Of the many terms that have successfully migrated from therapy sessions into everyday parlance, boundaries is among the most popular.
And if it was a buzzword before the pandemic, it feels all the more pertinent now that the lines between your life compartments have – if not disintegrated - then become increasing blurry.
But as with so much of therapy-speak, there remains a huge amount of confusion as to what boundaries are – and what they aren’t. And the benefits of being clued-up go beyond sounding clever at brunch.
What is a boundary?
‘Boundaries set limits for what the people in your life can expect from you,' says psychotherapist Lorraine Green, referring to everyone from your boss to your best friend and your mother-in-law. 'When people respect your boundaries, you feel heard and understood and the same is true in reverse.'
It’s this emphasis on expectation that makes boundaries such a useful tool to have in your armoury right now. Because if expectation has a season, it’s this one.
Throw in the shattered expectations of last Christmas and the anticipatory anxiety over where you’ll be and when this year is growing faster than delicately-worded cancellations for Christmas parties.
As for the consequences of giving in to everyone else’ expectations at the expense of your own, they can be significant.
‘When your boundaries are poor, you can find that you end up giving away all of your time and energy. This means you can burnout quickly, without ever really knowing why,’ warns clinical psychologist Dr Sophie Mort, author of A Manual for Being Human.
So fundamental are boundaries to your emotional wellbeing that many psychologists believe they’re the building blocks of your self-esteem and self-worth. Here’s how to build them with colleagues, family and friends.
How do I build a boundary while working from home?
Perhaps you’ve been working from home since the start of the pandemic. Maybe you pivoted to a hybrid model. Or perhaps you became a TWT – the acronym afforded to those who work from an office on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays – before we all got told to work from home if we can all over again.
The construction of this boundary begins with managing the expectations of those in your 'office', says Nir Eyal, productivity expert and author of Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life.
‘One of the most simple but effective techniques you can adopt is to use a work schedule that you then share with your colleagues,’ he says.
‘This should build in time for both reflective work and reactive work - the emails, the slack notifications, the calls. Everyone’s job has some degree of reactive work, but if you don’t make time for the reflective work by scheduling it – and then protecting it – it’s going to get crowded out.’
Next, turn your attention to building boundaries within the walls of your home. While sharing your work schedule with your partner and your children can help, Eyal also recommends introducing a visible cue that you’re working.
‘I call it a “concentration crown”. Find the most ridiculous hat you own and let you spouse and/or children know that when you're wearing it, you can't be disturbed. By doing this, you're sending a very clear signal to those around you that you're not to be interrupted.'
The final part falls to you. Dr Mort suggests implementing 'corridor activities' that serve the same function as a commute. 'If you’re not in an office, going for a walk before work can give you the break you need, while exercising or calling a friend can help clearly signal the end of the working day,' she explains.
An intentional slamming shut of your laptop can deliver a real dose of satisfaction, too.
How do I build a boundary around my health goals?
An afternoon run derailed by a call from a friend, out-of-hours work eating into your weekly therapy slot or yet another booked, then cancelled, class – because you couldn’t find the motivation to go. It's never felt more important to prioritise your health, so why does it feel so hard?
Communicating your health boundaries with someone starts with understanding why the thing you need to make time for - be that a workout, a meditation class or even a Sunday afternoon without plans - is so valuable to you.
Chartered sport psychologist Dr Josie Perry suggests writing down your own goals and why you're working to achieve them, before explaining this to those around you.
‘Understanding your motivation for doing something will help them to see the impact is has on you, as opposed to them,' she explains. 'This means they’re less likely to take it personally.'
If you're the one who needs reminding that your health takes priority, building a routine can be useful. Take workouts, for example.
'If you train at a certain time each day, it's easier to communicate that to the other people who make demands on your time, whether that's your partner, your kids or your colleagues,' adds Perry.
'This limits your chances of bailing on your workout because of outside distractions, while also training your brain and body to expect to exercise during a certain window.'
How do I build a boundary with a family member?
So much emphasis on families at this time of year can lead to an assumption that your blood relatives should take priority over everything – and everyone – else.
You might be grappling with where to spend Christmas. Perhaps you’re debating how long to spend with relatives or even how much to spend on gifts. Having healthy boundaries with your loves ones begins with setting a limit on what you're able to do, then commutating that to those around you.
'Work out how much time you're willing - and able - to give away, then communicate this clearly,' says Green. As for dealing with any resistance you might meet, it helps to understand your motivation, so you can explain it to others.
More important still is that you stay true to your word. 'The peacemakers in families are often the people-pleasers, so it can be hard not do what someone wants you to,' adds Green.
Remember, keeping your boundaries doesn’t mean you’re not being kind or respectful of your relationships – in fact doing so will probably only strengthen them in the long run.
And when the guilt comes a knocking, Green has this advice: 'As long as you can answer "yes" to the question "Am I being reasonable?", there’s no need to feel guilty.'
How do I build a boundary with my partner?
A big sign that you need to put up - and protect - boundaries in a relationship is when your partner repeatedly acts in a way that bothers you.
'It's essential for maintaining your self-respect as an individual in the context of your coupling,' Green explains. ‘You don’t always have to explain why you’re asking something of your partner, but it can help them understand you more clearly.'
It's important to remember that boundaries need building - and tending to - at any stage of a relationship, particularly after a big change, like moving in together or having a baby, adds Neil Wilkie, psychotherapist and creator of The Relationship Paradigm course.
‘Any big change is an important time to review your boundaries - reflect on how the new situation has affected you both and your dynamic, then jointly work through what changes are needed in response,' he explains.
How do I build a boundary with my friend?
If friends are the family you choose, what you do when your so-called chosen sibling is asking too much of you?
That friendships involve a different dynamic to family relationships make them uniquely difficult to navigate, says Green, who advises setting your boundaries around when you feel you can be there for them, fully.
‘It may not need to be a direct “No,” but it's important to make it clear that you can’t drop everything to talk to them that instant,’ she explains.
Widening their support network could be helpful for the both of you. If you’re planning a coffee to talk it over, you might want to suggest a couple of mutual friends join you.
That way, you can share the load with others, while giving your friend a perspective that isn't just yours. Next time, she might feel close enough to reach out to them instead.
Feel like they’re just not getting it? Someone constantly overstepping any boundary is frustrating - so protect it. ‘It needn’t be a full ultimatum, but you may need to be more assertive than you're used to being if they don’t start respecting the boundary you set.'
If you don't, she warns, not only will you delete your energy reserves, you may risk your relationship, too. Good friends will get it.
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