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Setting Boundaries    

Setting Boundaries

BY MEADOWLARK MONAGHAN

When I first started therapy, boundaries are not what I went in for, but they are what I came away with. And that is because they are not something that comes naturally to most of us, including myself.  

I grew up in a very open family - anyone who knows my Mom understands this immediately, she has pink bangs for crying out loud. In my family, no toy, possession, or snack in the fridge was “yours”. We had to share everything. I blame it on both my parents being raised in families with six and eight children, sharing is what they knew. It was our own family commune. 

While I am grateful for this liberation of possessions and material goods (because it turned me into a very giving person) it did not come without its flaws. It played a huge role in my unhealthy tendencies to give all my love, attention and emotional energy to others without thinking twice. Through setting boundaries and learning what boundaries meant for me, I was able to shift the way I cared for others. Not by loving them any less, but by being honest with myself about not only when I wanted to give, but how much I could offer while still taking care of myself. 

So, that’s exactly where my therapeutic work began: honoring the good part of my boundary free childhood, recognizing the parts that didn’t work for me, and un-programming myself from those. 

Nowadays, I don’t want to say I’m a boundary queen but, I do love saying “no” to plans. I hold those boundaries and say “not today; it’s a self care day” without one, tiny ounce of guilt. I set boundaries in terms of people, places, and things. And with this humble acknowledgement of my newfound mental strength, I’d like to share some thoughts about boundaries I’ve learned along this very bumpy road. 

“...I hold those boundaries and say “not today; it’s a self care day” without one, tiny ounce of guilt.”

BOUNDARIES ARE A FORM OF SELF RESPECT

Boundaries help us identify our individualism and establish our own identity. In fact, boundaries have been defined specifically as “a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends.” They can be rigid or loose, emotional or physical. At the end of the day, boundaries mean knowing yourself and understanding what your limits are. 

Since boundaries have so much to do with self identification and understanding, it feels serendipitous that my boundaries started taking on a more concrete shape and definition in my mid-late twenties. Your twenties are spent discovering yourself as an adult and as that takes on it’s more clearly identified form, so does your knowledge of what you are and are not willing to hold yourself responsible for, how you engage in relationships, and what you are willing to say yes or no to. Spoiler alert: all of these self discoveries are boundaries. 

“We can set boundaries with time, physical space, conversations, relationships, content, and even ourselves.”

Now, that sounds like a lot but they may be behaviors or actions you already engage in. Fr some day to day context, sme of the way we hold boundaries look like this:

HEALTHY BOUNDARY EXAMPLES

Work: When you are in the zone on a project and a co-worker pops over to chat or get your opinion on something, rather than getting distracted and pulled away, politely saying “hey I would be happy to help but I’m in the zone on this task right now, I’ll come over to you when I’m done.” This respects your time management and work efficacy, and allows you to be fully present when you do help that coworker with their question. 

Friendships: Having friendships as adults is hard - matching up your schedules, facing a commute, putting off laundry and your other 50 to do list tasks for a happy hour date can be overwhelming. Sometimes, turning down an invite can be a healthy boundary for us to make sure we take care of ourselves first. Our suggestions: be gracious, politely decline, and work through the discomfort. “I heard that restaurant is great! Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it this time but I hope you have an amazing time.”

Time: We all know traffic can really dictate our schedules for us. Setting boundaries to respect everyone’s time can be as simple as, “If you are going to be late, please text me to let me know.”

Emotional: Especially with Thanksgiving coming up, setting boundaries around inappropriate conversation topics or emotional dumping can ensure you don’t get roped into unwanted table conversation. Try something like, “this isn’t a topic I’m willing to discuss” or “I respect that you disagree with my opinion, but you don’t need to force your own.”

Now, like any proper self-care, boundaries are a skill, not a trait. They take work and can morph and change over time as we grow, become more comfortable with ourselves, or forge healthier self identities. This is because the key piece to boundaries, is honoring your individual self and placing your needs and feelings first. If you’re a people-pleaser (takes one to know one) this may be hard to hear, but any healthy relationship (familial, friendship, partner, you name it) begins with boundaries. And that, specifically, is where my work began. 

BOUNDARIES WITH PEOPLE, PLACES, & THINGS

My first lesson with boundaries began with people

As a teenager, I would turn my friends problems into my own, taking on all their emotional baggage and energy until I was zapped. This became abundantly apparent to me while answering friends phone calls about decoding their summer camp boyfriend’s text messages, while I was practically living in the ICU all summer when my Dad was hospitalized. Thus, my first therapeutic homework assignment was that I had to learn how to set a tone of a relationship where energy was offered 50-50. 

Developing a new sense of what it meant to be there for someone, without making it my “job” to fix or put a bandaid on them, took years of setting new lines in the sand one trip to the beach at a time. Slowly, this lesson began to take shape into all my relationships: with my family, friendships, and romantic partners. 

“Developing a new sense of what it meant to be there for someone, without making it my “job” to fix or put a bandaid on them”

From there, this lesson began to translate into boundaries with places.

This learned sense to not take something on as my own, had to quickly translate into my workspace, especially since my job was in the mental health field. Let me tell you, as someone that struggles with boundaries IRL it’s ironic that I chose to make a career out of helping people “fix their problems”. Obviously, that’s extremely facetious but you catch my drift. 

I had to stop taking work home with me! 

The problem with that lesson, for me, was that I felt like I was being preached the exact opposite. As a twenty-something, we are told this is the time we should be hustling. We should be paying ridiculously expensive rent for a shoebox in the city, working two jobs, and pursuing your passion now commonly coined “side hustle”, because you’re in your twenties and that’s what you do! 

We have a tendency to romanticize this sense of chasing “the American dream”, this hustle culture of not taking care of yourself to work through lunch, be the first person into the office and the last person out. I see it constantly on social media, in podcasts, shows, and movies. We are taught that unless you are working this hard, you won’t be the one to obtain your dream. 

"Let me be the first to say it: fuck. that." 

When my work days are filled with enough stress and emotional energy as social work, I need to compartmentalize and check out at the end of my day in order to show up as my best self for my clients tomorrow. However, this translates into any job! How do you expect to “give it your all” everyday if you’re running on empty? Assuming you want to always wake up and do better than you did yesterday, you have to be able to recharge yourself tonight in order to give it that extra go of it tomorrow

And finally, I’m now learning how to set boundaries with certain things

Just about the most frightening thing I can think of is to check the Screen Time on my iPhone. We are not shy to talk about social media’s effects on mental health and I try to practice that boundary everyday! My successful social media boundary came last January, when the wide-eyed optimism of New Years Resolutions was still fresh, and I deleted every social media app on my phone and spent the entire month with the 1984 mantra “ignorance is bliss”. 

By this time in the year, although I have my social media apps, I do set time limits on them. Now, I have grown accustomed to hitting “remind me in 15 minutes” on my timer while scrolling through Instagram with the same speed and gusto I tell my computer to “remind me tomorrow” about software updates, but I’m working on it. 

SETTING BOUNDARIES ISN’T SELFISH, IT’S SELF LOVE.

Positive Psychology – Great Self Care + Setting Healthy Boundaries

Psych Central – 10 Ways To Build & Preserve Better Boundaries

Psych Central – What Are Personal Boundaries & How Do I Get Some

Oprah – How To Set Boundaries

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” - Brene Brown