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How to Set—and Maintain—Healthy Boundaries

Everyone can benefit from setting boundaries. Here are some tips on how to draw the line—and stay inside it.

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setting boundaries man spread thinPhoto: Shutterstock

Are you spread too thin?

Like a lot of health-care professionals, Dr. Brian Goldman finds it extremely difficult to draw boundaries between his work and personal lives. “There’s this view that you should suck it up and do one more thing,” says the Toronto-based ER physician and host of CBC’s White Coat, Black Art. But that “one more thing” often comes at Goldman’s expense.

“You’re exhausted and a patient or their family member looks at you with pleading eyes,” he says. “So you have this dilemma: do you say that your shift is over or do you give until you’re totally spent?”

Goldman’s work stress combined with family tension after his mother was diagnosed with dementia nearly 20 years ago. Caring for her over more than a decade was difficult, as was dealing with his father’s grief. “When someone else is drowning you, you have to grab a life preserver and save yourself,” says Goldman.

Pushing himself too hard for too long sometimes caused Goldman to feel burnt out. “You have a choice,” he says. “Do you break or do you start adopting some healthy limits?”

Setting boundaries isn’t just important for busy professionals; everyone can benefit from managing situations that cause undue stress or pain. Here are some tips on how to draw the line, and stay inside it.

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Identify your limits

It’s easy to become accustomed to a certain level of discomfort in our relationships. When we don’t stand up for ourselves, we can suffer from low self-esteem, which, in turn, leads to us seeing our limits as less important. But recognizing that you need—and have a right to—boundaries is crucial.

“If someone’s behaviour makes you unhappy—and it could be anything from the way they speak to you to repeatedly failing to adhere to their promises—then there’s room to set limits,” says Patrick Keelan, a psychologist in Calgary. He suggests that both your body and your mind will alert you to the need to set boundaries, whether it’s a feeling of tension or unease, a mood shift or repeated negative thoughts about a certain person or situation.

We often avoid setting limits because we prioritize the happiness and comfort of others over our own. In order to help combat this impulse, Goldman suggests framing the development of boundaries as a form of self-kindness. When faced with an overwhelming situation like the one he was in with his father, Goldman suggests reflecting on what is making you feel uncomfortable, unhappy or unappreciated. “The ever-present danger is that you don’t know where you end and the other person begins,” he says. “But you can’t empathize with others or be kind to others if you aren’t kind to yourself.”

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Communication is key

Once you’ve become more aware of your needs, setting and maintaining boundaries requires clear verbal communication. There are three obstacles to enforcing boundaries in a relationship: fear, guilt and self-doubt, says Toronto psychologist Nicole McCance. We often fear that if we impose limits, the other person will reject us, or we feel bad asserting our needs. “Guilt, in particular, is a heavy thing to sit with,” says McCance. “A lot of my clients end up doing something they don’t want to do because the guilt is worse [than doing it].”

Keelan proposes setting ground rules before relationships become fraught. Start by collaboratively listing values—like mutual respect, support, loyalty and honesty—and then building the guidelines from these values. A value of mutual respect, he says, could lead to a specific rule relating to boundaries around communication, like “When we disagree, we will only refer to actions and behaviours and refrain from making negative comments about each other’s character.” If you’re struggling to reach a consensus, Keelan recommends engaging a third party, such as a therapist, to help.

In the short term, it might seem easier to avoid having these conversations, but if you harbour frustrations for too long, resentment sets in. Keelan adds that these discussions may take more than a single exchange, and shifting concerns mean that you should consider boundary setting to be an ongoing conversation.

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setting boundaries saying noPhoto: Shutterstock

Say no—and mean it

If you want a boundary to stick, you can’t enable someone in breaking it. As such, it’s crucial to establish consequences for transgressions, including limiting communication with someone who won’t respect the parameters you’ve imposed. Otherwise, McCance says, “you’re giving them permission to violate that boundary.”

She recommends a three-pronged approach to deal with repeat offenders: assertively communicate your unmet needs; be clear and specific in asking for what you want; and let them know the impact their actions are having on you.

If they still won’t respect your boundaries, you have to do some soul-­searching about the value of the relationship. “When you feel bad more than you feel good in this person’s presence, and when the relationship is abusive or impacting your self-worth and happiness, then it’s time to reassess,” says McCance. Saying no is hard, but she suggests framing it as saying yes to healthier relationships. “We’re all better mothers and partners and brothers when we have boundaries.”

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Learn to say yes to yourself

In order to address his porous boundaries, Goldman adopted a multi-­faceted approach. First he looked for role models—people who could serve as positive examples of the kind of healthy balance he was seeking, such as an old friend who was good at voi­cing his needs. Second, he found a sounding board, in the form of his partner, Tamara, who keeps him in check when he starts taking on too much. And third, Goldman has found meditation, breathing and mindfulness helpful in calming anxieties and key to reflecting on the crucial divide between “me” and “we.”

Goldman has learned to scale back his need to please, checking in with himself before automatically taking on more commitments. “I had to realize I was trying to be the good guy by pleasing everyone, which is impossible,” he says. “As soon as I noticed this, I could articulate how far I was willing to go in providing help, and make sure my patient—or my loved one—knew. I could do less and still be considered helpful.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada