to show that when you frame a refusal using the words ‘I don’t’ – ‘I don’t look at my phone when I’m in bed’; ‘I don’t talk about my body in a negative way’ – you’re three times more effective in following through than if you just say ‘no’, and eight times more effective than using ‘I can’t’.
Victoria Joy is a qualified life coach and former magazine editor