How to set boundaries: A super-short guide
(To know what boundaries are and why they’re important, check out my previous post!)
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge something: setting boundaries is HARD.
There are many things standing between you and healthy boundaries! Friends and family want you to be available when they need you, a significant other gets antsy when you fail to pick up a call, your boss piles up ever more work on your plate and you can’t say no because “no one is indispensable” …
And even if you want to say no to something, there’s the risk of offending someone.
Phoebe’s iconic boundary-setting words in FRIENDS, “I would if I could, but I don’t want to”, are funny and all, but you can’t possibly say that to a boss or a friend in distress.
So what can you do? Well…
If you aren’t used to the concept of boundaries, it’s hard not to feel that pang of, “Am I being selfish?” And it’s often even hard to know when to say ‘no’ and when a ‘yes’ is okay. So the first step is not really to randomly say no to the next request that someone makes of you (that’s actually something I did when I learnt about boundaries…I said no for no particular reason...and regretted it later :P).
The first step is to do some reflection – to gauge your own limits. Ask questions like:
“Am I too tired/drained/low to talk to the friend who just called?”
“Who is allowed to disturb me while I’m asleep/eating/working/on a date?”
“Do I have the mental capacity to read about/see pictures of death and devastation?”
“If I take up this extra work for a colleague, will my main work get affected?”
It’s not easy to come up with the right answers to these questions; to know what you need as soon as you start asking them. I make choices I regret sometimes, too. I say Yes when I should have said No. And No when Yes was the better answer.
But that’s okay; we’re all learning!
Of course, while you’re learning to set your own boundaries, it’s important to respect others’ limits, too. Just like it’s okay for us to say no to others, they’re allowed to say no to us as well. Treat other people’s ‘no’ with empathy and realise that boundaries always go two ways.
Boundaries are deeply personal and how you deal with them depends on your own preferences and personality.
But here are a few tips based on my own experience:
Setting boundaries with your phone
Turn off notifications that aren’t urgent (eg. my Insta and Twitter notifications are off, and most of my WhatsApp chats are muted)
Turn off blue ticks on WhatsApp (I don’t do this – I’m too curious)
Keep your internet off or your phone on silent when you’re asleep (this is non-negotiable for me. I don’t like being disturbed when I’m asleep, unless it’s an emergency. So I keep my net off and people know to call me only if there’s trouble)
Block, unfollow, mute people/accounts who make you feel insecure/disturbed/triggered (I’ve been using these three options quite liberally here lately)
Setting boundaries with friends
It’s easy to set time boundaries (“sorry yaar, I have an exam tomorrow”, “I was working, that’s why I didn’t pick up your call”). Emotional boundaries are harder.
In such situations, there’s a magic word I use to indicate that my mental and emotional bandwidth can’t handle something (like listening to a friend rant or picking up their call) – “space”.
It’s a gentle word that somehow conveys that I’m too low or tired or randomly pissed to give time and energy to whatever they require from me, while also being totally inoffensive.
“I’m not in the space to talk right now”, always works with my close friends.
Saying this often leads to concerned questions about what happened and offers to cheer me up. Sometimes, I know that talking will cheer me up, so I do that. Other times, I just want alone time, so I gently reject the offer saying, “I just need some space right now. Maybe I’ll feel more up to talking tomorrow?” So far, this has worked wonders for me.
Setting professional boundaries
As a student and freelance writer, this is something I have zero personal experience with. So I’ll do the next best thing: direct you to someone who’s spoken about this before. Aishwarya (@moonshot.girl) has tackled the issue of professional boundaries wonderfully, in her blog post.
Setting boundaries with family
Boundaries are hard in a family. Especially in an Indian family. You’re expected to listen to elders all the time, never talk back, and have no privacy – especially if you’re young, and even more so when you’re a girl. So, there’s no one way to set boundaries with them.
Sometimes, throwing a tantrum (“I’M TELLING YOU I DON’T WANT ADVICE RIGHT NOW, DAD!”) might help, and sometimes, saying you’re busy does the trick. But family is personal and comes with its own unique baggage.
So my suggestion here is to succeed at setting boundaries in other areas of your life, and improvising in this category, based on your experience.
Please note that this is not exactly a comprehensive guide on boundaries. Instead, consider this a small primer on the subject. As we go further in this #CandidMentalHealthTalk series, I’ll cover more on boundaries from time to time.
The next few posts in this series, though, will be about shaming and other saddening behaviours I’ve been observing on social media of late.