In today’s world you’ll often be advised to indulge in a little “self-care” when you’re feeling stressed or down – take a yoga class, enjoy a night out, pamper yourself. And while all of those things are great, their transitory benefits are hardly what I’d call genuine self-care. In fact, the modern standard for so called “self-care” is well off the mark, doubly so if you’re one of the quarter of Americans living with a mental health disorder. We don’t need another item added to our to-do list, placed there under the guise of caring better for ourselves one slotted hour at a time. No, what we need is to actually begin caring better for ourselves. True self-care is internalized, it’s decision making, it’s limit setting. Genuine self-care is setting boundaries.
Boundary setting as self-care is an important topic. Learning how to take some time for yourself as needed can help to keep your mental health balanced. Allowing yourself to avoid events that can trigger anxiety or other disorders can be empowering. Leaving conversations that are turning harmful can help to educate. Balanced, empowered, educated; that’s a person in charge of their self-care. Boundaries are key.
Boundaries are limits that we set for ourselves that determine what we will or will not participate in. Some examples include: saying no to invitations and to requests for your time and effort, speaking up for your privacy needs and taking steps to insuring those needs are met, protecting your physical space and not allowing others to encroach into your “bubble” at the expense of your comfort, not taking on other people’s problems, not being a part of conversations that are harmful or triggering to you and your mental health, especially if the participants are unwilling to listen to your viewpoint.
Be prepared though, while it does get easier with practice, boundary setting can start off as hard work. The rewards to your overall state of mind and sense of peace, however, make the effort worthwhile. Psychologist Dana Gionta offers some tips on how to set and maintain healthy boundaries for those who may be new to the skill.
First up, know your limits. It isn’t possible to set boundaries for yourself if you don’t know where you stand. Determine those things that you can tolerate and accept, and those things that leave you feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or stressed. Figuring out where those lines are will give you a good place to start setting your boundaries.
Second, pay close attention to feelings of discomfort and resentment. Gionta has observed that these two feelings are red flags an individual is letting go of a boundary. Resentment usually “comes from being taken advantage of or not appreciated” she says, and is a sign we’re pushing ourselves beyond our limits out of guilt. Feeling generally uncomfortable is a cue that someone is crossing a boundary we have a set.
Next, give yourself permission to set boundaries and to enforce them. Gionta warns that fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. We may fear the other person’s response, might feel guilty for speaking up, we may feel as though we should be able to cope with a situation despite our feeling drained and overwhelmed. Remind yourself that boundaries are a sign of self-respect and an important form of self-care and give yourself permission both to set them and to do the work to have them preserved.
Use clear language. Be direct when setting boundaries. Be assertive when communicating that someone has crossed a boundary. Leave no room for misunderstanding.
And don’t let me be misunderstood, I love a good massage or night out on the town as much as the next person. But let’s call that what it is – pampering, indulgence, a little something for me, perhaps, but it’s not self-care. Self-care is when I have taken the time to craft my life in such a way that I am free to have time alone when I need it, when I can avoid social events that cause me anxiety without fear of judgment, when I can say “no” to an extra project that I don’t have time for without feeling guilt. That’s how I can take care of me. I hope over this holiday season you are all able to take good care of you, too.
(Originally written, by me, for Basement Medicine, the campus paper for NVU-Johnson)