How To Create Healthy Boundaries That Work for You

You have an important deadline at work. But you had to take your car to the shop. You skip breakfast and catch a ride to work. By noon your stomach is churning. On your way to lunch, your boss stops you to take care of something urgent. What do you do?

We depend on our boundaries every day. They are a necessary part of life. What makes a boundary healthy? And how do you set them and stand by them?

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

Boundaries are guidelines that you create for yourself. They help you limit how you respond to others, and how you take care of yourself. Healthy boundaries help you maintain your wellbeing no matter what life throws at you.

Signs of Trouble With Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries are key to good self-care. But most people don’t realize how important boundaries are to managing stress. Signs you may have trouble setting the boundaries you need are:

  • You constantly feel overwhelmed
  • You frequently get sick
  • You say yes to too many things – you are exhausted trying to deal with all you have to do
  • People behave in physical, emotional or sexual ways toward you that make you uncomfortable or feel unsafe
  • Others “cross the line” when it comes to touch or the way they enter your personal space, and you don’t know what to say
  • Someone is saying something that makes you uncomfortable, whether it’s about you or somebody else
  • A person is asking you to do more than you want to do, and you’re having trouble saying no

You may feel unsure where to set limits. You want to “be a team player.” But if you’re feeling exhausted, you may not know what to do. How do you set limits when you’ve never spoken up before?

How to Create Good Boundaries

Step 1: Practice Self-Awareness

Healthy boundaries start with self-awareness. “Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance,” says author and meditation guide Tara Bach. “By accepting absolutely everything… we are aware of what is happening within our body and mind in any given moment, without trying to control or judge or pull away.”

Is there a knot in your stomach? Feel a lump in your throat? What happens in your body when a conversation gets uncomfortable?

You may want to be helpful. But something feels off. Notice what you are telling yourself: “I should just do it. I know they will be disappointed if I don’t.” How is your body responding when you say these things to yourself?

Step 2: Practice Finding Your Voice

Give yourself permission to name what is bothering you. Realize what you want and need in order to feel better about the situation. Talking with a friend, a therapist or writing in a journal can help you find your voice.

When you notice your feelings and thoughts, you can express them. Finding your voice means being able to put what you want in words. You may tell yourself, “I really wish I didn’t have to do all this so soon.”

You may not be ready to say what you think. A good trauma-informed therapist can help you set the pace in stages. Say what you’re feeling to yourself first, then to a therapist, and then to the people you need to tell.

What do you notice, for example, when you think of telling the boss: “I see that’s important. But I’m running on empty, and I have a deadline. Is this top priority after I get a bite to eat?” What do you think would happen? With questions like this, you can develop awareness to help find your voice.

Step 3: Start Small

Think baby steps. One simple change might do for a start. For example, you might decide get more sleep, and turn off the computer an hour before going to bed.

You could set your alarm to get up in time for breakfast. You can plan to have healthy foods in the house to enjoy.

You can start small by keeping promises to yourself.

Help for Those With a History of Trauma

Having healthy boundaries sounds simple. But it’s not always easy. If you have limited experience honoring your wellbeing, setting limits can seem difficult. As a child, your sense of safety may have been betrayed so many times, just having limits can feel strange. But creating healthy boundaries is learnable.

Saying no may trigger tremendous guilt and shame for trauma survivors. You may be terrified to set new limits. That’s why defining healthy boundaries is often part of the recovery process for those with a history of trauma.

Setting Better Boundaries: A Workplace Example

Let’s say Jenny is a survivor of childhood trauma. She often feels stressed and anxious at work. “What do you notice when you talk about feeling overwhelmed?” asks a therapist. “What do you notice in your body as you describe your day?”

Jenny says, “I feel a pit in my stomach. I’m getting really anxious about my workload. I think it’s because I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it….”

Jenny and the counselor acknowledge these feelings and thoughts. “If you could do one thing to take care of yourself, what would it be?” the therapist asks. “What do you think would be a good first step?”

Brainstorming outside of work can reveal a way forward. Jenny agrees to try one thing she feels she can do to stop over-extending herself.

Healthy boundaries to promote your wellbeing a work might be:

  • Taking a lunch break to rest and recharge, and renew your perspective
  • Going to bed on time to take care of your body
  • Pausing each day to pay attention to your sensations, thoughts and feelings. You may try a short meditation or yoga practice (there are some great apps for your phone, which can take as little as 1 – 10 minutes)

Boundaries to help you interact better with others might include:

  • Asking for help from a trusted colleague or friend (lifting an old boundary)
  • Having words to say “no” when you need to: “I’m really sorry, I would love to do that, but I can’t. I don’t have the time right now.”
  • Giving yourself time and space: “I want to do this with you, but I won’t be able to get to it until next week.”

Setting Physical Boundaries

Honoring your personal space is essential to feeling safer. But for some trauma survivors, setting personal boundaries can be challenging. A history of sexual or physical abuse can make setting physical limits feel difficult.

A hug that lasts too long can trigger fear or panic. Someone who stands too closes or intrudes when you’re talking can be very upsetting for a trauma survivor.

Safe physical boundaries are essential in trauma treatment and recovery. What can you do to feel more secure?

Take the time you need to decide what would make you feel safer. For example:

  • Say what you need: “Could you excuse us for a minute? I will come and get you as soon as we are done.”
  • Do what you need: Stick out your hand for a handshake instead of a hug.

The Rewards of Living with Healthier Boundaries

Healthy personal boundaries are key to good self-care.

We all need healthy boundaries in our daily lives. What do you need to take care of you? How can you start — what are some small steps? Even if you struggle to set limits, know that you deserve to take good care of yourself.

Your wants and needs are just as important as anyone’s. You are worth it.

More Support for Setting Healthier Boundaries


Phone Applications for Relaxation

About the Author

Robyn E. Brickel, M.A., LMFT Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT is the director and lead therapist at Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she founded in 1999. She specializes in the therapeutic treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples, families and groups. Robyn E. Brickel offers treatment and psychoeducational services for many life issues and transitions, such as: A history of trauma and/or abuse, including Dissociation; Addictions, as well as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) issues; Body Image issues and Eating Disorders; Self-Harming behaviors, including Emotional intensity and instability; Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; Challenged family systems; Chronic illness; Co-dependency; Dysfunctional relationships; Life transitions; Loss and bereavement; Relationship distress; Self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; Stress reduction. She is an LMFT, as well as a trained trauma & addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.

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