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Setting healthy boundaries in your life

Boundaries help protect your mental, emotional and physical health. When used appropriately, they can help you make the most of your time, health, relationships and resources.

“Boundaries are the psychological structure between where one person ends and another begins,” says Dennis Buttimer, M.Ed, CEAP, RYT, CHC, a life and wellness coach at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “Just as a house has a door to protect the person inside from strangers, cold weather and wild animals, psychological boundaries are there to protect people.”

The benefits of setting boundaries

Your boundaries make it clear what you will and won’t do with your time, relationships, conversations, activities and other areas of life. While you can’t control what other people do, you can control what you will and won’t tolerate, say or do.

“On the cancer journey, boundaries are really important because people – often well-meaning or out of fear and the need to help – begin overstepping those natural boundaries,” Buttimer explains. “People may tell you what type of cancer treatment their uncle underwent or that their aunt died of the same cancer you have. People will blurt out thoughts and opinions on impulse and it really puts the receiver in a difficult position.”

Setting boundaries with others

The thought of setting boundaries can sometimes be accompanied by feelings of guilt or discomfort. But often, setting boundaries is the most loving and healthiest thing you can do for yourself and others. The key is to set them kindly, respectfully and firmly.

Here are a few examples of circumstances in which boundaries can help.

Someone offers unsolicited advice or asks personal questions. If someone says something inappropriate about your diagnosis or treatment, you could respond with, “Thank you for your thoughts or intentions, but I’m going to make my own decision about that,” or “I’m not comfortable sharing that,” suggests Buttimer.

Someone takes up a lot of your time and energy. Suppose you have a friend who calls you every night to complain. You may feel guilty if you don’t answer, but you no longer want to spend time in these conversations. To set a boundary with this friend, start small by getting off the phone sooner and decreasing the length of the call. Then you could alter the frequency of how often you answer the phone and get comfortable with not speaking one night.

Someone is yelling at you. If someone is yelling at you, you could say, “I’m not going to listen to this. When you are ready to talk without yelling, I’ll be in the other room.”

Boundaries and safety

Boundaries are of urgent importance when your physical or mental health is at risk.

“If someone is in a psychologically or physically abusive situation, one of the first things we work on is a safety plan,” says Buttimer.

If you are in a dangerous situation, remove yourself and seek support from a trusted family member, friend or counselor.

Signs it’s time to set boundaries

Your feelings and emotions are a good barometer for the need to set boundaries, Buttimer says.

“If you feel really distressed by another person’s behavior relative to your interactions with them, you may need to set some boundaries,” he explains.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

“If you try to set a boundary with another person but you’re not comfortable with the boundary, it won’t work,” says Buttimer. “You must be willing to say, ‘Even if I’m uncomfortable, I’m no longer going to allow this behavior from this other person.’ You should get comfortable with being uncomfortable and setting a boundary if someone is intrusive.”

You could communicate your boundary through a word, a sentence, pausing in conversation, standing up or leaving the room or building.

“People are going to test the boundary,” says Buttimer. “If you frequently interact with a person, they know you in a certain way and they’ll expect you to do what you’ve always done. You must be steady and persistent.”

Setting boundaries with yourself

In addition to setting healthy boundaries with others, you may also need to set boundaries with yourself in areas where you don’t treat yourself as well as you could, notes Buttimer. Drinking too much, overeating or being chronically late are some examples of where you could set limits with yourself.

Seek support when setting boundaries

Setting healthy limits on yourself and others can feel difficult or uncomfortable, but you don’t have to set them on your own. Buttimer recommends seeking support by:

“You don’t have to overhaul your personality or life completely. Just take some small steps to set healthy limits,” he says.

Learn more ways to reduce stress and improve your well-being.

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