What are Boundaries and Why are they Important?
DISCLAIMER: I have used ‘you’ quite liberally in this post. I do this because the word is powerful. It helps us all reflect on our behaviour. I also do this because it’s easier. ‘Person A’, ‘Person B’, ‘we’, and everything else often makes what I write feel impersonal and unconnected. But when I say ‘you’, I’m talking about me (I’m still learning to practice everything I’m writing), you (that is, whoever is reading the post), and everyone, mostly. If you feel attacked or uncomfortable when you read what I’m saying, you might want to reflect on *why* you feel that way. That might help you change your own unhealthy thoughts and behaviours (don’t say you have none. Everyone has unhealthy patterns we want to change). After all, change and discomfort often go together.
What are boundaries?
In terms of mental health, a boundary is basically personal space. We all know the concept of physical personal space. If people come too close, we get uncomfortable. For example, it might be okay if mom or dad kiss me on the cheek, but if my distant relative does it, he’s invading my personal space.
A boundary in the context of mental health, is the same limit – only in an emotional or mental sense.
For example, I don’t answer calls or return texts when I’m sleeping; no matter who calls or texts. That’s a boundary. When I’m low, I don’t like to talk to people – not even my closest friends. In telling them I don’t want to talk, I’m setting a boundary.
Setting boundaries announces to people that you’re putting your own mental health before anything else. It is one of the most important steps in making sure your mental health is not adversely affected by other people’s problems.
“This girl is crazy,” you’ll be thinking. “She’s telling me to be selfish.”
Is it selfish, though?
Well, no. In fact, putting your own mental health first is the kindest thing you can do.
Why are boundaries important?
I’ll use my own example to illustrate.
When I’m in a good frame of mind; able to handle what’s thrown at me (be it a friend’s grief or news about the world in flames), I find it easier to be empathetic to the problems I’m seeing. I’m able to be clear-headed, to listen and be there for my friend, or to educate myself about what’s going on in the world.
When I’m low or out of energy, things become about me. My friend’s grief makes me feel helpless because I can’t do anything for her and I give unsolicited (and annoying) advice or say something that makes things worse, like, “Be positive!” or, “Be grateful for what you have!” The world burning makes me blind with anger and I end up believing misinformation and fear-mongering (which is somehow always more rampant and accessible than the truth).
This exhausts me more and more until I’m burnt out.
When I’m burnt out, I’m generally unhelpful and useless for exponentially longer than I would have been had I not neglected my mental health in the first place. So I’m unhelpful when I’m low on energy, and unhelpful when I’m burnt out. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Instead, if I catch myself feeling low and set boundaries that give me the space to feel better, it doesn’t take much time before I’m back on my feet, ready to do what I can to be a friend to the people around me.
Knowing when you just can’t help and then consciously detaching to take care of yourself when that happens is, in this context, a way to set a boundary. Boundaries apply to a lot of other contexts, though, which I might cover at a later time. They apply everywhere. What I’m defining is why boundaries are important in the current dire situation.
All this said, I refuse to preach. This is my opinion – my professional opinion as a psychology student, but still, my opinion. You are welcome to martyr yourself for the noble cause you serve, or the people you selflessly help. What is not okay, though, is asking (or more commonly these days, shaming) others into joining you. It is healthy (crucial, even) to set boundaries for yourself, and it is equally important to respect others’ boundaries.
Stay tuned for my next post, which covers how to set boundaries so that you don't offend anyone!