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Why Boundaries Are Essential Self-Care

Boundaries protect and nourish us so that we don't need a pricey trip to the spa.

Key points

  • We often think self-care means expensive spa treatments, destination retreats, or vacations.
  • When we are energetically drained, the problem is often poor boundaries, not the need for expensive splurges.
  • Setting and holding boundaries is the best way to create a life we don't need to escape from.
Source: Taryn Elliott / Pexels
Ahhhhh... self-care feels good
Source: Taryn Elliott / Pexels

Often, when we think of self-care, we picture a long, lazy day at the spa, a trip to Napa with friends, or a blissed-out yoga retreat. These types of self-care are indeed nourishing experiences that help us recharge, gain perspective, find inspiration, or just make time for fun. But have you ever noticed that the happy, relaxed vibes from vacations and other luxurious treats fade quickly? Yes, for most of us, the impact of these infrequent, bigger-ticket indulgences is short-lived. Within days we are back to the status quo, minus some money in the bank (or worse, with new credit card debt!).

That’s why, although I encourage everyone to indulge in any and all activities that bring joy, connection, and relaxation, it’s important to know that they usually don’t provide the best form of self-care for sustainable wellness. In fact, when we set out to take better care of ourselves, the best place to begin is with boundaries.

Boundaries are the imaginary lines we draw around ourselves to promote physical and mental well-being. Boundaries apply to nearly all aspects of our lives. There are boundaries we set for ourselves with our own habits and behaviors, especially behaviors that are energetically draining (like turning off our devices at a certain time of night, limiting our alcohol intake, etc.). We also create boundaries with others in personal and professional relationships. These interpersonal boundaries determine how much contact we have with other people, what types of contact we have with them, how much we give and how much we ask for in our relationships, how much time we make for people, and how much time we reserve for ourselves.

Boundaries aren’t static, so creating and maintaining them is always a work in progress. But when we find ourselves feeling weary, burnt out, resentful, or angry, chances are we have some work to do on our boundaries. No amount of yoga retreats or spa days can make up for the stress and frustration that build when we don’t have and hold healthy boundaries.

Boundaries require that we know what we want and need, as even seemingly "healthy" habits or well-intentioned friends and family members can push against the boundaries that are best for us. We can all spot a toxic boundary violator. But can we respond wisely when someone we care about makes a perfectly reasonable request that’s just not in our best interest? For example, maybe a good friend is encouraging us to join her for a hot yoga class but what we need today is rest. Or perhaps a dear friend is getting divorced and asks us to join her for a weekend in Vegas to shake off her blues, but doing so would add financial and childcare stress to our lives. Or let’s say our partner wants a date night but what we really need is a night of solitude. There’s no right answer here: For some of us, saying yes to some or all of these things is the right move. For others, it’s not. Self-care is knowing our own particular priorities and our limits, and honoring those limits.

Here are three tips for exploring our boundaries in the service of providing ourselves with loving, consistent, and mature self-care. Grab a journal and write down any ideas, themes, or lessons that come to mind with the following prompts:

  1. Look to the past: What experiences do I recall that were draining, difficult, or negative? Maybe these were explosive endings of relationships, awful work environments we tolerated too long, or periods in our lives that were especially heavy and challenging. Looking back, were there instances of boundary violations? Were there times I was overly accommodating to others at the expense of my own needs? What needs were highlighted through these experiences? What behaviors—such as assertive communication, listening to a gut instinct, etc.—could have improved those situations? What warning signs might be present that we failed to see last time?
  2. Look at the present: At this moment in my life, how well am I caring for myself? Do I reserve enough energy to notice and attend to my own needs? Do I tend to wear myself out focusing on others? Do I make time for fun? Do I keep promises to myself? Do I find myself dreading events or people? Consider what situations and people cause a sense of dread or avoidance and explore how these situations may be pushing up against boundaries. For example, do these situations demand too much of my time? Do they force me to do things I don’t feel comfortable doing, such as public speaking? Do I struggle to be authentic in these circumstances? Are there people I dread because of imbalances in the relationship? Write down the situations that cause yucky feelings. Looking at the list, consider which areas might be easiest to address. For example, asking a good friend to do more listening and less talking is likely to go better than asking your boss for less public speaking if that’s one of your job duties. Pick the low-hanging fruit and work toward making small, positive changes while considering what bigger changes are feasible down the road when approached with skill and planning.
  3. Be mindful: When we pay attention, our bodies let us know when something is wrong. A fist clench, a stomach drop, a racing heart: These are all signs that something is off. If we can stay present with our bodies, we can use these clues to help guide us to identify boundaries in need of shoring up. If tuning into your body feels unfamiliar, it may help to set reminders on a phone to check in on body sensations at regular intervals during the day. We can also look back at our days and journal in the evenings about situations and the emotional and physical reactions they caused. Over time, patterns make clear what we need to work on.

Note: It can be helpful to work with a therapist as we explore these life experiences, behavior patterns, and bodily reactions to ensure we are making accurate interpretations and building skills to address problems wisely.

Boundaries are our best friends when it comes to self-care. We find we need fewer big self-care splurges when our day-to-day lives are suited to what’s most healthy for our bodies and minds.

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