How boundaries help you to reclaim your life and energy 

By Sarah Cannata

Your lack of boundaries is making you miserable. 

I know because I’ve been exactly where you are right now. To avoid stepping on toes in my personal life, I’ll give you an example from many moons ago.

In my early 20s, I scored my first ‘proper’ job. I loved it, and the social aspect played a huge role in stimulating me at that workplace. Slowly, I allowed what was a junior role to take over my life. Five years later, although I’d earned a promotion and a slight pay rise, I had also worked myself into the ground by being a ‘yes’ person. The only way to maintain the standards I’d set for myself was to work longer hours.

The breaking point 

I had a 1.5-hour ride into the office daily (two trams). One morning, I recall sitting in the dark, alone in the building at 6am working. My boss rolled in a few hours later and asked if I was ok. At that moment, I knew I was on borrowed time. This was no way to live. I felt trapped, and my inability to protect my personal life had spiralled completely out of control. At the time, I was incapable of having a challenging conversation with my boss about the workload. I took the easy way out and left the company. 

Does my story resonate?

I could reel off hundreds of other examples, both personal and professional. At 36, I still find myself establishing and re-establishing healthy boundaries. As one matures, one realises healthy boundaries are essential for mental health, well-being and protecting energy. As an introvert, my energy is precious because it’s not infinite. When we are aware of and enforce our boundaries, we set clear expectations and ensure our needs are met.

It’s easier said than done

So many of us struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries (I wrote ‘us’ for a reason). For so long, my boundaries have been non-existent because I:

  • Am terrible with conflict
  • Worry about being perceived as selfish
  • Had no idea what my boundaries were 

Does this sound familiar? Sadly, sometimes, it takes us hitting rock bottom and realising we are miserable to have the capacity to own our needs. I use the following approaches as goalposts to help me create the life I want to live and revisit them daily. 

Exploring what is and isn’t ok

Before enforcing boundaries, you must understand what you’re comfortable with and your non-negotiables. I struggled with this because for so long, I stuffed down any feelings of discomfort, particularly anger. I was scared I would explode if I dared to embrace my anger.

If you’re struggling with this first step, grab a piece of paper and divide it into three columns:

  • The situations or behaviours that constantly drain you
  • The situations or behaviours that energise you
  • The situations or behaviours you can control (within reason) by setting boundaries

Once you better understand your internal landscape, you can focus on communicating what is and isn’t ok to others.

Communicating and expressing myself respectfully

This was a tough one and is a constant work in progress. I do not like conflict and have gone to great lengths throughout my life to avoid it. As hard as it is, I’ve found it’s best to be direct when expressing what I need to others rather than expecting people to connect the dots. I’m always careful to be respectful, and even though it can feel a little cruel, to be honest, at times, it is often the kindest thing we can do for others. 

Handy tip: deploy ‘I’ statements when speaking with others instead of ‘you’ statements, which can be misconstrued as accusatory. For example:

“I need alone time this weekend” rather than “You are suffocating me!”

If I know I’m going to engage in a difficult conversation, I often write out a few lines and workshop them. This doesn’t guarantee things will go according to plan, but having some dialogue in my head helps a great deal. Sometimes, I draft responses based on what people may say.

Accepting my inevitable clumsy communication at times

When I started enforcing boundaries with loved ones, I was certainly a little clumsy with my communication, and chances are, you will be, too. Don’t aim for perfection; know you’ll improve with time. Be kind to yourself if some of your communication doesn’t go as planned; it’s (almost) inevitable. Remember, setting and enforcing boundaries can be challenging, especially if you’re used to prioritising others and their needs.

Asking for help 

I haven’t planned this, but I’m fortunate to have several close friends older than me. It’s rare for me to share something with them they haven’t experienced or struggled with. The older I get, the more I value quality friends. The people who are there with you through the ups and downs and who I can say almost anything to without any judgement. I have one friend I message each evening on Facebook Messenger, and we’ve had some intense chats over the years. Take it from me: you’ll wake up some mornings with a huge vulnerability hangover, but the people who are worth having in your life won’t think twice about what you’ve shared.

We don’t have to go through anything in life alone. I understand you may not have a group of friends who you truly trust. If not, think outside the box. Seek professional support if needed, or consider joining a Facebook group you resonate with. There’s no one way to connect with others.

Changing my priorities

Changing my self-perception has been critical. I don’t aspire to be a yes person and keep everyone else around me happy. I deserve to prioritise myself and my needs. My situation may be different to yours (I’m single with no children), but when you look after yourself, you indirectly look after everyone else. 

We’re human, and we all have needs. If deep down, you feel numb, disconnected, and unhappy with your life, things need to change. It’s ok to feel however you are feeling; what’s not ok is to ignore it or stuff it down. Your happiness matters.

If you’re struggling to understand yourself, ‘free writing’ daily for a week may help. Set a timer for five minutes (or however long you have) and jot down whatever comes to mind. Don’t censor yourself; simply allow your thoughts to flow. After a week, you may notice some patterns in your thoughts. Get your inner detective on and follow any leads with curiosity.

Enforcing my boundaries

Having boundaries is one thing; enforcing them is another and takes practice. I’m still working on this, but I try to let people know when they’ve crossed one of my boundaries, and I act accordingly. That may mean ending a conversation, leaving a social gathering or limiting my time around certain people where possible. 

As far as we know, we only get one chance at life. I don’t want to spend my life catering to everyone else’s needs and ignoring my own. Living our desired life means creating space and having the confidence to pursue what makes us happy. Once my time is up, I don’t want regrets; I want to celebrate being brave enough to live in a way that made me happy.

Boundary setting takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and draw on the tools you have handy to help.

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