So many of us are giving our energy away to people and things that don’t serve us. We only have so much energy for each day and when we give it away or let it leak out of us by not taking care of ourselves first, we often don’t have anything left for ourselves. There’s an old saying that comes to mind. You can’t pour from an empty cup. And it’s so real, especially if you’re dealing with health concerns, mental or physical.
This is where having healthy boundaries comes in, the limits we set for our own behavior to take care of ourselves. There are common misconceptions about what boundaries are and aren’t, and I’m so excited to dive into it all with you today, my loves, to help you stop up those energy leaks that may be keeping you from living your best life.
Boundaries are a tool we use to stop up those energy leaks.
To get what we want for and from ourselves by stating our wants and needs clearly and directly. To say this is where you end and I begin. So boundaries are like having a yard on your property. The boundary is where your land ends and your neighbor’s begins.
You get to decide what types of flowers, trees, herbs you want to grow, and your neighbor gets to decide what they’ll grow in their own space. You also don’t tell that human what to grow and they don’t tell you. Each of you just take care of your yard as you see fit.
Boundaries need to be spoken when they are violated.
When your neighbor comes into your yard and starts to rip up the flowers that they don’t like or to plant the ones that they do like without your consent. Boundaries can be established ahead of time or in a moment when they’re crossed. Any type of abuse would be considered a boundary violation, as would be disrespecting a clearly stated boundary.
Boundary violations can also be far more subtle than someone F-ing with your yard or disrespecting your personal space. In the metaphor with our neighbor, we can either do something preemptively to make our boundaries clear, like when we move in we might say, hey, I want to be clear about what space is mine and what’s yours, let’s walk through the yard together.
Or sometimes we think it’s clear to both people in the conversation, where one yard ends and the other begins. But it may turn out that our neighbor thinks that their yard actually ends a few feet further into what we know is actually our yard. That’s a time when we can check in and let our neighbor know that they’ve actually come into our territory and they’ll need to stop.
These are times when we’re assuming best intentions.
Sometimes people don’t realize they’re crossing our boundaries because they just don’t know. And there are also times when we don’t have to explicitly state our boundaries. But we know what they are, and the more we can get in touch with ourselves. The more we can feel it in our bodies when a boundary is crossed. Then we get to speak up and say how we feel.
What I want to bring today is a clear understanding of some things that may be new for you. Boundaries are not emotional and are just about you and what you’ll do in a given situation. I also want to highlight what boundaries are not. So we can all get clear on that because I hear the term boundaries thrown around in a number of less than useful ways and I love clarity.
And because I’m me, I want to talk about and focus on how boundaries are a health issue. So boundaries are stated in the first person, come with a consequence, are not just about saying no, are not about changing other person’s behavior, are stated without guilt and shame, and are good for our health.
Setting boundaries can feel challenging
I know that setting boundaries can feel really challenging if it’s new to you, and I want to remind you to be patient and compassionate with yourself while you practice this. You wouldn’t get mad at a newborn for not being able to run, so be gentle with yourself. This is a new skill and it takes a lot of practice and that’s fine.
You’re learning, you’re growing, you’re going to F this up, and remember that there may be times when people don’t love your boundaries. And when we stop people-pleasing, people stop being pleased. And all of that is okay, my love, truly. So here’s a simple truth and the reason why we’re talking about boundaries together.
You’re way more likely to get your needs met if you state them and if you’re clear about what works for you and what doesn’t. I remind myself often that when I state my boundaries, I am setting myself and others free. Most people can’t read your mind and it’s not kind to expect them to do so. And furthermore, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment when that other person doesn’t do that thing that you told them not to do in your head but never said out loud.
I know I like it a lot more when I know the rules of a place or a person.
It would be deeply uncomfortable to start working in an office with no clearly stated rules or expectations and then to have your boss say, “Do whatever, it’s fine,” only to find that I’ve violated an unspoken rule after I’ve done something that she thinks is wrong.
By being clear and upfront, we give the people in our lives a roadmap that makes it a lot easier for them to know what I think is okay and what I think isn’t okay. So let’s start by defining what boundaries are and how to set healthy ones for yourself.
To do so, I want to start with a simple situation that can feel difficult for many of us. So you go to see your parents and the first thing your mom says is some comment about your body. How you’ve gained or lost weight, how your hair looks, how oh my gosh, you have acne, or is that a cold sore? Whatever. You get to set a boundary about that.
To say, “Mom, I don’t want to talk about my body with you, and if you bring it up again, I’m going to go in the other room.” Another example might be that you don’t like being around cigarette smoke. If someone lights a cigarette, you’re simply going to walk away for 10 minutes or however long it takes to smoke a cigarette.
You can’t control other people’s behavior and choices.
Anyway, you can say to your smoker friends, “Hey, let me know if you’re going to light up so I can take a little walk,” or you can ask folks not to smoke around you, but you don’t get to set the boundary you cannot smoke around me if you’re outside or at someone else’s house. You can only control yourself and you can choose to hang out while folks smoke or not.
This last part goes to the point that boundaries are flexible, changeable, moveable, and removable as we see fit for our own wellness. Walls are the opposite of boundaries. They are permanent, rigid, solid. They keep others out and they keep us trapped inside. It’s up to you to decide how open or closed your boundaries will be at any moment.
You get to decide what’s acceptable behavior from others and also from yourself. You can decide to stay on the picnic blanket with your pal the smoker because you love them and you want to hang out, and you can just ask them to blow the smoke away from you or if your asthma’s acting up and you don’t feel like being around it, you can take a walk.
Flexible, changeable boundaries put us in control of our thoughts and the feelings that arise from them.
So we can take actions that serve us and have results in our lives that feel good and supportive. When we’re setting a healthy boundary, there’s a consequence for folks who don’t want to honor our boundaries.
When we’re setting healthy boundaries, there’s a consequence for crossing it. Not just the pit of despair. But when we make clear, simple statements about what we’ll do to take care of ourselves if the other person crosses a boundary. And internally, we set clear boundaries about what we will do for ourselves.
In the example about your mom and the body talk, if you told you mom plainly and clearly, “Ma, if you do x, I’ll do y.” And this isn’t like a threat with threat energy. It’s a clear statement of your limits. “Mom, if you talk about my body, I’m out.” But not, “Mom, I’m out.” Just calm, clear, direct.
You don’t have to be mean to set a boundary.
Or to get intense or aggressive. You just get to own your own choices and state them. With your pal the smoker, the consequence is simple. You light up, I’m out. Easy. If that person chooses to light up in your house, you can set the boundary that there’s no smoking here and if they choose to light up in your living room, they either have to put the cigarette out or leave.
And if they want to smoke while you’re hanging out in the park, a public space, the consequence for them may be that you’ll walk away and they’ll miss out on time spent with amazing you because you’re going on a little walk while they smoke. Super simple, easy peasy. No stress, no threat. Just a clear statement.
The third thing is about saying no.
So simply saying no is not a boundary, per say. Saying no and then doing what you said you would do in response is setting up a healthy boundary. Saying no and then trying to control how someone else thinks or behaves is also not a healthy boundary and it is not in service of your goal of living with peace in your heart, which I hope is one of your top life goals.
I mean, I know it’s my most top-est life goal. Setting a boundary is only necessary when someone crosses into your emotional or physical space without your permission. That’s when you state your need and the consequence clearly. We don’t set boundaries in attempt to control or change other people because that’s not possible.
Each of us take action based on our feelings, which were created by our own thoughts. So it’s actually impossible to truly control someone unless you can control their mind. Sorry, I cracked myself up there. I crack myself up a lot. I feel like that’s – side note here, when I talk about having peace in my heart, I think one of the things that brings me the most peace and joy on any given day is how much I have learned to laugh at myself.
We set boundaries as a way to clearly say what we want and need.
Not just that, but to respect that other humans have their own autonomy and can make their own decisions about how they want to act. Whether or not someone changes their behavior is so not the point. Setting a boundary in the first place is about deciding how you will respond to a given situation.
And this is foundational, my love. Setting boundaries is not about the other person at all. I wish you could see my face. I’m making a very emphatic Muppet face. It’s not about them, it’s about you because you can only control you. And setting healthy boundaries is not about expecting or even wanting the other person to change their behavior.
It’s for you, as your own autonomous being to decide what will trigger a particular behavior for you. Ending a conversation, giving a warning, walking out of a room. If you do x, I will do y. You as a person need to be really clear about why you’re setting that boundary. If you do this, I’m not going to try to control what you do. The boundary is about how I’m going to take care of myself.
You do x, I do y. Not you do x and I try to guilt or shame you into doing y because it’s what I want you to do. And I get that this can feel nuanced in the moment of trying to do it, so getting clear on why and how you’re setting a boundary is vital. Checking in with yourself to make sure your goal is your own self-care and not to change another person’s behavior.
It’s not your job to change another person’s behavior.
So in the example of your friend lighting a cigarette outside while you’re hanging out at the park, a public space together, you’re not saying, “Dude, if you light a cigarette, I’m going to force you to leave this shared space. I’m going to shame you, guilt you, bother you until you quit smoking.” Adults can do and say and think and feel whatever and however they want. We can only control ourselves and the choices we make in a situation.
And that brings us to the point that boundaries are not emotional. And I’ll be the first one to get vulnerable here and I’ll say that I used to have this habit back in the day of stating what felt like a want or a need but with a whole boatload of guilt or shame because I was insecure about asking for what I needed.
Some part of me didn’t believe I had the right to state a boundary or a need. And part of making peace with that old story of knowing deep in my heart that of course I get to ask for what I want and need, and of course I get to state boundaries because boundaries are just about me has been to do it. Because we know that what we practice, we believe. So the more I’m able to state my boundaries clearly without all the bullshit emotional baggage and to carry through with that boundary, the more firm my belief in my own right to do so gets.
Your needs are valid
Let’s go through an example. So maybe instead of just saying, “Mom, please don’t talk about my body, and if you do, I’m going to walk away or hang up,” maybe you do this whole song and dance to justify your boundary. Perhaps bringing in some beautiful shame or guilt. Something like, “Listen mom, I know you love me and you just want the best for me, but the way you raised me with so much emphasis on my weight, my looks, my skin, my hair, my clothes, I mean it really did a number on me. Let’s not even mention the emphasis on my grades. It was really stressful and it’s also stressful now when you bring up my weight. It makes me feel really bad. When you do it makes me feel like shit for days so could you please try not to do that anymore?”
See how the story and the explanation, the guilt, all of that just dilutes our message and takes us out of our power. If you want to have a real convo with your mom about body shaming, go for it. But patting your boundary setting with a whole lot of BS because you’re worried about her reaction is not loving and it’s not rigorously honest.
Your needs are valid and real and worthy on their own without a story because that story and justification is at its core manipulative. In that moment, you may be seeking to get the listener’s emotional buy-in to what you’re saying and asking for, versus staying on your side of the street and simply telling the other person what you will do for your own self in response to their behavior.
Let’s talk about health.
So, setting boundaries is a health issue, largely because resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. So when we set healthy boundaries, we don’t allow other people to make choices for us. We stay on our own side of the street and take care of ourselves. Our focus is on what we need for our own wellness.
Not stating our boundaries and then getting pissed off that the other person crossed this invisible line in the sand is a quick one-way trip to resentment-ville. When we get angry or upset that someone has harmed us, our cortisol goes up. Cortisol is one of the stress hormones, and chronically elevated or imbalanced cortisol can lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and because cortisol thins mucus membranes, being angry at the world and everyone in it can lead to leaky gut, which we heard all about in episode four.
Instead, we can have good boundaries and can say what we will and will not accept in a relationship, and the cost or consequence if that line is crossed. When we’re letting our energy leak by taking care of others before ourselves, our self-care falters and all of a sudden, we’re not doing what we need to for our health.
Setting boundaries to change behaviors.
Let’s say for example your working on not earing gluten or drinking alcohol. You can set a clear boundary that you don’t want to talk about your food choices or you won’t be pressured into eating pizza or having that beer. So there are two settings where I hear about this an awful lot from my clients and patients.
The first is family. So folks will tell me, “I was doing great until we went to my in-laws for dinner and my father-in -law was pressuring me so much to have his famous bread rolls and I knew they would make me feel like garbage but I ate them anyway because I didn’t want to upset him.” And I also hear this a lot about socializing with friends and the pressure people feel to drink alcohol or to eat what everyone else is eating, to not cause trouble or to not be the odd one out.
And if you’re new to setting boundaries, you may not know that you can say, “I’m cool, all good, I don’t want to talk about my drinking.” And if that person continues, you can say, “Listen, I don’t want to talk about my drinking and if you push it, I might need to take a little break from this convo.”
You can set an internal boundary.
You can just choose to walk away from a situation where someone’s berating you about something you’ve decided for your health.
When we do not take care of ourselves with clear boundaries, we set ourselves up for resentment. So in the example of eating something that you know will hurt your health, so you go to your father-in-law’s, he pressures you to eat his homemade bread rolls, you know gluten makes you feel terrible and you eat it and you feel terrible. So you blame him for making you eat the food or pressuring you to eat it.
Or you do that subtle combo of shame and blame where it’s like, part mad at yourself, which often looks on its surface like mad at him and maybe subconsciously you feel mad at the societal norms that you aren’t supposed to say no lest you offend someone. And that often goes something like, “I ate the bread rolls to not upset him. He gets so upset if I don’t eat what he cooks and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings or get my mother-in-law involved.”
And I get it. Many of us, especially those of us socialized as women who grew up in chaotic households, we’re taught in direct or subtle ways that it’s not okay to say no when we mean it. And we can experience a lot of guilt or shame when we say no. This is a core feminist issue about trusting ourselves and raising our voices.
I believe deeply that all of us have the capacity to change, shift, and grow, despite our socialization.
We can learn to see how cultural and societal norms have led us to act in ways that do not support our mental and physical health. We can work to change our relationship to these harmful teachings, to say what we mean, to say no, to set healthy boundaries even if other people don’t like it. Even if good girls eat what they’re given, don’t say no, are polite at dinner.
I want to say it clearly. You aren’t causing a fuss or being a bother by calmly stating a boundary. You are taking care of your one and only perfect human self and you are so worthy of that care and love. And this all starts with re-teaching ourselves to know what we want and need. So many of us are out of touch with that part of ourselves that says I want x, or I really don’t want y.
And the first step here is to be your own watcher. And I want to empower you to learn to watch your mind on the daily, as it does what it’s been told so that you can get in touch with what you want and need and to say it clearly without any bullshit around it. If you’re lost here, no worries, my love.
Setting internal boundaries
So back to your father-in-law and gluten. You get to set your own internal boundary, such as I will not eat things that will harm me. And you can then plan your thoughts ahead of time for your future self. When my father-in-law invariably pressures me to eat the gluten, I can take a deep breath, not get frustrated or mad, not take it personally, and can simply calmly say, “No thanks, Tom, I’m not eating that.”
And if you continue to feel pressured and need to draw a line in the sand, you can plan and practice in advance to calmly say, “Hey Tom, I don’t eat gluten, and if you keep insisting that I eat it, I’m going to go read in the living room during dinner. Thanks.”
And this harkens us back to the work of Pavlov, which I’ve talked about before, about social conditioning. Where it’s relevant here is that the things we practice feel less scary.
So if you’re worried that while you’re at your in-laws’ and your father-in-law’s like, “just have a bread roll”, that you’re going to cave. That you’re not going to be able to stand firm in your own best interest, practice it ahead of time. Train your future self to believe that when he says x, you will say y.
And that brings us to our last point.
My friend Tara from college always says, “Say what you’re going to do and do what you say.” If you make a boundary request and you don’t follow through on it, you’ve diminished yourself in that moment. But with your own sense of self-respect and the other person’s respect for you. And as someone who means what she says, it is your responsibility to carry your own boundaries through.
If your mom starts talking about your body and you stay silent, you’re teaching her that though you said you would hang up or walk away, you actually won’t. So it’s okay for her to keep talking about your weight. If your friend lights a cigarette when you ask that they don’t do that around you and you say or do nothing, you’re teaching them that you didn’t really mean that boundary.
I often see people not setting or keeping boundaries because they’re afraid of the other person’s response.
That your mom will get mad if you ask her not to mention your weight, or your smoker friend will say, “No dude, I want to smoke wherever I want to smoke. Deal with it.” Or your father-in-law might make that super disappointed face if you ask him to stop pressuring you with the gluten because you’ve always eaten it before.
If we’re just coming to understand that something isn’t working for us and wish we had some kind of Hot Tub Time Machine and could go back in time to set a boundary years ago, it can feel complicated and weird to be like, “So that thing you’ve done for ages, can you cut it out please?” We often have to set boundaries because we haven’t taken care of ourselves in this way before.
And I get that that can feel scary. I totally get it and I cannot emphasize this enough; an ounce of prevention is so much better than a pound of cure. That is, it’s so much better to just say, “Please don’t talk about my weight. Please don’t light a cigarette around me, or if you’re going to, just let me know so I can walk away. No big deal. Please understand that I’m going to eat what works for my body and please don’t pressure me to make a different choice.”
Rather than do something that doesn’t work for you and to be mad at or resentful of the other person. All because you didn’t speak your mind and that person keeps doing things you haven’t asked them not to do.
Remember, our thoughts create our feelings and we take action based on our feelings.
So if your father-in-law is thinking, “My gluten is the most amazing gluten and I show love through food and I want you to be happy so you need to eat my food.” That string of thoughts would lead him to feel perhaps an urgency or anxiety for you to eat the gluten. And the action he might take then is to pressure you.
And all of that is based on his internal processes and has zero to do with you as the human that you are.
Your father-in-law can’t have a new thought about pressuring you to eat something if he doesn’t know you don’t want him to. And he might still choose to pressure you once he does know that you don’t want him to. And that’s when you get to take action around your boundary. To restate it and to let him know you won’t be coming over for dinner again. Maybe y’all could do a different activity together like a board night.
And there are two important caveats here. The first – and this is really important – is that it may not always be physically safe to hold your boundary. Like with someone who’s violent, and you get to check with yourself to see what feels like a safer choice. If in that moment its to take action, enforce your boundary, or not and to get out of the situation.
You can also decide in a moment that you actually don’t mind the smoke that much. I mean, the wind is blowing away from you anyway and you have limited time with your friend who’s visiting. Whatever the situation may be, where it genuinely feels better to stay than to enforce your boundary. It’s yours to live however you want and need to.
Boundaries are vital for our own mental and physical health, protect our relationships, and prevent resentment.
You get to set boundaries to take care of yourself and only yourself. Boundaries are about no one but you because we can’t change other people. Only ourselves. And we’re not responsible for anyone else’s actions either. Remember that my love.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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Victoria Albina, NP, MPH is a licensed and board certified Family Nurse Practitioner, herbalist and life coach, with 20 years experience in health and wellness. She trained at the University of California, San Francisco, and holds a Masters in Public Health from Boston University and a bachelors from Oberlin College. She comes to this work having been a patient herself, and having healed from a lifetime of IBS, GERD, SIBO, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
She is passionate about her work, and loves supporting patients in a truly holistic way - body, mind, heart and spirit. A native of Mar del Plata, Argentina, she grew up in the great state of Rhode Island, and lives in NYC with her partner. A brown dog named Frankie Bacon has her heart, and she lives for steak and a good dark chocolate.