Healthy Boundaries and How to Define Them

The pandemic world in which we’re living can certainly take its toll on our mental health. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the loss and grief that we’ve been enduring both individually and collectively as a nation. Plus, some are continuing to navigate complex challenges as a result of the pandemic in relation to food, housing, and job security. Throw in the “should’s” and “should nots” of people chiming in with their opinions of right and wrong during this time and it’s no wonder that we’re facing a critical crossroads in the mental health field. 

One of the more effective ways to preserve ourselves and our mental health is to set boundaries. Not only can they help us protect our well-being, but the practice of setting boundaries can set us up for continued success in various areas of our lives. 

It can take time to establish and enforce them, so remember to be kind to yourself along the way. But once they’re firmly in place, boundaries can be incredibly beneficial. 

Defining Boundaries

Boundaries are the limits we set in relationships. Boundaries can be physical, sexual, informational, emotional, financial, time-related, and more. 

Boundaries go both ways. They include what you let permeate into your being from other people as well as what you are willing to give of yourself. Boundaries should be firm enough so that your emotional and physical well-being and safety are protected, but permeable enough to allow for intimacy, love, and connection with others. 

The Need for Boundaries

We need boundaries to establish a healthy balance of separation and connection in our relationships. 

With parenting, for example, we need to provide our kids with roots (often in the form of support and connection), but we also need to give them wings (the separation to become their own person and to live independently). 

With our coworkers, we need to set professional boundaries so that we are not causing conflicts of interest in the workplace that will negatively impact our productivity or effectiveness at work. 

With our partners, we need boundaries to establish a healthy interdependent relationship, rather than an enmeshed, dependent, or disconnected relationship. An interdependent relationship is where you both can function as separate people and have friends and work and life that exists outside the relationship, while also maintaining connection, partnership, mutuality, and intimacy within the relationship. 

Setting boundaries can often be a healthy correction. Sometimes setting boundaries is a response to trauma, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Other times the boundaries set are so rigid and firm, they can prevent people really knowing us. This can also prevent connection and intimacy and fuel isolation, disconnection, and depression. 

Deciding What Boundaries Best Serve You

From personal to professional, deciding what boundaries are best for you can vary. In my practice, I’ve worked with clients who have dating policies such as not kissing or sleeping with somebody on the first date or not introducing them to their children for six months. I’ve also had clients who have professional boundaries, such as fees or terms they won’t bend. 

Sometimes, we decide to set boundaries when we realize something isn’t serving us well. For example, I often have students or newer therapists ask if they can “pick my brain” about starting a practice or other aspects of career development. Over time, this led me to spend about ten hours a week giving free advice. So, I set a boundary. I offer a 20-minute free consultation over the phone or Zoom, and then I charge a coaching fee. Not only did this particular boundary help me prioritize my well-being, but it also led to a new stream of income. 

Boundaries in Relationships

Healthy boundaries are good for relationships. It’s just like the expression, “good fences make good neighbors.” For example, if you have a friend who expects you to be their 24/7 crisis line or pay for them every time you go out, it might be time to consider creating a boundary. If you do not set that limit, you will end up resenting them which will corrode your relationship. Sometimes setting a limit is an act of love and care. By refusing to take responsibility for them, you are encouraging them to take responsibility for themselves. 

COVID Boundaries

Setting boundaries that are specific to this moment in time is important. Relationships are under significant challenge while many of us remain at home. We are all under stress and experiencing different levels of anxiety and loss. In general, it’s good practice to: 

  • Set healthy limits with others regarding promoting your health and safety with regard to contracting COVID-19. This includes speaking up and letting others know if you aren’t comfortable dining out, visiting one another’s homes, or similar. 
  • Prioritize sleep, exercise, good nutrition, and moderation of substance use so you are both operating as best as possible. 
  • Have structure to your days. Create time for separateness and time for togetherness, including a clear division of labor and schedule regarding homeschooling or co-parenting. 
  • Make sure you both have time for self-care, like video calls with friends or family, meditation, or hobbies that fill your cup. 
  • Practice empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. 
  • Practice effective communication and conflict resolution
  • Access support. Most insurance companies are covering teletherapy and some, like Aetna, have waived copays entirely. 
  • Remember, “This too, shall pass.”

Fear and Boundaries

Now, setting boundaries is easier said than done for many people. Having low self-esteem, being a people pleaser, or having codependent characteristics can hold us back from setting healthy boundaries in relationships. In addition, fear of disappointing or angering others, fear that friends will end relationships if we do not meet their needs, requests or demands — These are also reasons for not wanting to or not being able to enforce boundaries.

Ultimately, this fear is detrimental in more ways than one. It’s holding you back from fully embracing the need to honor and take care of yourself, and it’s harming your relationships. So it’s wise to carefully consider the ways in which boundaries could be beneficial in these scenarios by weighing the pros and cons.

Practical Tips to Help Set Boundaries

Boundaries can be used to preserve and even strengthen relationships. It’s all about word choice and how you approach the situation. Here are some of my favorite tips to practice setting boundaries:

  • Speak in terms of “I” instead of “you”. This is the difference between “I need some alone time for my mental health and am going to take a bath and read a book in the bedroom for a couple of hours” versus “You are driving me insane and I need you to get away from me.”
  • Before speaking, ask yourself, “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?” This is the difference between saying, “I’m sorry, I am running on an empty tank and have nothing left to give right now. I understand you need some support. Do you think your sister might be a good resource?” instead of, “You are so draining and I can’t talk about your work problems one more minute.”
  • Take personal responsibility for your needs. Do not blame them on other’s behavior. 
  • Use assertive communication that is diplomatic, clear, honest, and respectful of yourself and others. Don’t avoid conflict by being passive or passive-aggressive. Don’t add fuel to the fire by being hurtful and aggressive. 
  • Be proactive and speak before the situation when possible. For example, “Tonight, I was thinking we have a COVID-free evening and not talk about it or watch the news.” If not, speak truthfully in the moment, “Could we take a break from talking about the virus?” 
  • Avoid talking about events from the past. Chalk those up as learning experiences. 

Maintaining Your Boundaries

The key here is to consistently set the boundary. If your mom repeatedly brings up your weight after you asked her not to, try saying, “Mom, remember we talked about that. Please do not talk about my weight as that is harmful to our relationship.” Or even, “Mom, I will need to end this conversation if you keep asking me about my weight”  

For somebody who can’t seem to help themselves but is willing to learn, you could establish a hand signal. Consider a T for “time out” or a code word like “remember” that you could have as a short code alert. 

If you have additional questions surrounding the idea of boundaries, don’t hesitate to reach out! I’d love to hear from you.