Mental Health Awareness Month: Setting boundaries is example in self-care therapy

Social experts offer advice on how to set, not push, limits by simply saying no

Setting boundaries is about identifying what you're comfortable with, rather than being unrealistic or selfish. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

We’ve all been there – lending money when we’re strapped for cash, chauffeuring children when we haven’t got time, or working extra hours when we’re exhausted.

The temptation to give in to demands can be powerful – especially when it’s for family and friends – but if modern-day therapy speak has taught us anything, it’s that boundaries might be the key to self-preservation for many.

With May marked as Mental Health Awareness Month, UAE experts offer advice on setting boundaries for healthier relationships and protecting emotional well-being.

Set, don’t push, boundaries

Something of a self-help buzzword, “boundaries” refers to setting the standard of how you want to be treated and drawing the line at violations that put your well-being at risk.

“Boundaries reflect our core values, our respect for ourselves and our need for safety and protection,” says clinical therapist and life coach Anne Jackson, founder of One Life Coaching in Dubai.

Not calling out toxic behaviour means people will continue to drain your time, money and emotional well-being
Heather Broderick, workplace culture consultant

“They include material boundaries, like giving or lending money; emotional boundaries like comforting someone in distress; and physical boundaries like your personal space or privacy.

“Without healthy boundaries, we can quickly feel unhappy, resentful or insecure in our relationships, or like we are being taken advantage of or losing a sense of identity.”

In recent times, the term has seeped into everyday speech and, in some cases, misused as a weapon to make unfair demands.

One of the most high-profile examples of abusing therapy speak were text messages sent by actor Jonah Hill to his pro-surfer girlfriend Sarah Brady.

In the highly publicised exchange, Hill’s alleged requests of his ex to honour his boundaries included not associating with people he disapproved of or taking pictures of herself that he deemed inappropriate.

The exchange provoked outrage, with many accusing Hill of using therapy speak as a method of control.

However, it also sparked questions about advocating for ourselves, using boundaries to make unfair demands and when doing favours for loved ones becomes harmful.

Take time for self-reflection

For self-confessed people-pleaser Heather Broderick, setting boundaries became essential in the workplace after being unfairly taken advantage of by colleagues who may not have had her best interests at heart.

“The more we allow people to treat us badly, the more they do it. Standing up to them and explaining that it needs to stop is scary but feels like a huge victory,” she says.

“People treat us the way we allow ourselves to be treated. So, by not calling out toxic behaviour or agreeing to do things we do not feel comfortable with, we are telling the other person that it is OK, and they will continue to drain your time, money and emotional well-being.”

Broderick has now trained as a workplace culture consultant and helps others in the UAE take control of their well-being both in and out of the office. She advises fellow people-pleasers to take some time to identify behaviour that makes them feel uncomfortable and take responsibility for changing the situation.

“Learning what we are happy to do for others and where to draw the line is essential in having a happy life and living with balance,” she says.

“When people make demands that do not align with our values, we end up feeling conflict and we become angry and frustrated, usually blaming the other person, but it is ourselves we need to look at.”

Communicate clearly

Once we’ve identified our boundaries, it’s time to put them into action leaving no room for doubt, though this can be easier said than done.

“Remain calm and tell the person in question that you will not be doing things that make you uncomfortable any more,” says Broderick. “Do not blame or turn it on them, but simply explain that you will not do it for your own reasons. Do not be tempted to say you do not have time or someone else needs you at that time; simply say you do not want to or will not do it.

“That way they cannot try to find solutions for the problem to still make you do it. Have the conversation with someone else present to support you if you feel you will backtrack or panic.”

Find a balance

Often boundaries can change depending on the situation. You may be more inclined to stay late at work, for example, if it’s a one-off request and you have no other plans.

In some cases, sticking rigidly to self-imposed boundaries can do more harm than good, according to Broderick. “Boundaries mean looking out for our own well-being and putting our happiness at the top of the list,” she says. “That being said, there will always be things we do not necessarily want to do, but have to, such as putting in extra work when a deadline approaches or spending much of our time giving lifts to our children.

“We know these things are short-term and the benefits of doing them outweigh refusing.

“Boundaries do not mean we stop caring about others and become selfish, it is more about finding solutions to only do what we are comfortable with doing.

“When people take advantage of us by expecting our time, money or emotional strength on a regular basis, resentment builds internally and this causes frustration within ourselves.”

For Jackson, there is a big difference between healthy boundaries and rigid boundaries. “The goal is a healthy relationship with those close to you, balanced by a sense of understanding, mutual support and give-and-take,” she says.

“There may be occasions when we choose to bend our boundaries a little or allow someone to cross the line, for example when someone is hurt or sad, needs extra support or asks for an exception with respect and kindness.

“It’s also important to recognise that respecting boundaries works two ways. In setting our own boundaries we need to examine our personal behaviour and words to see if we are crossing the line for another person.”

Adhere to the rule of three

Once we set out boundaries, we expect others to respect them, but not everyone will adjust to the new rules. If limits are ignored, Jackson recommends implementing what she calls the rule of three.

“If they step over your boundaries a first time, let that be a lesson for that person to learn that you are not OK with their behaviour,” she says.

“If it happens a second time, it is a lesson for you to learn that maybe they just don’t share the same values as you. If there is a third instance, then it’s time to walk away and, if that’s not possible, then creating a healthy distance may be the best way to protect yourself.”

Updated: May 06, 2024, 5:00 AM