Having solid, strong boundaries is a vital way to take great care of ourselves. After all, boundaries protect our time, our (physical and emotional) energy, and our well-being. Boundaries help us to honor our feelings, and ultimately, our needs.
According to psychotherapist Mara Hirschfeld, LMFT, we can think of boundaries as a personal rulebook that informs others how to treat us, and specifically what is and isn’t OK.
Even though boundaries are critical for practicing compassionate self-care, many of us aren’t very good at setting them. Namely, we say yes when we really want to say no. Because in the moment it’s so much easier to shout “yes!” than to decline, which can be awkward and uncomfortable.
Sure, I’ll be happy to bake something for the school fundraiser (even though you’re already exhausted, and would rather poke your eyes out with a spoon than bake a batch of brownies, even if you’re just using a box).
Yes, I can stay after work to help with that project (even though it’s the second week in a row that you’re missing dinner with your spouse).
Yes, you can borrow more money (even though they haven’t paid you back from the last time).
Of course, I can talk to you for 2 hours on the phone as you vent about your ex. Again. And again. And again (even though they’re rarely available when you’d like to process something).
Maybe we also let others dictate our schedule—frequently doing something for someone else instead of going to a dance class we love or taking a walk or sleeping in. Maybe we don’t carve out much, if any, alone time. Maybe we let other people walk all over us in other ways.
Part of the problem is our perspective that boundaries are bad.
Hirschfeld’s clients regularly tell her that they believe boundaries are stern, harsh, aggressive and selfish (selfish being the most common misconception she hears). They fear that they’ll be judged by others. And they assume, like so many of us, that “being kind means having no boundaries,” said Hirschfeld, LMFT, who specializes in working with individuals and couples going through relationship distress at her private practice in New York City.
But it’s actually the opposite. Hirschfeld shared this compelling quote from researcher Brené Brown: “The most compassionate people are also the most boundaried.” She also noted: Brown “says that those who know how to prioritize themselves have more to give to others.”
In other words, boundaries are a boon to everyone. Below, you’ll find several suggestions for using boundaries to practice genuine self-care and honor yourself.
Start with your needs. “Be clear about what you need to take the best care of yourself and then create frames around that,” said Tamsin Astor, PhD, a coach and author of the book Force of Habit: Unleash Your Power by Developing Great Habits. For instance, Astor spends the first 90 minutes of her morning meditating, journaling and working out. She’s created a boundary that she won’t take any meetings before 7:30 a.m.
She encouraged readers to think about your non-negotiables for your day, which can include when you eat and move your body; your non-negotiables for your relationships, such as “I want to be asked out and invited as much as I do the inviting”; and your non-negotiables for work, such as not replying to emails on Sundays.
Then make sure you actually follow through, Astor said. Make sure you put your plans on your calendar and talk to your family and friends.
Don’t immediately blurt out “yes!” Instead, get comfortable saying “I need to check my calendar,” Astor said. In fact, practice reciting it over and over so it feels natural, and maybe even becomes automatic (like your “yes!” is right now). Saying you’ll check your calendar gives you time to figure out whether doing this will take time away from your goals and commitments, or mean being with someone you don’t want to be with, she said.
It’s also helpful, Hirschfeld said, to ask yourself these questions: If I say yes and do what is being asked of me, how will I feel afterwards? Do I think I will feel proud and content with the choice I made or will I feel resentful and frustrated? How will this affect my relationship with my loved one, and more importantly, my relationship with myself?
Think about what you’ll be giving up. “It’s very hard to stay firm in setting a boundary when we are driven by the part of us that is afraid of judgment or believes it would be the right thing to do by our friend and/or family,” Hirschfeld said. Instead, think about what you’ll be sacrificing if you don’t set a specific boundary, she said.
What will you have to give up? What will it cost you?
Not setting a certain boundary might mean losing restful sleep or not fully recovering from the flu. It might mean missing time with your spouse or kids, or missing something you’ve been looking forward to. It might mean missing a therapy session or not getting to savor a quiet lunch break, which is a highlight of your day.
Hirschfeld clarified that it’s perfectly OK to prioritize our loved ones sometimes. It becomes a problem when it “becomes a pattern, and we rarely prioritize ourselves.”
Have a plan for difficult people. Astor stressed the importance of spending time with people who have habits and boundaries that you want and value. “As a fellow coach friend of mine says, spend time with the radiators—[individuals] that make you feel warm, rather than the drains—[individuals] who exhaust and deplete you.”
But sometimes we can’t avoid the drains. When that’s the case, Astor suggested practicing a loving-kindness meditation, because it shrinks the mental space that people we don’t like take up, and after a while, we might start to feel neutral about them. Start by picturing someone you love, someone neutral to you and someone you dislike. Then for each person, say the following: “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be at ease.”
Another option is to reduce the emotional power of these interactions, Astor said. That is, instead of seeing the individual face to face, maybe you can talk over the phone, text or email. Instead of meeting twice a week, maybe you can meet once a week, she said.
Setting boundaries is tough, especially when you don’t have much practice. And that’s the thing: Many of us don’t have much practice, which means that the more we try, the more skilled we’ll become, and the easier it’ll get. And in the process, we get to effectively, compassionately care for ourselves. And what a gift that really is.