The most grownup parts of us understand that becoming an adult means doing some stuff we don’t really want to do. Like flossing. Or buying leafy greens at the grocery store. Or going to bed at a reasonable hour instead of pulling an all-nighter binging Netflix’s latest release. Many of us don’t have a vocabulary for these facts of life; we just know to do them (or at least, we know we should be doing them). But according to Amanda E. White, LPC, owner of Therapy for Women, all we’re really doing when we establish these mental guidelines is setting boundaries with ourselves.
Setting Boundaries with Others
Boundaries create healthy intimacy by delineating where our loved ones end and where we begin. They prevent one relationship from becoming all-encompassing—from draining all of our time, all of our energy, and really, all of ourselves. “Boundaries exist everywhere,” explains White. “If you had a house, you wouldn’t leave it unlocked—or not have a door at all.”
While healthy relationships involve some amount of caring for others, they don’t call for total self-sacrifice. Boundaries help us support others without losing ourselves completely; they help us care for others while caring for ourselves. “Without boundaries, we don’t feel safe,” White says. And that security, she adds, helps us healthily and productively achieve the depth and connection we crave from our relationships.
Setting Boundaries with Ourselves
But what does this have to do with us? While it’s somewhat easy to conceptualize drawing lines between us and others, it’s harder to comprehend what it means to draw lines within ourselves.
Except many of us are already doing it. There’s a version of us that flosses, and a version of us that decides to skip that step every single time. There’s a version of us that regularly weaves leafy greens into her diet, and a version that prefers to munch on snack foods, instead. There’s a version of us that gets to bed on time and wakes up feeling rejuvenated, and a version of us that watches TV through the wee hours of the night—only to hit snooze a bunch of times and groggily make her way to work the next morning. Every time we make a decision, only one of these selves is fully realized. Setting boundaries with ourselves can help us get closer to the decisions our healthiest selves make—all the while mitigating the shame associated with not making those decisions, White says.
According to White, boundaries with yourself can look like a lot of things. Having a bedtime. Maintaining a budget. Keeping work from creeping into your personal life. Being intentional about taking time to travel. Spending a few minutes each day outdoors.
“Look at your life,” White says. “What are the areas you feel are working, versus not working?” Take a moment to further consider the stuff that’s working—are there boundaries already in place? Do you meal prep every Sunday? Spend 10 minutes each day doing yoga? Limit your caffeine intake before noon? These can all be considered boundaries, though you might just know them as routines.
Then, further probe the stuff that isn’t working. Say, for example, dating isn’t going the way you’d like it to. Consider why. Is it because you can’t find the time to go out? Or because you’d prefer an in-person meet-cute, but haven’t had the chance to connect with new people? Or because you find dating exhausting, and you’re not motivated to make it happen right now? Each reason lends itself to a different boundary. Maybe you could work toward guarding your personal time more carefully. Maybe you could aim to get more social activities on your calendar. Or maybe you could accept that dating isn’t really what you want right now, for whatever reason, and that that’s OK, too.
How to React to Broken Self-Boundaries
White says she prefers the word “boundaries” to any of its alternatives because it implies fluidity. Rules are rigid, prompting black-or-white thinking; boundaries are softer, inviting you to explore your many gray areas.
Let’s say you only want to watch one hour of TV each day, but today, you ended up watching more than that. “It’s not like you’ve failed, or there’s something wrong,” White says. While logging some extra TV time might not be your ideal outcome, it’s certainly not a catastrophic one. So instead of heaping shame upon yourself, simply revisit your boundary. “Look at why it didn’t work, what happened that led you to break the boundary, and what you can do differently next time,” White suggests. “Is the boundary not working? Is there something you can do to make it more effective—to change it so it works better for you?” Maybe you should make the boundary more flexible, or maybe today was a total fluke. Either way, the boundary-breaking process should involve as much introspection as the boundary-setting process.
“The most important thing is to react with compassion,” White says. “Most of us—when we break a rule or don’t do something we say we want to do—get mad at ourselves, punish ourselves, or get into a shame spiral.” That’s not the goal here—understanding is. “When you break a rule, you’ve failed,” she says. “When you break a boundary, you need to reset and reevaluate the boundary.”
When we’re too rigid in our rule-making, we pit our ideal selves against our actual selves. But when we can reframe the process to include more fluidity—and to account for the imperfection that pervades real life—we’re moving closer in the direction of where we want to be. Though boundaries sound inherently divisional, White’s approach to them is more unifying than anything else. Boundaries integrate who you want to be with who you really are; they help you keep your goals in focus without pushing you to feel ashamed of who you are now.