Self Improvement

How to Create and Maintain Healthy Boundaries

We are halfway through 2021 and the last 365 days came with some big life changes. Like many of you, I spent most of 2020 just trying to get through the year. The pandemic forced us to slow down and take a closer look at how we live. It took a global pandemic and life-changing diagnosis to force me to set some healthy boundaries and to finally put less pressure on myself. Don’t wait to create new goals, make big changes, or to say yes to what feels right for you. 

Healthy boundaries are a form of self-care. They will improve your self-esteem and will help you realize who you are, what you want, and what you need. For years, I struggled with burnout, and looking back, I didn’t have boundaries with clients (specifically my inbox – it controlled me) or even social media. There was a pressure to be more and do more, and it wasn’t healthy. Up until this year, I felt so much anxiety around my instagram inbox. Looking back, it all came down to having zero boundaries. 

Once you figure out what it is that feels good for you, setting that boundary isn’t easy. It means someone or something will be impacted in a way that they may not agree with, and even though sticking to that boundary is self-care, saying “no” can be difficult. If you are coming from a good, kind, and honest place, and doing what is best for you, it’s ok to set a boundary. Here’s a good example: My instagram DMs were a big source of stress for me because I want to connect and really do love helping people. And while I know both of those things to be true, it felt like too much to try to stay on top of a constantly full inbox, or to link every item people asked about. The thought of someone feeling ignored made me feel terrible, but spending an 30-60 minutes answering questions all day didn’t feel great, either. So I let it go, started clearing my inbox, and offered more Q&As. Alleviating my stress but doing something that works for me. 

How exactly do you know you need to set a boundary? First, figure out what it is that you need and what feels right. If a person or behavior makes you feel anxious or uncomfortable, or just isn’t right, you need to set a boundary. That boundary can be anything from when a colleague can call you, family dropping by unannounced, a friend’s expectations of you, or asking your child’s caregiver to stick to a certain set of rules. Once you have identified your boundary, share it in a respectful way, but be sure not to over-explain. It took until my late 30s (ok, I’m still working on this but feel pretty good about it) to know that it is ok to say “no, that doesn’t work for me” or “here’s something that’s important to me” and that’s enough.

Years and years ago, I would get emails from readers who wanted to meet for coffee, and they caused far more stress than they should have. The thought of coming across as rude or disappointing someone would consume me, but I barely had time to see my friends and couldn’t take on weekly coffee dates. I would write back saying that I wish I could but offer up a list of why I couldn’t, feeling so anxious that I was letting someone down. I finally learned that I am not responsible for how someone reacts to my boundary. It is my job to communicate my boundary in a kind and respectful way. It is also not my job to over-explain. If this were to happen today, I’d just say I’m sorry, I can’t meet, but would be happy to answer a few questions over email if I felt that I could take that on. 

It’s ok to say no to something that you don’t want to do. It’s also essential that we do what feels good for us. If we said yes to everything, we’d never have a moment to ourselves. How unhealthy is that? Boundaries don’t need to be rigid – it isn’t about a set of black and white rules that we live by. You can help a friend paint their bedroom but not say yes to every single thing that friend asks of you. It is our job to communicate our needs in a relationship and to respect others’ boundaries as well. One of the best ways to set healthy boundaries is to have honest and open communication. In any given relationship, one person should not have power or control over the other. If you find yourself feeling anxious, angry, or guilty, chances are that you need to set a boundary. 

Know your rights and self-worth. It is ok to say no without feeling guilty. If someone tries to make you feel guilty, they’re not respecting your boundary. Your needs matter as much as theirs, and their expectations do not matter more than you taking care of yourself. Listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. 

Learning to set healthy boundaries shifted the way I feel – my anxiety has lessened, and I no longer get worked up when I say no to something, or share what feels safe for me – something that came up a lot over the last year. Sometimes, my boundary is taking time away from my inbox to be with my girls, or taking a break to garden when I could be doing something else. Boundaries are self-care. Putting yourself first can feel selfish for some of us, but when did saying yes to something that doesn’t feel good come before taking care of you? Once you become comfortable setting boundaries, you’ll find yourself feeling a lot less stressed and less likely to experience burnout. 

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  • Yes! I have been learning a lot of this in the last year as well- specifically around my parenting choices (among other things). I just finished reading Nedra Tawwab’s new book ‘Set Boundaries, Find Peace’ and it was WONDERFUL.

    1. Thanks for posting this and for sharing your experiences Danielle. It’s been helpful to think about.

      Tiffany – Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m almost finished and finding it really helpful!

  • Hi Danielle! Thank you for this great blog post. It’s very encouraging and its motivating me to set some healthy boundaries in my own life.

    If you have time to answer (no pressure if not!) I’m curious what your recommendation would be for setting boundaries with family members that mistreat you and create unnecessary drama?

    I had a really bad experience recently with a family member getting so upset with me when I wouldn’t let them bring their dog to my wedding (yes you read that right) and the entire thing was so hurtful how I was mistreated over it. So ridiculous to say the least.

    The whole thing is so stupid but I cannot let this individual mistreat me and think it’s okay to act inappropriately anymore. It’s an ongoing pattern they have. Any thoughts or suggestions when it comes to hurtful family members?

    1. Hi Taylor. I’m so sorry but WHAT?! Who asks to bring a dog to a wedding?

      I don’t know your relationship with this person but no, you cannot let someone treat you in an unkind or even (potentially) abusive way. So one thing I’ve found works for me is to just say here is what works, and to leave it at that.

      Unfortunately, I’ve gone through some really difficult things with one of my parents and I had to set a boundary saying that a visit did not feel safe for me right now (therapist agreed it would be a mess if this parent tried to visit). It is as simple as saying “no, that doesn’t work for me” and then not engaging. When a comparison was made about flavoring my daughter’s chemo like one would do for a dog, I just said “I’m sorry, I have to go” and hung up. The work after that is the hard part. How they react, not fixating on what was said etc. My therapist said the best way to let it go is self-care, living well, and doing things that make you feel good. Not carrying anger, since the opposite of hate is not love – it’s indifference. So hard when it’s family.

      Also, truly can’t believe the request.

      I hope that was somewhat helpful.

      1. I also been dealing with a difficult family member, my only sister in fact. I found your response very helpful Danielle and I appreciate you sharing your own personal experiences. It makes me feel less alone in the entire situation. Thank you!

  • Do you have any good resources or books on the topic? I need to work on this majorly. I have realized since family has moved closer that I really struggle with maintaining boundaries for my own mental sanity. Thank you!!!

    1. Hi Clare – Another reader above (Tiffany) mentioned the book Set Boundaries, Find Peace. It’s really helpful for creating boundaries and has exercises to think through your own life situations as well as lots of examples. Nedra Glover Tawwab, the therapist who wrote the book, also often discusses boundaries on her social media. Best wishes!