How to Set Boundaries for Better Mental Health and Self-Care

By Lauren Presutti

Do you ever find yourself consumed by the needs of other people? Do you ever sacrifice your own needs to show up for someone else? Or have you ever felt socially drained or overextended when you are supposed to be enjoying time with people? It’s important to remember our reasons for engaging in activities. Are you doing a favor for someone because you genuinely want to help, or do you feel obligated and pressured to help even when your own needs are neglected? Are you showing up to a social gathering because you will enjoy yourself, or are you simply afraid of telling others you won’t be able to attend? We have to check in with ourselves and determine these answers on a regular basis to avoid becoming socially burned out. For many of us, we often fall into the trap of people-pleasing so easily that it becomes our automatic nature to accommodate ourselves to the needs and preferences of others. But at what cost?

If you struggle with people-pleasing, if you find it hard to say no to requests, or if you genuinely feel like you are always giving into other people without benefiting much in return, it might be helpful to reevaluate your social boundaries. Social boundaries are the limitations that we set within our social environments to protect our needs.

Understanding how to set boundaries is important because this practice allows us to protect our energy and define our roles in relationships. In essence, our boundaries are a form of our self-care. They are healthy and necessary because they prevent burnout and resentment. For example, if we continuously let other people take advantage of us – even in small ways, such as making us feel obligated to do favors for others at the expense of our own needs – we will likely experience a reduction of quality in the relationship. Each and every person has a capacity for how much energy they can give to other people. It’s not fair when other people expect us to overextend ourselves to them and it’s also not fair when we expect others to do the same.

We may put limitations on how much time we spend with people, how much time we volunteer ourselves to others, or how much we talk with others about certain subjects. For example, you might choose to limit your social time if you enjoy having time to yourself to recharge. You might avoid talking about politics or religion with your coworkers. Or you might have social boundaries when it comes to family holiday time. Boundaries do not mean cutting people or things out of your life, but rather boundaries are about setting realistic limits to keep yourself – or the relationships – healthy.

Many people feel uncomfortable setting boundaries because they may have received unspoken messages growing up about the importance of helping others and being amenable to other people. For example, most of us were taught to share with others, to be selfless, to be humble, and to volunteer our abilities to other people in need. Although it is certainly an attractive quality to be giving toward others – a quality that many people take pride in, and one that fosters kindness in our communities – we have to be very careful about that narrative so that it does not become a slippery slope leading to the overextension of ourselves to the point of burnout. We have to be careful about holding a generalized assumption about selflessness always being a good thing. It’s good to help each other in life, but we should never overextend ourselves to other people when it is doing harm to ourselves. In other words, we don’t need to set ourselves on fire to keep others warm.

If you don’t have any practice setting boundaries, now is the time to start. The following are some examples of how you might communicate a boundary:

“Thank you for your opinion, but this is my decision.”
“I don’t look at work emails past 6 PM.”
“I need a break from this problem, I’ll come back to it later.”
“I can only attend for one hour, then I have to leave.”
“I’m not comfortable talking for or about this person, please directly ask them.”
“Thank you for asking, but I am unable to do that for you.”
“I need some time to myself to recharge this weekend.”

It’s equally important to practice respecting the boundaries of other people. This allows other people room to exercise their boundaries and in return, they will be more likely to respect our boundaries as well. So how can we respond to the boundaries of others? Below are some examples:

“I hear where you’re coming from and I understand.”
“Okay, no problem, thank you for letting me know.”
“We feel differently, but I respect your decision.”
“I will miss you, but I’m glad you are taking care of yourself.”
“It sounds like you’re making a good decision for you, and that’s important.”

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We’re here for YOU. Please don’t hesitate to call or text us at (248) 717-1232 or email lauren@riveroakspsychology.com to schedule an online counseling appointment. Your mental health matters.