When we think of "boundaries," we tend to think of restrictions and constraints—rules you have to stick to but that keep you from total freedom. The truth is that if you set healthy boundaries, based on values that are important to you, you can actually live truer to who you are.
Without boundaries, you'll often find yourself acting from a place of fear, resentment, and frustration with yourself and others. When you live by your rules, you'll allow experiences and people into your life in a way that keeps you happy and healthy. We often move through life doing what we think is expected of us, like striving for more money and the best career, or being the most popular with the biggest group of friends.
In following this prescribed pattern, you may actually be ignoring what matters most to you as an individual. If you're able to identify what's most important to you, you can set boundaries in your life that actually set you (and your time) free. All it takes for more happiness, productivity, and freedom is a set of rules—although that may sound counterintuitive, these boundaries will give you the ability to control what impacts your life, rather than letting life control you.
How do you know if you need to set some boundaries for yourself?
Take a look and see if any of these sound like you:
- You get really irritated when someone cuts you off in traffic, TV commercials drone on and on, or the barista misspells your name on your take-out coffee
- You've been feeling more resentment than love toward those you care about lately
- You consistently allow other peoples' needs to come before yours
- You struggle to make decisions
- You hate saying "no" to people and events
- You feel a lot of guilt and anxiety
If you saw yourself in any of these, don't worry—you're human! However, these emotional responses tend to stem from a fear of not being enough, not being lovable, and not succeeding, which do not have to rule our lives. You are enough, you are lovable, and you cannot fail just being you. I know that's easier to say than it is to hear, so let's move onto the next step—where you can take some action to make your life more the way you want it to be.
How to Set Boundaries
It may take a little time to identify which values are most important to you, but once they become clear, you'll be able to live life by your rules—and not what you think is expected of you. If you're ready for more freedom, productivity, and joy in your life, boundaries are well worth exploring.
1. Identify your values.
The simplest way to do this is to spend five minutes a day asking yourself, 'What is most important to me?' and jotting down anything and everything that comes to mind.
Take a moment to explore what each word really means to you. For example, if you say, "My career is important to me," your career could actually be standing in for financial freedom, creativity, or leadership—these are your core values. To kick-start the process, here are a few examples of core values for inspiration:
- Fun + excitement
2. Get down and dirty with your feelings.
Spend the next week being aware of how you feel: Every time you feel a heightened emotion brewing, tap into the situation. Rather than judging this emotion and yourself, be aware of where that feeling comes from. Having this awareness can help you identify the values that are most important to you, as our emotions are fabulous indicators of our subconscious.
Let's say you become overwhelmingly jealous of a friend who always seems to be doing fun things, going to the movies, eating at nice restaurants, and dressing up. This may indicate that you, in fact, value "fun and excitement," and may need to set some boundaries in your daily routine that help you live this value more fully.
Are you working too hard and never finding time for the fun stuff? Set boundaries that help you take time away from work to explore more fun events.
3. Create boundaries that help you honor these values.
Develop boundaries that help protect your top values. For instance, "calm" is right up there on my values list, so a new boundary I've implemented is to work out by myself. For so long, I'd thought the best way to stay fit and healthy was to go to a busy group class and push myself like everyone else. But I'd frequently get distracted and compare myself to everyone, which caused me a lot of anxiety. I just thought this was the normal way to go about it!
So now, I take the time to run in the park, check out yoga videos online, or create a circuit around my house. It's such a freeing feeling being in harmony with my values, in a peaceful space, without all the hustle and bustle of daily life. I no longer feel the restriction of trying to be like everyone else. The empowerment is almost tangible!
Make a list of boundaries you can set to help you better achieve your own list of values. Then, once you have an understanding of what boundaries you'd like to put into place, segment them out into three different categories: work, relationships, and self.
For work, you might have "make consistent space on the calendar for uninterrupted breaks." For relationships, you could explore "schedule in regular girls' nights." And for self, you might prioritize "make time for fun each week." Spend five minutes writing down the new boundaries you'd like to try out and bullet point the action steps to achieve them. Let's say "make time for fun each week" is a big thing for you. Your action steps might look a little like this:
- Create a list of cool activities
- Make time and space for at least one of these activities each week
- Create an alarm to stop what you're doing and start having fun!
It doesn't have to be complicated, but a plan helps you to stick with your goals. Start small and be patient with yourself—it's all a learning curve, and you're totally capable of owning some healthy boundaries. Start with one thing from one segment, master that, and then move onto the next. Simple.
4. Be prepared for people in your life to not respect your boundaries.
Once we set boundaries, people are going to push them—it's inevitable. So figure out what you want to do once that happens!
Let's say you set a boundary about your schedule, saying that your work hours are for work and your after-work hours are for you, your family, and friends. But one family member always wants to talk on the phone during your workday. Knowing that this person is going to keep asking to talk on the phone during your workday, send them a message with the hours that you're free. If you write down your planned responses, you'll know exactly how to respond once the situation arises—and it'll be a lower stress moment for you.
If your family member still urges the conversation, don't give them an ultimatum, just gently state you still have time for them and remind them of the hours you're free. Do this as many times as you have to! Along with the patience with yourself, have some patience with others. It may take a while for these new boundaries to be accepted, but what will ensue is a more respectful and balanced relationship.
If you give in to your family's needs above yours, you may end up feeling resentful and frustrated with that family member. Stick to your boundaries, and both parties win.
5. Remind yourself you are allowed to have boundaries.
No one is going to love you any less because you have decided to respect yourself! In fact, you'll find them loving you more. You're setting boundaries that allow for growth and healthy relationships—and don't we all want that? We all have a fear of not being loved, but healthy boundaries are fundamental to self-care. Without them, we often fall into burnout, resentment, and frustration because we allow others into our sacred mental and physical space.
Maybe alone time is important to you, but you're not getting much of it in your relationship. You might start to experience resentment bubbling up as you feel stuck and restricted. But if you express your need for one night a week alone, you'll end up being far more open and receptive to your partner, since you've given yourself the time and space to care for yourself and your needs first.
6. Start with small steps.
The next time someone asks something of you that oversteps one of your new boundaries, remind yourself that you don't have to say yes to them. If it feels hard at first and you give in, that's OK—next time will be easier. If you do find yourself faltering, remember your values and why they're important to you.
It sometimes helps to have someone that inspires you in mind—for example, I love Oprah Winfrey's no-nonsense attitude, so I'll think of her and remind myself to stick to my guns and stay true to myself.
You could also have a reward system in place: If you find yourself honoring your boundaries for a week, you could buy yourself some beautiful flowers or a massage to reinforce your positive efforts. Soon, defending your boundaries will become second nature.
Helen Sian India is a yoga teacher and life coach to ambitious, millennial women who can't relax. She's coached and taught overworked women all over the world to live a harmonious and beautiful life. She's here to show you it can be easy to live a peaceful life with meaning—and she can help you find your work/life balance sweet spot. Follow her on Instagram and check out her free wellness program.