Setting boundaries is one of the best ways we can care for ourselves. According to clinical psychologist Therese Mascardo, PsyD, setting boundaries safeguards us from harm. She likened it to the front door of a house: We choose what and who we let into our world, and what and who we keep out.
And it’s much easier to protect ourselves when we’ve already put a boundary in place than trying to create a boundary when “something has already gone against what we want.”
That is, Mascardo said, “It’s much easier to simply close your front door than to leave it wide open and then chase out every unwanted bird, fly, or person that comes in uninvited.”
Similarly, when we leave the door wide open, “other people may make assumptions about what we are OK with, which can lead to confusion or harm.”
Plus, boundaries reduce resentment, frustration, anger, and sadness, said Mascardo, who offers therapy and leads courses and groups to help individuals thrive in the life of their dreams.
“Having boundaries means knowing and respecting your own limits and expressing and honoring those verbally, physically, emotionally, and energetically,” said Vanessa B. Tate, LMFT, LLC, a psychotherapist who works from a somatic psychotherapy lens with individuals and couples with complex trauma and early developmental attachment trauma in Denver, Colo., and the San Francisco Bay area.
What does this look like?
Tate shared these examples of boundaries that are critical components of self-care:
- physically adjusting yourself so you’re in comfortable proximity to others at a party or work event; and telling someone if they can or can’t touch you, whether this is during a date, or when you’re receiving bodywork (e.g., massage, acupressure, Reiki).
- sharing your opinion and speaking up in all situations, whether it’s at work or a social outing. For instance, your boss asks you to work later and later, and this starts infringing on your personal life, so you set a boundary that you won’t respond to emails after 8 p.m.
- not letting others tell you how you should be feeling—and instead “allowing whatever you’re feeling to move freely through you.” For instance, maybe someone tells you that you should be happy because of everything you have, and yet, you still feel sad or devastated or disappointed about something. You deserve to acknowledge your pain and process those feelings. Pushing them down will only make you feel worse—and ensure that your feelings linger.
- “Recognizing the energetic toll things like negative news, TV, social media, friends, family, and coworkers have on you and imagin[ing] a force field around you so you don’t internalize that bad mojo”; and limiting your time with these things and people.
Mascardo also stressed the importance of setting physical boundaries, and knowing that no one is entitled to any part of your body without your consent.
Another vital boundary is the one with time: “spending your time in a way that reflects your priorities and values.” One example, she said, is attending events because we truly want to, not out of obligation or fear of consequences.
Of course, many of us don’t set these kinds of boundaries because it’s not so easy. It’s hard to say no. It’s hard to assert ourselves. It’s hard to prioritize ourselves, especially if we haven’t done this lately (or in a long time—like forever).
Mascardo suggested learning to listen to our gut. “Allow yourself a moment to see how you feel about something before saying ‘yes.’ Take special care to notice if you’re feeling uneasy about something and honor what you’re feeling by investigating further.”
To set boundaries with time, plan out your week, and make sure your calendar reflects your priorities. Start by writing in what you’d like to do (because it nourishes your well-being, your soul): a lunch date with a friend, a favorite yoga class, a morning walk in the woods. And as Mascardo said, “Then—and here’s the tricky part—stick to it.”
Mascardo emphasized giving ourselves permission to say no. If this feels foreign and awkward to you, she suggested jotting down “a list of different ways to say no that you can practice and get more comfortable with. Saying ‘no’ is like using a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger you get.”
She shared these examples of alternatives to saying no: “I’ll think about it.” “Not this time.” “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” “I wish I could, but I’m not able to.” “Thanks for thinking of me, but I won’t be able to.” “Sorry, but I don’t think that will work for me.” “Hey, look! Something shiny!” (and then run away)… (Juuuust kidding!)
For people who struggle with setting boundaries, Tate suggested starting by “learning what codependence looks like in action so you can consciously make other choices, and reading Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg to learn assertiveness skills.”
Tate also noted that starting to set boundaries with strangers can feel less intimidating. One small, and still powerful, step is to move further away from people in the elevator.
Ultimately, when we set boundaries, I think what we’re really doing is saying to ourselves, I am here for you. I am here to protect you. I am here to take you seriously. I am here, and I’ve got your back.
And what could be more important, more supportive, more self-compassionate than that?