Melbourne Functional Medicine
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I’ve worked with many patients who are impacted by unhealthy boundaries. Those flimsy boundaries might be with work colleagues, family members, friends or even yourself, and there is always a cost to you.
Some of the reasons a person can find themselves in a boundary-less pickle is because they develop a strong identifying desire to be liked. They might not want to cause a fuss or perhaps they feel intimidated by overpowering or overbearing people - or think that their voice won’t matter. Maybe they have FOMO (fear of missing out) so they commit to too many things, and the boundary setting needs to be with themselves.
The cost to our patients is that they don’t prioritise their health needs and will very often put the needs and wants of others before their own. This can feel frustrating when they know things need to change but have no idea how to change these situations.
Surely there’s nothing wrong with being a nice person and going above and beyond? In reality, the lack of healthy boundaries means that your health needs are shuffled to the back of the pack. The real cost here is that this impacts not only your healing potential, but if the same behaviours continue, your health might even decline further.
One of the very first things I explain to a patient when we’ve realised boundaries are in fact costing them, is the idea that a boundary can be kind. If setting boundaries isn’t natural, you might think you need to be a brute and aggressive. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that a boundary, well set, actually frees everybody and can be done in a very amicable and calm way.
What are some examples of poorly formed boundaries?
The theme of these is largely that someone or something else is more important than you.
One of the most common objections to creating healthy boundaries is a fear of conflict. It is important to remember, a healthy boundary is not about confrontation or being aggressive. It is instead using language frameworks to give yourself some space to make decisions and create space for alternative choices. Whilst continuing to not set boundaries has a health and happiness cost, it can often feel like setting boundaries might also be stressful. Healthy boundaries are not selfish. You can of course say 'yes' to things that are important and continue to support those you care for...just not at the cost of your own health or happiness. Healthy boundaries are not about always saying 'no', but rather saying 'yes' to the right things.
1. Give yourself time
This is the first, best, easiest way to create a boundary.
We often say yes because we feel like we need to answer in the moment. By creating some space, you are able to take some tension out of the conversation for yourself. You don't need to respond on the spot, and offering a time buffer can help you map out your next choice.
"That sounds really lovely. Let me think about it and I'll come back to you by...."
"I'd love to say yes, but l just need a few days to think it through"
"How exciting. I'll go away and check my calendar and come back to you"
2. Avoid giving excuses
This is where guilt lives.
Not being able to attend, deliver or respond to something can have you swimming in guilt and your mind could easily race with all of the stories you make up about what the other party thinks. So exhausting!
No excuses are necessary or helpful when establishing a boundary with someone. That said, it is a very natural human habit to offer an explanation - even when one hasn’t been asked for. This step is one best practised before being used for real and it can be broken into two stages.
Firstly, you might reply with:
"I'd love to but I can't this time. I hope it's fun"
"That's so kind, but no thanks"
"What a wonderful idea. Please keep me in mind next time, but unfortunately I can't make this one"
The second stage is just allowing some space. Practise resisting the temptation to leap in with an explanation. A little space never killed anyone.
3. Be clear, direct and kind
The way you deliver information is powerful. Using a calm voice and a steady tone sets assurance. That combined with clear and concise language doesn't leave much space for battle. Before having a conversation about boundaries, centring yourself with a few deep belly breaths can help to steady you.
4. Gently remind
People need reminding because, frankly, you're not as important to them as they are. Bringing them back to your original need or earlier communication can help to gently steer them back your way.
"It's been a while since our first chat about my health, so I just wanted to remind you that I'm still being very mindful about my social commitments"
"I'm still trying so hard to prioritise rest, so I'll continue to say no for the moment"
5. Be unapologetic
Feeling guilty, shameful, regretful...these are just some of the emotions that can rise for those finding it tricky to establish healthy boundaries. It is important to know and remember that you are the most important person in your life. Your health and wellbeing is a priority, and is not something to apologise for. That doesn't mean you can't apologise at all for anything, just not for being pro-you. See the language examples in strategy 2.
The best time to practise your new healthy boundaries is definitely NOT in the heat of the moment. You will likely be flustered, overwhelmed and unprepared. The best time to practise is away from the heat of the moment - on the weekend, when you have free time or perhaps even with a friend you trust.
Doing role plays or even practising this new framing with a kind, loving or gentle friend (what I refer to as low hanging fruit) is a great way to build confidence and explore how it feels.
You might even like to run over your ‘boundary lines’ while in the shower so that you’re familiar with the language.
“I’d love to say yes but I’ll need to come back to you”
“I’m happy to help - let’s have a chat about what I’m not doing if I say yes to this”
“Thank you for the invitation - I can’t make it this time. I really hope you have fun”
Unhealthy boundaries with self
In 2021, I worked with a patient who didn’t tell people about her (serious) health condition - Multiple Sclerosis. The nature of her condition meant she was often completely exhausted and when we had coaching calls, it was obvious she was struggling big time. There was also an element of identity in her avoiding telling others. She was worried that they would pander to her and treat her differently. This strong, successful, determined woman definitely did not want to be mollycoddled, so she simply avoided telling anyone about her condition. The cost was that she often committed to more than she could actually do. It wiped her out and it also cost her authentic connection. When you’re holding back vital information about who you are, there is an incomplete connection.
We spent time doing role plays together and after some practise, agreed that she would tell some of her friends - the ones she felt had a gentle nature or a close connection. She was nervous but also a bit excited at the potential.
When we next spoke she was so delighted to share that not only did they fully accept her (and not belittle her), but it opened up a series of vulnerable conversations where they shared their own stories. She felt connected, accepted and is now able to leave a dinner or party early without fuss. Saying ‘no’ in general is now a lot easier for her.
Unhealthy boundaries at work
In 2022, I started working with an incredibly kind soul. She poured her heart into her job. She really respected her boss (who sounds amazing) and wanted to deliver the highest quality performance she could. Her boss never asked her to stay late or take on as much as she did - in fact he encouraged her to leave!
The boundary-less problem sat squarely with her. She was working until late at night from her home computer and getting up early to beat the busyness by arriving at work at 7am. When we discussed why she was available to respond to work prompts even as late as 10pm, she said she didn’t want to miss anything important.
She would take on tasks during the day from any colleague who asked, pushing back priority tasks of her own. Being willing to support others is part of her identity of kindness. She was exhausted and was fast approaching burnout. One of her key health concerns was a thyroid completely out of control. Living her life constantly striving to support others meant she barely had time or energy to care for herself.
Gradually, we shifted the goalposts for her - she ‘turned off’ from work earlier in the evening. She set a rule around this where an alarm went at 8pm and from then on she didn’t check work emails.
When someone asked her to help with a task, she started saying “if I say 'yes' to this, what am I saying 'no' to?”. She started leaving work on time and she even sat down with her boss to explain the cost to her health that the workload was having. This was a power move because even though he never pushed her, he also didn’t realise the impact her workload was having on her - because she never told him how overwhelmed she was! A concern was that the part of her who identified as the ‘excellent worker’ felt like this was a smudge on how he would see her. We can all predict how this part goes - he appreciated the insight and fully showed up to continue to support her.
She was so brave to even start, and with a bit by bit approach, she has really created some magnificent boundaries. When we spoke towards the end of her program, she was giving examples of boundary setting but she didn’t even realise she was doing it!
She can now be found of an evening playing guitar or having a bath and has prioritised sleep. She has even started turning down social invitations on the weekend and her best strategy has been to give herself some space before saying 'yes' or 'no'.
It's easy to forget that sometimes the boundaries that would be most helpful to set are with ourselves. When you’re tired, overwhelmed, resentful, anxious, or experiencing symptoms of another kind, I invite you to perform a boundary audit (do you see yourself in the earlier list?) and see if you can make any adjustments to put self care right up near the top of the list of things to do.