What healthy boundaries are and how to set them

Do you sometimes feel that you are giving too much—and then you feel bad even thinking that? Many of us are caught in this dilemma: We believe that helping others is what a good person does, and at the same time we feel overwhelmed and know we're not taking good care of ourselves.

Let me say this first: Healthy boundaries are vital.

I don't mean that only in the sense of "own oxygen mask first". It's definitely good advice, but think about it: By the time we are putting oxygen masks on ourselves and/or others, we are already in major trouble. Waiting until things go sideways and then prioritizing ourselves before helping others is not a great guideline for our everyday life. Selfishness 2.0 (the good kind) has to start a lot earlier.

So, what type of boundaries am I talking about?

There are different areas in which boundaries are important, but I would say time is key because it may well be the most important asset you have, and being considerate about our time is the best present we can make ourselves—and our loved ones.

But it is also super important to set boundaries when it comes to your emotions and energy. Do you have people in your life who have repeatedly hurt you or are inconsiderate or a total drain? Often (and especially if it's old friends or family members that come to mind), we feel we can’t say no. But at a certain point, that’s exactly what we need to do.

Also, values. If you allow others to ignore what truly matters to you, it will become harder for yourself to respect your values because they will play a less and less inherent role in your life. It’s time to take them back!

How can you set effective boundaries?

Be very clear with yourself what your boundaries are.

This is really about you and not about what you think your boundaries "should" be. Spend some time writing down what comes to mind, what’s acceptable or unacceptable and go from there. You’ll probably also come up with a gray zone of “tolerable”, which is perfectly fine. Life’s not all black and white.

You may want to distinguish between what you allow, what you don’t allow, and what you allow but don’t like. This way you can limit your exposure to certain behaviors and don’t have to dwell over others as you have made a pragmatic compromise of allowing them, even though you don’t care for them.

Communicate to others what your boundaries are.

Don’t expect people to know your boundaries if you’ve never had the conversation. We don’t all think alike and the vast majority of us are not skilled mindreaders. Plus, if you have only recently set boundaries and these are a big change from your previous behavior, you may need to explain why they matter to you. That might require you to dive a little deeper into your feeling of resentment or stress when you imagine the boundary being crossed. In turn, thank people who do respect your boundaries and make sure you respect theirs in turn.

And what’s the appropriate response when a boundary is crossed?

No matter how much it may hurt that someone crossed a boundary you feel you have communicated clearly, remain calm and kind when delivering your message. Make it clear that a boundary has been crossed, explain again why it matters, and ask for help in maintaining it. You may have to become very firm in asking for a certain behavior to stop.

Give yourself permission to feel what you feel.

This might involve guilt or self-doubt about having and communicating boundaries or fear of how others may respond. Acknowledge these feelings, but then move on. I know that’s easier said than done—like most things that matter—but it’s vital. Fact is, you are not telling others how to behave or what not to do. You are simply drawing a line at what you are willing to tolerate in your personal space. That’s a huge difference.

If you are struggling with this (and who doesn't, really?!), put a reminder on a sticky note or the lock screen of your phone or someplace else where you see it often and/or where it makes sense. Maybe something along the lines of "I value myself by having boundaries", or "I am building a healthy relationship with (person x) by saying no to (whatever the issue is)."

What are your most important boundaries and how can you ensure they are not being crossed?

Please share in the comments!