I’m coming off of the Labor Day Weekend and spent the day itself canning some lovely tomatoes and reflecting on why Labor Day is important to us, as Americans. We’re celebrating the power that people have when they organize. It’s also about honoring those who fought to give us the rights we have as workers and mourn for those we lost before rules were in place. And when I think about what caused things to change, I really start to think about boundaries. Laborers and unions set boundaries around the conditions they were willing to exist in. They refused to take all of the responsibility for the choices of their employers (i.e.: an employer decides that they can create a larger profit margin by hiring fewer workers and having existing workers cover more shifts). Let’s discuss boundaries for mental health.
That’s really what boundaries are: a refusal to take responsibility for other people’s consequences.
Often it’s hard to define such an abstract concept as something like “boundaries” (or “love”, or “toxic”, or “healthy”). But having healthy boundaries is such an important part of good mental health, that it’s important that we really strive to explain it accurately.
Examples of Boundaries
Boundaries are about letting others take responsibility for their own actions rather than being attached to the outcome. Here are some real-life examples:
- Letting your kiddo figure out how to cope with not having their homework rather than stressing yourself out trying to figure out how to get it up to the school.
- Having some system of faith that allows you to let go when someone has wronged you and trust that it’s not your job to police the fairness of the world or other people’s consequences.
- Voicing your wish that your family would host Christmas the day after so you don’t feel obligated to cram multiple events into one day even though it might upset your mother (or, alternately, declining the invitation if the date isn’t negotiable).
- Not keeping secrets from your spouse about your kids (that bellybutton piercing they have, etc.). It puts you in the middle and it isn’t fair.
- Consistently telling others how to do things and sacrificing your own health to do so.
If you look at what of these examples have in common, it’s that you’re not making someone else’s problem, your problem. You’re giving them respect by having faith that they can handle their own life rather than diminishing their self-esteem by insinuating that they need to be protected and taken care of.
This leads to an important point: power dynamics. In a parent-child relationship, boundaries are so different. Kiddos can have some boundaries but it’s important to have open and honest conversations. They should have a lot of autonomy over their own bodies (I do/do not want a hug) but there are some places, certainly, where parents have the final say. Similarly, I often work with people who have financial struggles that leave them dependent on another person for their livelihood. This also can make it difficult to practice good boundaries because it’s very hard to be firm about the consequences of another person’s behavior.
You can’t choose not to be around them when they are not treating you with the respect you expect. This is not to say that boundaries are about ultimatums (“either treat me right or I’m leaving!”); it’s so much more nuanced than that. It’s about holding enough respect for both people that you honor your limits and theirs.
There is a fine line between showing respect for another by explaining your limits and being gaslighted by someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries. In real life, being gaslighted (blamed for reacting poorly to poor treatment and made to question your own thoughts/decisions) might look like this:
“I just can’t make it over today. I’m sorry but I need to….”
“Well, I just don’t understand. I do things for you all the time and now that I need something, you’re just taking off. If you really respected me, you’d make it.”
A healthy response would something like: “I’m disappointed that you can’t make it. We had agreed that you’d be here.”.
Good boundaries aren’t manipulative. They’re accompanied by enough courage and self-esteem to make a statement rather than try to manipulate out of fear that you won’t get what you need unless you trick or force others into giving it to you. I could easily spend a book writing about what poor boundaries look like but if you’re feeling like you’re always stuck in middle, feeling like you spend a LOT of time worrying about whether others are happy, or being stuck in “drama” you want no part of, chances are your boundaries could use work.
Some of the effects of having poor boundaries is having resentment for others, a poor sense of self, and a lot of conflicts. You can have healthy boundaries and choose to do nice things! You just can’t do it out of a sense of obligation or fear of what will happen if you don’t. That’s how resentment grows. Be honest about what you really want to do.
I want to leave you with a set of personal rights that I just love. I did not create it and have seen it on worksheets since I began working in social work. It goes something like this. You have the right to:
- ask for what you want
- say “no” to requests or demands you can’t meet (or am not willing to as long as no one is legally dependent on me for this request- i.e.: please feed your children even when you don’t feel like it)
- change your mind
- choose your own priorities
- express all your feelings, both positive and negative in a safe way
- make mistakes
- refuse responsibility for the behaviors and feelings of other adults
- be yourself
- be angry at people you love
- avoid or leave an abusive environment (even if that means leaving important people behind)
Practice setting boundaries by thinking frequently about these rules and putting them to good use! Call them out in your life and practice saying “no, thank you”. You get to create your own voice and style when enforcing your boundaries. If I’m feeling flippant, “not my monkeys, not my circus” is my most common response to things that aren’t mine to control.
When it’s more serious, I’ll explain my boundaries once. I might say “that’s just not something I can commit to right now.” or “That’s not something that’s in my realm of control but I think you can handle it just fine. I’d be happy to support you, but I can’t take it over for you”. If you’re feeling particularly willing to dig in and do work, journal about each personal right and ways it might effect you. Good luck, friends!
If you need help setting boundaries, connect with Perspectives Therapy Services.
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.