September is Self-Care Awareness Month. To observe it, every week we’re speaking with experts in mental health and wellness to offer actionable ways to practice self-care that prioritize emotional wellbeing.
If you’re on social media, you know that setting boundaries is currently in vogue. Whether you’re being encouraged to not overextend yourself at work when you’re not being compensated in the way you should, or instructed on ways to not allow yourself to have triggering conversations with meddling family members, we’re being encouraged to openly communicate and assert our values and needs in order to protect our peace. That’s a good thing. But how many people really hold firm to them?
If you’ve ever tried to set a boundary and felt bad for doing so because of how others reacted to them, causing you to second-guess your decision, you’re not alone. They call it “unearned guilt,” the idea that you’re taking blame for things completely out of your control. In this case, it would be feeling conflicted because another person might be bothered by the boundaries you set for yourself.
“Typically, people want to avoid conflict at all costs,” says Brandy Stinson LCSW of Stinson Counseling Services in Atlanta to ESSENCE. “Conflict feels uncomfortable. When we set boundaries, we risk a conflict taking place between ourselves and others with whom the boundaries are being set. So, to avoid conflict, we often avoid setting boundaries because we don’t want to face any type of backlash or negative emotional responses from others.”
But boundaries are crucial to self-care and have numerous benefits. They include an increased sense of self-worth, self-awareness and confidence. “It takes courage to be able to identify what is and is not working for you and then to advocate for your time, your space and your energy,” the clinical social worker says. “Each time you set a boundary without fear of backlash, you feel more empowered to take care of you without the guilt that is often attached.”
To jump through hoops to avoid making another individual feel bad about them means bypassing your own needs, including the aforementioned boosted levels of self-worth and confidence. Simply put, being a people-pleaser just won’t work. So while you may have to deal with some pushback over those boundaries initially, people should be able to get used to them (or they won’t, but will simply have to deal with it).
“Getting comfortable with setting boundaries means also getting comfortable with the fact that everyone is not going to ‘like’ them in the beginning but will adjust with time,” she says.
To help you not abandon your boundaries at the first sign of resistance, Stinson says focus on the reasons you’re setting them in the first place.
“You may tell yourself, ‘Gosh, this person doesn’t like that I can’t answer phone calls after 9 p.m. because that is my time to journal and wind down for bedtime. I feel like a terrible person because they aren’t able to call and vent.’ Instead, a more positive way to reframe those thoughts would be, ‘I want to be there for Susie, and I have in the past. Setting this boundary doesn’t make me a bad friend. It is the way that I can healthily stay connected to myself and to her because I am making my wellness a priority,'” she explains.
And in the end, remind yourself, and if necessary, others, that the boundaries you put in place are for the good of everyone.
“Boundaries are not bad!” she says. “Remember, we have boundaries in the road to both give us direction and prevent fatal accidents. We have the white and yellow lines to direct our steering to ensure we make it to our destination safely without harming others. Think of personal boundaries the same way.”
“They give direction to our time, energy and space while preventing accidents that could be the result of overextending or simply not caring for our mental and emotional wellness,” Stinson adds. “Boundaries protect you as well as others.”