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Mental health 101: Practical ways to set boundaries (and stick to them)

At the start of a new year, after shaking off the post-Christmas slump, attention soon turns to matters of self-improvement. Diets. Dry Jan. Digital detoxes. Although helpful as quick fixes to alleviate the mind, body and soul, rarely do they give you the tools with which to cope in the long run with whatever lies ahead. So, what’s the alternative? Well, one way to help you navigate life's turbulent waters and nurture your physical mental health is by setting effective boundaries.

From helping you to understand and communicate your wants and needs, and, at the same time, respect your value(s) and opinions, to identifying and shielding you from harmful behaviours at work, home and in other relationships (burnout, subjugation), the benefits of boundaries are manifold. Above all, they teach you how to say “no”, and not to compromise oneself for the sake of others. Likewise they teach you how to respect the limits of other people. Just think of that famous quote from Sex And The City’s Kim Cattrall: “I don’t want to be in a situation for even an hour where I’m not enjoying myself.” Now she knows how to set good boundaries. And you can do the same.

We asked leading mental health specialists for their top tips on how to set boundaries – and stick to them.

Michelle Elman, life coach and author of

“Set your boundaries firmly, calmly, compassionately and as concisely as possible. In order to be able to do this, you might have to process your emotions separately before having the conversation – there is no rush to have the conversation, there is no time limit on when you need to set boundaries and you can return to a previous conversation when you can have it in a productive and emotionally neutral way. If your boundaries continue to be crossed, set a consequence along the lines of, ‘If you continue to speak to me that way, I will leave the room and you can come find me when you can speak to me in a respectful way’, and then follow through.

“The biggest tell-tale sign that your boundaries are getting crossed is if you feel anger or resentment. Listen to this and instead of questioning it or invalidating these emotions, pay attention to them, and use them to figure out what boundary needs to be set. Stop waiting until the fear passes to set boundaries. You will be scared, you are trying something new! Do it scared and next time, it will be a little less scary.

“Avoid justifying why your boundaries are your boundaries or over-explaining them. Someone doesn't have to understand your boundaries in order to respect them. Your boundaries don’t have to be the same as everyone else’s.”

Lucy Beresford, psychotherapist, relationship expert and broadcaster

“Work out what your core values are in life (stability, honesty, fidelity, respect), and base your boundary setting on those principles. This way, if ever you feel nervous about whether you’re making the right decision in re-setting or re-stating your boundaries with people, you can always remember that you are doing so based on values that are important for you.

“State your boundaries using ‘I’ statements, such as: ‘I prefer it if you are consistent in your communication with me’, or ‘I prefer to be treated with respect’. This way, your boundary comes from you and is not about judging or blaming the other person.

“Be prepared for some pushback from people, who may even try to make you feel guilty for setting and maintaining your boundary.

Michelle Morgan, Mental Health First Aid England ambassador, and the author of

“For me, setting boundaries is an essential, non-negotiable part of looking after my mental health and wellbeing. When I experienced burnout, and a brutal episode of depression and anxiety in 2017, there were many things that contributed to it; trying to do too much, not talking about how I was feeling and coping, and most definitely having too few boundaries in place.

“Introducing new boundaries into your life will undoubtedly require you to have some conversations that feel awkward, just know that it’s almost always worth holding that uncomfortable moment and pushing on through to have the conversation, rather than avoiding it.

“By setting clear boundaries and communicating them kindly and consistently to others, and more importantly myself, I’ve found that I can support others better now than I did in the past, when I was often running on empty. Having better and braver conversations about boundaries benefits our mental health.”

Cristalle Hayes, existential and trauma-based psychotherapist and author of

“Know your boundaries. Notice what behaviours and situations make you feel uncomfortable, angry or resentful. Trust your body and instincts. This will allow you to know what your boundaries are and when they are not being respected.

“Give yourself permission. We may feel guilty when we set boundaries, as we may feel we are letting others down. Know your worth and give yourself permission to keep your emotional peace. Setting boundaries can make us uncomfortable. Approach with compassion and self-awareness.

“Communicate your boundaries with yourself and others by using assertive language. Assertive language is clear and non-negotiable, without blaming or threatening. Try and start with ‘I feel’, and be compassionate and consistent.”

Nic Marks, happiness expert, therapist, and CEO of Friday Pulse

“The first step to setting boundaries is to be honest with yourself and recognise that there are limits to what you can do. Many of us work within teams, so it’s important to ask for help when you need it. If you’re a leader, that means delegating your workload and trusting your people to get the job done.

“If you feel your work-life balance has tipped in the wrong direction, carve out time to identify the cause. Start by auditing your work boundaries and ask where you can shape things differently. For instance, are there acceptable ‘offline’ times, and do you follow them? What are the team norms around taking time off? Are there flexible working policies that you can follow? Can you take regular breaks during the day to recharge?

“After you’ve figured out the appropriate boundaries, try hard to protect your time. If offline time means no emails after 6PM, then that’s what it means. There is a bit of fear that our colleagues will think that we’re slacking off. And you know what? That’s ok. If it happens, then that’s a sign that the boundaries are necessary. When self-care becomes a priority, our coworkers will take note of our examples and start following our lead, and the world of work will become a better place for everyone.”

Joan van den Brink, executive coach and consultant and author of

“Have an open conversation. The simplest way to set boundaries at work is to speak openly to the person concerned about what you need [in order] to be, and perform, at your best. For example, if your boss repeatedly asks you to work long hours or on weekends, instead of using phrases like, ‘I’m not paid to work overtime’, or ‘I’m fed up with you demanding that I work long hours’, use curiosity and empathy to enquire why this is happening. For example, ‘I’ve noticed that you keep asking me to work long hours/at weekends, which means that I do not get sufficient time to rest and recharge my batteries to perform at my best. I was wondering what was behind these requests?’

“Don’t be afraid to assert yourself. It takes courage to set boundaries, as it can be fraught with difficulties and you might worry about how you will be perceived. Show compassion for both you and your colleague and work out what will enable you both to feel that you are getting what you need in the relationship. For instance, if someone emails out of hours, instead of ignoring these until the next time you are officially at work, the best way to set your boundary about your leisure time is to assert yourself. You could say, ‘I am fully committed to doing a good job and delivering what you need, and I need to maintain a healthy work-life balance to honour my personal commitments. I find it challenging when you send emails out-of-hours because I feel that I need to respond to them immediately. Can we sit down and talk about how we can put something in place so that we both get what we need?’ The aim of setting boundaries is to foster greater understanding and develop win:win solutions.”

Neil Wilkie, qualified psychotherapist and founder of online couples therapy programme The Relationship Paradigm

“When it comes to setting boundaries in a relationship, start by working out what your own boundaries are. Reflect on your life and your relationship. Draw up lists of what is important for you in a relationship, what are you comfortable with? What are you irritated by? And what is a definite no for you?

“Talk to your partner. Schedule time (at least an hour) to talk, free of distractions, about the relationship and the boundaries in it. Ensure that ‘blame’ is taken out of the discussion and you both focus on expressing how you are feeling. Each brings their list of boundaries to share and discuss. Compare where there is similarity and where there is difference. Ensure you are each listened to and understood. Each choose one area that needs the most significant and urgent improvement and discuss what you need to have this boundary respected. Clarify where a boundary is a core need that is an absolute and where there is some flexibility.

“Have a regular check-in. It is important to ensure that the boundaries are maintained and continue to be respected or they will be tested and breached. Schedule a weekly meeting to each discuss what has gone well and what still needs improvement. Continue until there has been sufficient improvement on all the boundaries.”

This article was originally published on Vogue US.

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