By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 53 and this week I’m talking about boundaries – I’ll be discussing why boundaries matter for your mental health, and how to set and maintain healthy boundaries. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- Boundaries can be defined simply as what you will and will not allow in your life.
- Having and maintaining boundaries is important for your wellbeing because if you don’t define what you will and won’t accept then other people may decide it for you and may even take advantage until you have nothing left to give.
- Boundaries can be flexible and they may not necessarily be a one-size-fits-all; it’s entirely personal and up to you.
- Some examples of boundaries are not being taken advantage of, not being taken for granted, not taking responsibility for another person’s actions or having to ‘look after’ them, not accepting abuse of any kind, etc.
- If your boundaries are repeatedly being ignored or violated, it’s important to call it out and to both implement and follow through on consequences.
Boundaries. The very word might make some of you recoil in horror because you might think I’m about to go all Dr-Phil-daytime-talk-show-host and waffle on about a whole bunch of airy-fairy ideas… which I’m not, because boundaries are real, they are important, and they are something that will most definitely help you to maintain good mental health and wellbeing. The term ‘boundaries’ can often seem a bit self-help-y (in the sense that it’s one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, especially by people who seem to consider themselves experts but who don’t actually have any formal training…
For me the idea of setting and maintaining boundaries is about not putting up with shit from anyone — including myself — and not tolerating things that will do harm to my mental health and wellbeing… which is a pretty broad way of looking at it, and I’ll be exploring this in a lot more detail this episode. But since I’m always thinking about what is the most simple way to do things (because given a choice between simplicity and complexity, simplicity wins every time with me because I just don’t see the point of making life more difficult than it needs to be!), I thought it would make sense to just be super-blunt about it upfront; you always have a choice about what you will and won’t accept from other people and from yourself, so that’s the focus of today’s episode. Let’s start with some definitions.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries can be defined simply as what you will and will not allow in your life. Think about a house: most houses have fences, which are a clear signal to other people (and yourself) to show where your space begins and ends, and it sends a message that being in that space requires your permission. It’s not about building walls to keep people out (unless you’re really antisocial and decide to go all electrified-fence and barbed-wire), but instead about providing clarity on what your limits are. The psychological definition of ‘boundaries’ is really no different: it’s about setting parameters and limits on what you will and will not accept.
I tend to also look at boundaries as something you set with other people and something you set with yourself, in terms of what behaviours (etc.) you will/won’t accept from yourself or from others. You might have particular boundaries at work that are different to your home life, or the way you interact with your friends could be wildly different to how you interact with family members. Boundaries can be flexible and they may not necessarily be a one-size-fits-all — for example, I don’t talk about finances with most people but one of my aunts and I talk about stuff like that all the time; again, it’s something that might flex and change depending on who you’re interacting with and the type of relationship you have, combined with how much you’re willing to let them have access to specific parts of yourself.
I see boundaries as being a big part of that ‘prevention is better than cure’ thing I talk about a lot in this program, because what you’re doing is consciously identifying what you will and will not accept then turning those limits into something more tangible for the benefit of yourself today and in the future; sometimes you might be setting boundaries in a reactive way (e.g. To address a relationship issue you’re dealing with) but it’s still proactive in the sense that you’re (hopefully) drawing a line in the sand and saying “this far and no further”.
Boundaries are most commonly linked with our relationships, whether romantic or platonic, friend or family, etc., and it’s often our closest relationships where we can struggle to set or maintain our limits (or both). My thing on this is that I love my family and friends dearly, but I’m also not going to tolerate crap, so like I said back in Episode 19: Family it can sometimes become necessary to distance yourself if things are toxic; just because someone is a relative, whether by blood or marriage, that doesn’t automatically give them unrestricted access to you at the detriment of your mental health and wellbeing; you can choose what limits you set and how you enforce them (and I’ll come back to that a little later).
Let me give you an example of a simple one that I use. With the work I do I find myself often receiving DMs or emails asking me to work with people I’ve never met or, more commonly, people wanting to be interviewed on my show or wanting me to promote a product or service. Now, I rarely do promotions unless it’s something I actually use and believe in, so that’s 99.9% of requests immediately going into the ‘no’ pile, and as for interviews… well, anyone who has ever actually listened to the show would be well aware that I don’t do interviews on Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and, to be frank, it pisses me off when people contact me wanting me to interview them and it’s really obvious they’ve never even been to my website, let alone actually listened to the show). I have a standard response that I use now (which is basically a polite “thanks but no thanks, interviews aren’t part of what this show is about”); I used to write a longer spiel about why but now I’ve learned to just politely say no and then it’s up to the other person to do with that what they will.
The thing about boundaries is that sometimes you just have to say no for the sake of your own mental and emotional wellbeing, even if that feels uncomfortable. Saying no is something I’ve had to work at because I’m prone to a bit of people-pleasing even though I’m quite assertive… and when it comes to feeling comfortable with saying ‘no’ to something that doesn’t fit within your boundaries, like all things it takes time and practice.
For me, a lot of this comes back to this simple point: you have to do what’s right for you. Now there’s a fine line between looking after yourself and being selfish, and you know that I always talk about giving more than you take (as well as doing no harm and being kind) but those things apply to yourself as well as the way you treat other people.
When it comes to setting boundaries, you have to be mindful of how much capacity you actually have to be able to share with others. That capacity may ebb and flow depending on what’s going on, but ultimately you can only give what you can give. If you’re running on empty and you have nothing left to give, then you have to take care of your immediate needs and honour your boundaries before you can hope to interact with anyone else in a way that is not detrimental to your mental health.
I think that leads fairly nicely into the next part of today’s episode…
Why are boundaries important for your mental health and wellbeing?
Normally I start this section with something from a quality mental health source (and never fear, I will be quoting some shortly because that’s a boundary that’s important to me on this show — everything needs to be grounded in quality research, not just my opinions), but I’m going to start by saying a few things that are hopefully common sense but most of you listening will probably know me and my bluntness by now (and if you’re new here: hi! Prepare yourself for a few very-direct statements!), so here are a few fundamental things about good mental health and wellbeing that come up quite often in Let’s Talk About Mental Health which help to clarify, in no uncertain terms, why boundaries are so important…
- If you don’t define what you will and won’t accept, other people will decide it for you and may even take advantage until you have nothing left to give.
- If you don’t like something and you don’t do something to either change it or change the way you interact with it (for example, choosing to stay at a job that makes you miserable rather than looking for a new job), that is 100% on you.
- If somebody takes advantage of you and you either don’t set and enforce boundaries with them or if there aren’t any consequences if they breach your boundaries, that is also 100% on you. You can request other people to do or say things (or not do or not say things) but you cannot control them, just as they cannot control you; all you can control is what you do, say and feel (and, especially, what you do with your feelings).
Some of this might seem a bit controversial or overly-blunt, however let’s not tiptoe around this here and pretend that we don’t have choice about what we tolerate from other people or even from ourselves; that’s like me shoving a cupcake in my mouth and then saying it’s the manufacturer’s fault for making them so delicious (side note here: I’m actually making some positive progress with getting my emotional eating back under control, so there certainly won’t be any cupcakes in my near future, but anyway…!).
Boundaries matter because they spell out, to ourselves and others, what we will and won’t put up with in terms of things that have a direct effect on our mental health and wellbeing. If there’s someone who is always nasty to you, you don’t have to put up with that shit; my view on things is to always at least try to address the issue (because we shouldn’t just cut people off without first making them aware of their behaviour and how it impacts you, and giving them an opportunity to change) but it’s that old saying “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” in action… boundaries are worthless if they aren’t adhered to and if there aren’t consequences for breeching our boundaries.
According to Healthline (link: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/set-boundaries#boundary-basics-and-benefits), some of the benefits of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries include:
- Better self-esteem
- Better relationships
- Conserving your emotional energy
- More independence and space to grow as a person
According to PositivePsychology.com (link: https://positivepsychology.com/great-self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/):
“Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care… [because] poor boundaries [can] lead to resentment, anger, and burnout… More generally, the consequences of not setting healthy boundaries [can] often include stress, financial burdens, wasted time, and relationship issues, which can cause mental distress… In other words, a lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect all aspects of someone’s life.”
Like I said, the link for that is in the transcript, however before I move on let me just read one more sentence which I think sums up what I’ve been saying so far:
“Setting healthy boundaries can have many benefits, including helping people make decisions based on what is best them, not just the people around them.”
So with that in mind, let’s jump into the how-to part of today’s episode…
How to set and maintain boundaries
- Reflect — consider what is important to you, what’s working, what’s not working, what makes you feel comfortable vs. uncomfortable, etc., and think about what types of boundaries might need to be looked at. Some examples of boundaries are not being taken advantage of, not being taken for granted, not taking responsibility for another person’s actions or having to ‘look after’ them, not accepting abuse of any kind — emotional, mental, verbal, financial or physical abuse, not being devalued or disrespected for who you are or what you believe in (regular listeners, you know my thoughts here: if you do no harm, are kind and give more than you take then it doesn’t matter whether you follow a particular religion or no religion at all, or if you believe in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for that matter… you do you!)
- Listen to your feelings and your gut — if something or someone makes you feel uneasy or uncomfortable or unhappy, and especially if it happens a lot, then that’s a sign. Your gut knows things way earlier than your logical brain does and so it’s important to follow your instincts. For example, if you resent having to do something or having to spend time with someone, that’s a pretty strong sign that things are not good and so it’s up to you to identify what is happening, why it’s happening and, most importantly, what you’re going to do about it. Which leads us to…
- Be direct and assertive — not everyone is comfortable being as direct as I can be, but even if you are that doesn’t mean you’re like that all the time; there are many types of conversations or situations that make me feel cringe-y or like I just want to avoid confrontation altogether. The thing to remember though is that if you don’t ask, you don’t get… meaning that if you want things to change then you need to take the wheel and steer things towards where you want them to go. Check out Episode 45 for more on Assertiveness and I’d also recommend last week’s episode about change, Episode 52… also when it comes to relationships, especially romantic or intimate ones, I’d suggest you check out Episode 38 for more about boundaries and relationships. If you need to say no to something, say no (and you don’t have to apologise or justify why you’re saying no; just be polite)
- When you’re identifying boundaries, be fair and reasonable — for example, you might not like your partner doing something but provided it isn’t doing any harm just let them get on with things. Boundaries must be mutually respectful and again I remind you that in all things our focus should be to do no harm (to ourself or others), to be kind (to ourselves and others), and to give more than we take (again, that means ourselves and others). Remember it’s not just about taking; life is about give and take.
- Decide what you will and won’t give your attention to — where your attention goes is always your choice. Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel shitty about yourself. Block people who bully you. Stop reading stuff about politicians or public figures who spew hatred and try to whip the public up into a frenzy. Don’t like how toxic Twitter is and how they allow anyone to say pretty much anything they want and call it ‘freedom of speech’ instead of recognising the clear distinction between hatred and free speech? Don’t go on Twitter! Even better, delete your account! Another example is setting limits with how you interact with the news cycle; I’m sorry, but nobody needs to be informed 24/7 and we certainly don’t need every little event overanalysed and combined with opinion pieces. When it comes to how much news you expose yourself to, you’re in control. My point is that you can choose to set boundaries around what you will and won’t do (that’s an example of the ‘setting boundaries with yourself’ bit that I mentioned earlier) and then it’s up to you to stick to it.
- Speaking of, use available tools and resources that help you to maintain your boundaries — when I was researching this episode I found quite a lot of websites were bombarding me with auto-play videos and things flashing in the corner, to the point where I had to keep reminding myself to use Apple’s ‘Reader View’ feature (which is an absolute blessing to help you focus and avoid sensory overload). You might need to set a timer on your phone to remind you to keep calls with that overly-chatty and long-talking friend to a set timeframe so you can get on with your day, or you might need to use software on your computer that prevents you from taking a sneaky peek at social media for a set period of time when you’re supposed to be working.
- If you find boundary-setting difficult, get support if you need it — working with a counsellor or therapist can help you to work through different issues as well as exploring ideas for how to tackle challenging situations (something you can sort through in a safe space with a person who isn’t going to judge you or be weighed down by emotions!).
- Stick to your boundaries and provide positive recognition, reinforcement and encouragement when your boundaries are respected — even just a simple “thank you” can go a long way in terms of saying, “I see what you’re doing, thanks for respecting me.”
Now I left that one until last because it flows nicely into a few final bits here, the first being: what do you do if your boundaries aren’t being respected? Here are a few tips…
When your boundaries aren’t being respected, you can…:
- Respond calmly, rationally and non-judgementally — don’t just let it go, because that’s silently endorsing the behaviour. Even if you don’t like confrontation, it needs to be addressed or it will become a much bigger issue. As I often say, deal with issues while they’re still small so they don’t have a chance to grow into huge problems that are harder to resolve or which might cause more damage to your mental health and wellbeing.
- Call out what has happened (e.g. We agreed to do this, however it’s not happening), explain how you feel (again, be calm and rational), and restate your wants and needs
- Decide on your limits (e.g. Three strikes and you’re out), communicate them and stick to them
- Implement and follow through on consequences (e.g. I’m not going to be able to talk to you for a couple of weeks because I need some space to process what has happened OR I need to see actual sustained change otherwise I won’t be able to continue seeing you); notice it’s about stating (and restating) needs, not making demands or giving ultimatums (because that’s emotional manipulation)
- If the other person is breaking the boundary repeatedly, call out the behaviour (e.g. “I have asked you several times not to do this and each time you say you’ll respect my wishes, however within a week or two we’re back at the same place as though we hadn’t agreed to make this change. I will not tolerate any further instances of this.”)
- Be consistent. Don’t just apply the boundary sometimes (e.g. If you have kids, the boundaries you set need to be in place 100% of the time and they should be fairly and consistently applied to all, otherwise you’re sending a clear message that the boundary is not serious… the same applies with friends, family members, neighbours, co-workers, etc.)
- Know (and respect) the difference between ghosting and maintaining your boundaries. Please don’t ghost people; if you have an issue or your needs aren’t being met, communicate that… don’t just stop talking to the person and never answer their messages or whatever, because that’s just mean. It’s horrible when someone stops talking to you and you have no idea why, so if you wouldn’t want to be treated like that then don’t do it to other people. Look, I’m no saint and I have to admit I’ve done it before in the past when I’ve been really pissed off at someone, but I make a point now of not doing it and instead I focus on setting and maintaining my boundaries which is a much fairer and kinder approach.
A quick note here also about respecting other people’s boundaries. I’ve talked about give and take extensively and so it’s important to remember that each of us has our own limits of what we feel comfortable with, so please be mindful of other people and be courteous. That doesn’t mean you have to tiptoe around them, just be respectful; for example, pay attention to verbal or physical cues (e.g. If someone is moving away from you that might mean you’re in their personal space, which is different for each of us in terms of what we’re comfortable with). I also suggest to be aware that some cues (e.g. Lack of eye contact) may actually be cultural norms (e.g. some Indigenous Australians may tend to avoid eye contact) or it might potentially be a sign of neurodiverse behaviours (e.g. Those on the autism spectrum). Probably the most straightforward way to respect other people’s boundaries is to simply ask; never just assume, and if you’re not sure then just ask… even if it feels awkward to ask, often it can lead to a much more pleasant outcome and avoid misunderstandings.
And finally, we’re heading towards a time of year when we often find ourselves spending more time with our extended family. Now, let’s be honest: for many of us, the holidays are going to look very different this year and it is what it is, so you may need to stick to your boundaries even more so than normal especially if, for example, you feel pressured to attend a family thing in person but might not feel comfortable with that due to the pandemic (and to anyone feeling a bit triggered by that line of discussion, especially if you’re in lockdown at the minute and not sure if you’ll be able to see people in person for the holidays — you have my utmost empathy and I know this is a trying time for many of us, so take things one day at a time and focus on what is within your direct control)… Look, with so many big events happening this year — like COVID-19 and the US elections — it is very possible that even if you are with family you might find yourself in difficult situations because of the shall we say ‘variety of different beliefs’ people have… I talked about a lot of this stuff back in Episode 11 (The Holidays) and Episode 19 (Family) so I would recommend checking those out if you haven’t already (you can either listen to the full episode on your preferred podcast service or read the full transcript at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes), however the main thing I want to say here is to set your boundaries in a fair, kind and thoughtful way (I mean, don’t just be an arsehole and tell everyone to piss off — that’s not a boundary, that’s being obnoxious!) but also don’t put yourself in an unnecessarily vulnerable position.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to boundaries and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: You’re in control of what you will and won’t allow in your life, and a big part of looking after your mental health is respecting yourself. When you set limits on what you will and won’t accept, and stick to them, you’re treating yourself with kindness and respect… which in turn is going to help you to treat others with kindness and respect. Like all things, boundaries take work and regular effort to set and maintain, and by doing so you’ll find yourself better equipped to address issues and keep yourself focused on your personal growth and satisfaction.
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“If someone throws a fit because you set boundaries, it’s just more evidence the boundary was needed.”Unknown
Next week I’ll be talking about trust. Trust is something that goes hand-in-hand with boundaries and it’s an absolutely fundamental part of good relationships, so next week I’ll be discussing what trust is, why it’s the foundation of every relationship you’ll ever have in your life, and how to build and maintain trust.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 23rd November in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; the evening of Sunday 22nd November in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 22nd November in the US, Canada, Central America and South America.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.
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Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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