From setting boundaries to telling a loved one or friend they need to give you space, it can be difficult to express to people what you need from them to feel emotionally healthy and happy. Also, setting limits with people can be even more difficult when you are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But sometimes, making your boundaries clear with those around you is necessary for you to feel safe and comfortable.
Recently, ProHealth spoke to two mental health professionals to get tips on the best way to start the healthy practice of setting boundaries and how to implement it into your daily routine.
What are Emotional Boundaries?
Emotional boundaries are markers you’ve put in place to set apart your thoughts and feelings from those of others — they protect you from expending too much energy on relationships that aren’t mutually reciprocated and lessen the urge to become involved or solve other people’s problems.
Additionally, an emotional boundary is a way to give yourself a break and assess your feelings about a situation in a judgment-free manner. You’re not obligated to take on other people’s thoughts or feelings or offer advice.
“Setting boundaries with other people allows you to understand your limits. Adhering to your boundaries increases your self-esteem, self-worth, and allows you to take the time you need to take care of yourself,” said Dr. Michael Stokes, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Doctor in Professional Counseling and Supervision.
One of the most rewarding parts of any relationship is being able to set limits and ask for what you need. For some people, this useful life-skill may be a challenge and will likely require some practice. However, once you’re able to pin down these key aspects, that’s half the battle. The other half of it is learning how to articulate those needs to others and staying firm with the limits you set.
1. Start Small
Trying to do what’s best for yourself when you are dealing with anxiety and depression can be overwhelming. Then, trying to learn how to set boundaries on top of that can feel like one more item on your crushing to-do list. One way that you can begin implementing this healthy practice into your daily life is by trying to set boundaries around small, attainable goals.
“Try to start with some minor boundary issues. For example, you may want to talk to family, friends, coworkers, and others in your life about starting to implement setting boundaries. They may help you stay accountable…anticipate you may start to set boundaries within those relationships,” Dr. Stokes explained.
Keeping it simple and having achievable objectives in your day-to-day life can help you stay on track. Plus, by thinking about your boundaries on a minor scale, they’re less likely to add to the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Once you have those smaller limits in place, you can start to tackle the more significant issues in your life as you gain self-esteem from achieving your goals.
2. Don’t Feel Guilty
When you start to set boundaries with friends and loved ones in your life, you may begin to feel guilty, or feelings of self-doubt or worry creep in. Thoughts such as “they won’t like me if I do this,” “I don’t want to let my friend down,” or “I’m not able to do this,” may start to bubble up. Don’t stress. Take a deep breath, look at the bigger picture, imagine yourself moving passed this moment, versus focusing heavily on the smaller details that may be the source of your worry. Remember, you are setting boundaries because you are worth it, and you’re learning about yourself in the process and asking for what you need.
“Guilt becomes a problem, especially if you are setting boundaries with those you love or if you are the kind of person who wants people to like you. Then, there is the discomfort that comes with conflict, because, let’s face it, people can become upset when you start setting boundaries. Frankly, that can be really uncomfortable,” said psychiatrist Dr. Nicole Washington, D.O., MPH.
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Dr. Washington also noted, “If the guilt comes from an underlying depression or the concern about upsetting someone comes from an innate need to be liked, those things should be dealt with with a mental health professional.”
3. Practice Makes Perfect
The more you do anything, the better you get at it, and the same can be said of boundary setting. Sometimes, having a conversation about your limits can be uncomfortable, but it must be done to help you gain the emotional stability and strength you need for overall healthier relationships. One way to help you achieve a better sense of comfort and ease around the idea of putting boundaries in place is to practice.
“Most of the time you know who you are going to have to set boundaries with, so practice what you are going to say. Practice in the mirror or practice with your therapist, but just practice. It will help with confidence and help you be assertive when it is time to move into action,” Dr. Washington said.
Knowing what you’re going to say beforehand can take some of the pressure off of the possibility of having an uncomfortable conversation and help you formulate a game plan.
4. Have an accountability buddy
Having someone who is clued into the kinds of goals you have surrounding boundary setting can be really beneficial. It can keep you on track and focused on your intentions for creating personal limits. By having someone to check in with from time to time, you can share your victories and learn from one another’s experiences. You might also find that an accountability buddy can support you when things get rough and give you the nudge you need to keep going.
5. It’s OK to Say No
When you are dealing with the larger stressors of life combined with symptoms of anxiety and depression, taking care of yourself is even more vital. One way you might practice self-care and boundary setting is by saying no to a social event, a friend, or even, to a work assignment that may cause you to feel stressed out or frazzled.
“Many times, people think they must do whatever others ask, and if they do not, other people may form a set of beliefs about why they might say no,” Dr. Stokes said.
Furthermore, Dr. Stokes stated that people often feel they must have a good excuse to say no. But communicating your boundaries in a concise, direct, clear manner isn’t the equivalent of being unsupportive or difficult.
Knowing your limits and being able to articulate them allows you to grow as a person and be able to take the necessary steps to do what is most beneficial for you.
Although setting boundaries requires some effort, there are many benefits to mastering this practice. Overall, it will improve your self-esteem, and it will also assist with the quality of your relationships. Taking a step back and evaluating the essential people and circumstance in your life will make you aware of your blind spots and toxic relationships. When you are able to weed those out, you’ll feel more in control of your life, and hopefully, with time and practice, the symptoms of anxiety and depression will improve.
Anni Irish is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in various publications including Salon, Broadly, Vice, Men’s Health, and The Village Voice among others.