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Mental Health Beyond 101: Some things about boundaries

Mental Health Beyond 101: Some things about boundaries
  • On March 28, 2014

This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.

Boundaries. We know we are supposed to have them and set them. Beyond that though, they can get tricky.

An example:

Ann was invited to a party at her coworker’s home. She knows it would be noticed if she didn’t show up, and she feels obligated to go. However, she doesn’t want to go because she doesn’t feel comfortable hanging out with coworkers outside of work. Plus she’s an introvert and doesn’t enjoy parties. 

The clear boundary would be to decline the invitation and thank the coworker. Easy, right? I hear some people have no trouble with saying no to things like this. I tend to struggle in these types of situations. I start with the what ifs and the worries:

What if the coworker wants more information? Can Ann tell her she simply doesn’t want to go? Won’t the coworker be upset or hurt? I know that if it were me, I would be far more likely just to suck it up and go for the sake of keeping the peace.  I will sacrifice my comfort and pleasure to avoid the discomfort of telling my coworker no.

The truth is that “sucking it up” is not always the wrong choice. BUT–doing it all the time is guaranteed to make you (and me) unhappy. We have to do a bit of what my therapist calls “Marco Polo.” What’s the right choice? There isn’t one. The right choice is really the one that makes the most sense for you. The only way to know that is to check in with yourself. What is your body telling you? Your emotions? Are you sensing resentment, anger, fear, even neutrality? What answer feels best given the current circumstances?

See, if the person throwing the party is my boss, I’m probably going. The negative consequences of not going outweigh the positive ones. But if the coworker is just a coworker, I might say that I can’t make it. If the person is closer to me, and I feel safe with them, I might explain my discomfort. Boundaries flex and change given the situation. The important thing to remember is that your boundary should reflect your needs and wants.

You stay on your train, and let other people stay on theirs. Your train may include going out of your way sometimes and it may not. You get to make that choice with your own needs in mind. A good boundary isn’t a “right” one, it’s just the best thing you can do in the moment.*

Some more thoughts on boundaries:

1. You do not have to explain a boundary. A simple statement is allowed. Explanations are always your choice.

2. You will eventually upset someone setting a boundary–even someone you care about. Healthy relationships can survive this.

3. If you are trying never to hurt anyone or make anyone mad at you, you may discover you don’t have clean boundaries between you and others.

4. Boundaries feel “right” from your head to your feet.

5. You may feel guilty setting a boundary, but you will never feel you betrayed yourself.

6. Sometimes over correction happens when you start setting boundaries. That’s okay, we are also allowed to be flexible and change our minds.

7. Resentment toward others is a good way to know if you’ve done a bad job setting boundaries.

8. You are allowed to have boundaries that feel good but make no logical sense.

9. You are allowed to take a moment/minute/hour before giving an answer to any question. If you need a time out to figure out what you feel and what you need, take it. You can use any explanation but I find the best one is simply “I don’t know, let me think about it and get back to you.”

10. Boundaries change over time. That’s allowed. Things that were hard or unpleasant might be okay in the future. Stay mindful, see what happens.

11. If you missed a chance to set a boundary, then good for you for noticing! Keep that up, and next time you’ll be able to do things differently.

You are your own best advocate. No one will ever have your back as well as you can, because no one can ever know what you need and want as well as you do. Spend some time listening to yourself, and then practice advocating. It is a practice, and it is okay to feel awkward at first. Don’t jump your train, guys. Stay firm, stay in your own truth. It is hard, and scary, and I think it is worth it.

*Sometimes I think I just write these articles to remind myself of things 🙂

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  1. Fluidfyre

    This is such a big one for me. People have a really hard time grasping the concept of not always wanting to be in a social situation. Of setting those boundaries. I really agree with the ‘guilty but not betraying yourself’ and very much relate to it. It becomes about saying to myself, are you doing what you need and want? And if I can answer yes, then it helps assuage the guilt really. Maybe it comes down to… being honest with yourself. Being mindful.

    Thanks again for a great post 🙂 always get excited when I see another one.

    • Well I’m the guy who says basically everything comes down to mindful work, lol, so I won’t argue!

      Finding away to address that “boundary setting guilt” is so useful, and so difficult.

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