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Boundaries: 4 Steps to Better Mental Health

By Contributing Editor for Health & Wellness Kathy Whelan

If your neighbor crossed the property line and planted a shrub in your yard, it would be a clear violation of a physical boundary.

What about other kinds of trespasses, those that happen regularly in our everyday lives?

  • Your boss likes to hand out urgent assignments just as the workday ends.
  • Your friend is late whenever you get together.
  • Despite being asked repeatedly, your children don’t clear their dishes from the dinner table.
  • Your partner often forgets to share travel updates, forcing last-minute changes in your schedule.
  • Your mother expects you for dinner every Sunday and pouts when you have other plans.

In situations like these, we may blame others for our resentment, anger, hurt feelings or burnout. Chase Hill, author of Healthy Boundaries, had challenges like this with his girlfriend, colleagues, friends and family before realizing he was at the heart of the problem. A simple quote woke him up: “Stop asking why they keep doing it and start asking why you keep allowing it.”

Like property markers, boundaries are limits that define what is our responsibility and what is not, what we will do and allow and what we won’t. Boundaries can be physical, emotional, intellectual, material or time-related. Setting and keeping clear boundaries boosts our self-respect and allows us to spend our time and energy according to our needs, resulting in less stress and more fulfillment in our lives. Although healthy boundaries are crucial to mental health and well-being, they are often overlooked as a form of self-care.

Sometimes we don’t set boundaries because it feels selfish. A dedicated worker, we tell ourselves, would take any assignment at any time. A good person would sympathize with each excuse for a friend’s tardiness. A nice mom or dad wouldn’t fuss about dinner dishes when there is homework to be done. A kind partner would adapt without complaint to belatedly-announced schedule changes, and a good daughter would never disappoint her mother. But this dedicated worker, good friend, nice parent, kind partner and dutiful daughter have not only gone beyond their own responsibilities, but are also keeping other people from attending to theirs. And that is good for no one.

If setting boundaries sounds harsh, we can think of them less as walls than as fences. In their book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend say, “We need to keep things that will nurture us inside our fences and keep things that will harm us outside.” To do this, they advise, “our fences need gates.” Because they are our fences, we are the gatekeepers.

Developing boundaries is a process. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Do a relationship review.  To decide where we need boundaries, we need to look closely at our relationships. What do we give to each and receive in return? How does this connect with what we most want to do, achieve or be in our lives? What are the problem areas and what needs fixing?
  • Expect and allow mixed feelings. Even when we know we need new boundaries, we may be held back by guilt and/or fear. We may feel we are letting people down and worry about losing relationships. It’s important to process these difficult feelings – but not for too long! To keep moving, it can be helpful to imagine what life would look like in a few years if we keep things as they are now and then what it would look like if we make the changes we are considering.
  • Communicate. New boundaries are useless if no one knows about them. Clear, thoughtful communication is key. Using “I” statements – “I feel [name the emotion] when you [name the behavior]” – is more effective that blaming the other person for our feelings. We need to specify exactly what we want to change. We should listen to the other person’s perspective and prepare for it to be different. If the other person responds as thoughtfully, it can open the door to communication on new, mutually acceptable boundaries; if not, we can end the conversation or, if necessary, the relationship.
  • Maintain. After clearly communicating what needs to change, we must enforce our new boundaries with consequences for violations. This can be stressful at first, and we need to remember that we are taking care of ourselves. As with any other behavior change, we should start with a small challenge – the person least likely to give us a hard time – and work up to more difficult situations.

With consistent practice and the help of a supportive friend or an experienced coach, we will see success and enjoy the results!

Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach. She is now, in addition, a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises. It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including Thrive Global and The Boston Globe. Read more about Kathy and her practice at www.whelanwellness.com

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