In the world of psychology, mental health and relationship boundaries are a hot topic today. We often hear about how we need to set physical and emotional boundaries to preserve our relationships and our peace of mind. It could be with an overbearing mother-in-law, a houseguest who has overstayed his welcome, or anyone else in your life who is sapping your energy or leaving you feeling disrespected, ignored, or underappreciated.
Considering how broad the topic of boundaries is, it may be difficult to know how exactly to figure out what our boundaries are. In our interactions with others, what will we permit for ourselves, and when will we draw the line? Though situations may differ, there are a few key indicators to look for when setting boundaries:
The first thing to do is to tune in to your emotions (I’ve suggested to my clients that they consider emotions as energy in motion or cues to our internal experiences). Be honest with yourself about how you feel when you’re with certain people. Do you feel energized, motivated, and loved, or do you find yourself feeling avoidant, indifferent, or overly inconvenienced by individuals that you spend time with? If the latter sounds true to you, don’t ignore those pesky, nagging feelings, but instead use them as a signal to help you set boundaries.
I’ve often touted the benefits of what I call the gift of resentment. As much as I try to be forgiving, when I find myself harboring a grudge against someone or something, I consider the resentment I feel to be an amazing gift that lets me know I need to make a change. For example, a few years after I got started as a therapist, I began to resent my private practice. This led to me taking a good, hard look at some of my business policies, and I ended up making some significant changes that have benefitted my clients and my professional life.
Another source to look for in help setting boundaries is to become aware of what your body is telling you. What physical signs or symptoms do you experience that indicate you’re not emotionally comfortable or happy? Are you often exhausted, stressed, or perhaps even in pain? Do you get headaches when dealing with a particular person or problem? Our bodies are very good at sensing (literally!) when something is not right. Pay attention to what yours may be trying to tell you. If you’re often tired or physically not at ease you may need to set a (stronger) boundary or reinforce an existing one.
I know a young woman who was happy to assist a friend in her church group who often needed rides and help with other errands. Eventually, however, the favors started getting so cumbersome that she sometimes missed sleep or work hours to accommodate her friend. This young woman was exhausted and feeling resentful. She realized she needed to step back and set boundaries so that she didn’t deplete her emotional energy or become completely burned out.
Another important step in determining your boundaries is to examine your values and what you want for your life. What are your personal goals? How are the people in your life helping or hindering your goals? Asking this will help you determine what matters most to you, what things are a priority, and what things are not. As far as boundaries go, this may mean limiting the amount of time you spend with individuals who are downers or bring unnecessary criticism and cynicism to your life.
Finally, when we think of boundaries in relationships we often think of boundaries with others, but it’s also important to look at boundaries with yourself. If you struggle with negative self-talk and often belittle yourself, perhaps you have a goal to engender positive thoughts and energy. If you really want to go on a trip next year, work on setting boundaries related to your spending habits. If you’re a student and you want to get better grades, set boundaries around how much social time and study time you want each week.
Tuning into your emotional and physical signals and figuring out what you want and value in life can help you set appropriate and tailored boundaries, find fulfillment and peace in your relationships, and be wise about how you spend your time and energy.