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Building Boundaries

Why healthy boundaries are good self-care.

Key points

  • Doing for others can sometimes be harmful for us.
  • Setting healthy boundaries protects our limited resources of time and energy.
  • Steps to building boundaries include aligning yourself with your needs, sharing your new limits, and standing up for yourself.

Our time and energy are finite resources we need to complete our life tasks and responsibilities. We need to protect these valuable, life-sustaining assets by building and enforcing boundaries.

At times, we’ve all said yes when we would rather have said no. Who among us has not sacrificed precious time and energy, often postponing or canceling our own plans, to help a friend, colleague, or family member? Even when that request disrupts our own plans, we find it impossible to refuse a call for help.

Many of us have been raised to believe that it is selfish and inconsiderate to withhold support from someone who asks for our help, and that being generous with our time is what good people do. Furthermore, many of us have been saying yes for so long that we’re afraid that saying no might come as an unpleasant and unexpected shock to the people in our lives who depend on or lean on us.

The downside of doing for others

We get stuck in patterns of people-pleasing, saying yes when we wish we’d said no. The last thing we want is to offend friends, family members, or associates by appearing selfish or uncaring. At work, we want to be seen as professional and dedicated team players. And in our personal lives, we like to be thought of as generous, and kind.

Doing for others comes with a big downside, though: It can leave us depleted and exhausted, with no time to take care of our own responsibilities. We also prevent friends, family members, or colleagues from breaking patterns of over-reliance, or taking unfair advantage of other people. Worst of all, we let ourselves down by not prioritizing our own needs.

How do we break old habits and patterns, begin to interact more authentically with others, and start to factor ourselves into the equation of our lives?

Basic boundary-setting

By definition, a boundary is a line that marks the limits of an area: a dividing line. The purpose of a boundary is protection. Just as we place boundaries around property, and limits or lines not to be crossed with respect to how others treat us for our own protection, we must also create limits or boundaries to protect our finite resources of time and energy.

Setting boundaries involves deciding when and where you will draw a line around your time and energy. Once you’ve decided on your boundaries, you need to communicate these limits to the relevant people in your life. For example, if you have a work colleague who calls you at all hours of the night because they’re struggling with their own workload, you will need to lay down your new rules or limits on their ability to infringe on your time. Or, you may have to communicate your new rules to over-reliant friends or family members.

Boundaries and guilt

As you begin to enforce your boundaries, you may struggle to muster the courage to say no. And when you do say no, you will likely feel guilty for doing so. Here’s what guilt is all about: Guilt is a sign that someone wants something from you that is different than what you want for yourself. It’s as simple as that—a clash of intentions. Inevitably, guilt will show up when you start enforcing your boundaries. When it does, ask yourself: "Do I want to put myself first, or do I want to put my needs on the back burner and take care of someone else’s?"

Giving from your overflow, not from your well

Over time, saying no will become a little easier. You will soon see the benefits of more control over your time and energy. You won’t end up feeling depleted and diminished by making promises or sacrifices that leave you depleted and disappointed in yourself.

Imagine that your resources of time and energy are contained in a well. You need the resources contained in that to manage your self-care, responsibilities, and life tasks. As a caring person, there will be times when you will say yes to a request for help. But with healthy boundaries in place, you will be able to give from the overflow of your well—that is to say, from your excess of time and energy, rather than repeatedly depleting your well at your own expense.

5 steps to building boundaries

  1. Align yourself with the way you need and wish to spend your time and energy.
  2. Share your new limits with those who may have become over-reliant on you.
  3. Stand up for yourself and the limits you have placed on your time and energies.
  4. Reinforce your boundaries by saying no when you need to.
  5. Remember: When you feel guilty for turning down a request, it’s a sign that you are putting yourself first.
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