Many of us can relate to what it’s like to feel obligated to attend every event and social outing we’re invited to. It can hit people hard during the holiday season especially. There are the Christmas parties with friends and coworkers and family. There are birthday parties and travel obligations. And outside the frenzied social outings, there are seasonal impacts as well. Cold, grey days, difficulty sleeping, and seasonal mental health struggles can zap your energy reserves. Not to mention the struggle of keeping up with your various work and home obligations.
It can be easy to get swept up in all your obligations and then crash. Before you know it, you’re facing burnout.
When your life feels too hectic, it’s good to set boundaries with people – and yourself. Boundaries are limits that honor your current capacity, time, and energy. Ultimately, you’re responsible for communicating with others what you need, how you want to be treated, and what you’re willing to spend your time on.
Boundaries are much easier said than done, I know. They can be really scary to implement and uphold, especially if you have underlying anxiety about letting others down. This comes up a lot with my clients who are anxious perfectionists or people-pleasers. Boundaries can bring up all kinds of fears, including abandonment, rejection, and low self-worth.
But there are ways to set restorative boundaries that keep you from burnout without feeling like a jerk. In order to set healthy boundaries, it’s important to understand the difference between rigid boundaries and flexible boundaries. It’s also necessary to realize that setting boundaries with yourself is just as vital to your mental health as setting boundaries with others.
We all want to set healthy boundaries that serve us, strengthen our relationships, and feel sustainable in our lives. And as it turns out, there are different categories of boundaries.
Rigid boundaries are limits that create separation between you and another person. They feel protective, but they tend to lead to isolation and disconnection. They keep others at arm’s length to avoid rejection and other painful experiences.
You may have developed rigid boundaries as a way to protect yourself from getting hurt. For example, if your partner cheated on you once, you may have a zero-strike policy for new partners. You might have a hard time trusting new dating interests. If your partner does something that activates this fear of abandonment, you may immediately dump them. Let’s say they have a flirty conversation with someone else. Rather than risk more pain and rejection, you cut them cleanly out of your life.
I want to make it clear that having rigid boundaries doesn’t make you bad or broken or wrong. You simply developed a coping mechanism against being hurt. The problem with rigid boundaries is just that they can lead to loneliness for you down the road. If you have rigid boundaries in your life, you’re more likely to be anxious and on guard all the time. And living a life this way can do more harm than good for you.
Flexible boundaries, on the other hand, change and develop depending on the situation, person, or people involved. Flexible boundaries allow for nuance. They don’t rely on quick emotional reactions. They give the other person the benefit of the doubt while still honoring your own needs and energy.
If you insert flexible boundaries into the above scenario, your decision-making process and outcome may look different. You might have a conversation with your partner to discuss what happened and why. You might ask yourself whether this type of thing has happened before, or if this is an outlier. You might ask them to regain your trust in a way that feels good for you, like going to therapy together. And depending on their response and commitment to repairing their actions, you might make a different decision about whether they stay in your life.
In the workplace, a healthy boundary might look like making sure you don’t do anything work-related after a certain time. But let’s say you have a coworker friend who’s asked you if you have time to help them spruce up their resume for a job search. You might agree to help them after hours for a certain amount of time, assuming it doesn’t clash with your ability to recharge. This is an example of a flexible boundary that takes into account someone else’s request without abandoning your own capacity and needs.
Setting flexible boundaries is not easy. They require trust, vulnerability, and self-compassion. This is true in your workplace, friendships, and romantic partnerships. If you’ve been hurt or taken for granted in the past, easing up on rigid boundaries may feel dangerous. But with time and patience, you can learn to set healthy, flexible boundaries that serve you.
When it comes to communicating your needs and capacity in a healthy way, it can be confusing to know where to start. But as you probably know, avoiding setting any boundaries can lead to resentment, fatigue, and burnout at work and home.
If you’re trying to start the process of implementing better boundaries, social boundaries are a good place to start. Social boundaries are limits that you place on your social interactions. Setting more boundaries around your social obligations can be a great way to regain your energy and recover from burnout or fatigue.
There are plenty of ways to get started setting social boundaries. To avoid more overwhelm, here are two simple rules of thumb to follow if you want to set healthy social boundaries.
Rule #1: Be honest with yourself. Acknowledge that some of your actions might be contributing to your burnout. If you’re having difficulty setting boundaries at work and in your relationships, why do you think that’s happening? Ask yourself what’s going on underneath some of these behaviors. There’s no shame in any answer you come up with. Acknowledging what’s really going on is the first step in being able to make compassionate changes.
Rule #2: Honor your capacity. Be honest about the reality of your current life and limits. Maybe you’re dealing with seasonal depression. Or you might have recently gotten a new job and are trying to manage high amounts of stress around it. Whatever the case may be, take your real capacity into account when making plans and committing to things. It’s easy to base your commitments on where you wish your capacity were at, but that’s not an effective way to take care of yourself. Establishing boundaries with yourself and others only works when you’re realistic about what you can and can’t handle.
If you struggle to set flexible boundaries in your life, you’re not alone. I can help you work through your challenges and come up with goals to honor your capacity, figure out how to set better flexible boundaries, and maintain healthier social boundaries.
During our work together, you’ll learn how to communicate better with yourself and those around you. We’ll come up with coping strategies to deal with any rigid boundaries that are currently in your life. And we’ll help you figure out how to ask for what you need so you can step into the world feeling empowered and resilient.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.