Are you one of the many people who have a hard time saying “no”? You’re not alone! There are many reasons experts say we don’t always set the boundaries that we need for good mental health - including wanting to people-please, playing the role of ‘rescuer’, feeling manipulated, or being put on the spot. In this week’s article, we explore ways to set healthy boundaries for better mental health, and why setting boundaries is important for self-care.
What are boundaries and why set them?
A boundary is a limit or space between you and another person, or persons; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends. Setting boundaries is an important part of establishing one’s identity and is a crucial aspect of well-being. Boundaries help us feel safer and more comfortable. Boundaries can be physical or emotional, and they can range from loose to rigid, with healthy boundaries often falling somewhere in between. When healthy boundaries are not present, people may feel angry or sad due to interactions that create a feeling of being taken advantage of, devalued, or unappreciated. In addition, we often feel exhausted by the responsibilities brought on by saying “yes” all the time - leading to what some experts call the “treadmill of over-commitment”.
So why don’t we set boundaries more firmly and frequently? Sometimes we think that saying “yes” will make other people happy regardless of our own feelings. Sometimes, we think saying “yes” all the time confirms that we are needed. And sometimes we respond to the guilt that others may employ to try to break down our boundaries. When we say “yes” for these reasons, we’re out of balance - we’ve inadvertently placed more value on the needs of others than on ourselves.
How to set healthy boundaries
First, know the characteristics of effective boundaries:
- Limits are clear and decisive, yet reasonable
- Value is placed on your needs
- The focus is on authenticity and self-care, not on pleasing others or playing the rescuer
Next, give yourself permission to set personal limits with people. If you feel that love and approval are tied to pleasing others, or that you’re somehow being selfish for setting boundaries, or if it feels “risky” to set boundaries, then consider consulting with a mental health professional who can help you see that it's not selfish to take care of your own needs.
Next, define your boundaries. This might include things like:
- How you will and won’t spend your time and energy
- Who you will or won’t engage with and when
- What types of interactions you will or won’t engage in
- What activities and projects you will or won’t participate in
You may find it helpful to practice communicating your boundaries beforehand. Practice staying calm in the face of others’ reactions to your boundary-setting. They may be surprised at first especially if they have come to believe you will always say “yes”, but don't let that stop you! It may feel uncomfortable in the short-term, but there’s definitely a long-term payoff.
And finally, heed the warning signs - and stay away from those who repeatedly don’t respect boundaries you’ve set; who may be invading your space for their own end.
If you find this all difficult to do, you’re not alone. It’s a big - but very positive step - to take for better mental health. Qualified behavioral health counselors can help with things like learning how to set and maintain boundaries, and recognizing when and what to do when others try to cross those boundaries. As part of improving self-care, consider getting guidance about this from a mental health professional.