There are several ways to take care of ourselves in midlife: understanding how to set and maintain healthy boundaries is one of them.
But unfortunately, these boundaries are more complicated than simply saying NO to strangers. For many of us, belonging to the sandwich generation, it’s still complicated to establish personal limits without compromising our relationships, especially if we’ve spent several years pleasing people, basing our own worthiness on others.
In midlife, we may have become so accustomed to acting like other people’s caretakers or fixers, that letting go of these roles can bring a great deal of fear.
Learning how to make our expectations clear will help us establish what behaviour we will accept from others and what they can expect from us, as well as avoid those feelings of disappointment and resentment.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries need to be about what’s right for us. They protect our personal and/or mental space, much like a fence creates a space between neighbours. These ‘fences’ involve the physical and emotional limits of appropriate behaviour between people and can help define where my space ends and the other begins.
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me – explains Dr Henry Cloud, an acclaimed leadership expert, clinical psychologist and New York Times bestselling author -. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom”.
Basically, what we eat, how we live our lives, whether we want to keep our hair grey or what we believe in is ours. Therefore, creating boundaries around our body, food, lifestyle, emotions, relationships, finances etc. is an important part of our own self-care.
Maybe it’s that you’d like to ban certain body-related comments or diet talk from the dinner table, perhaps your boundary is related to a specific dietary change you’re making and you know your family is going to push back or you are dating a younger man and your friends disapprove.
Comments made to you about your weight, your wrinkles, how you eat, or people you are dating, are no one else’s business. If your friends want to talk about trendy diets and how much weight you should lose, or what anti-age fillers you should try, and these conversations make you feel uncomfortable, then you need to set boundaries or get new friends.
According to Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the world-renowned provider of addiction and mental health treatment services, one of the quickest ways to determine if a boundary has been crossed is to ask yourself how you feel about a particular situation. Pay attention to your gut instincts. Often, our bodies will respond before our minds.
Most common boundaries
One way to identify your boundaries is to think about the areas of your life where you’re experiencing problems. The Berkeley Well-Being Institute suggests that we usually have the following three common types.
- Physical boundaries: They may include our need for personal space or our comfort with touch. For example, how close we are able to sit next to a stranger or if we can hug a person or not (saying yes or no).
- Behavioural boundaries: Whether we like the type of language a person uses or not, and include appropriate topics to discuss in our presence.
- Mental/emotional boundaries: They concern our thoughts and beliefs. Respecting emotional boundaries means validating the feelings of others and making sure we respect their ability to take in emotional information. They may be personally triggering topics (body, food), gaslighting, or manipulation.
Benefits of setting boundaries
Being able to set boundaries around our time, space, and bodies is a critical skill for maintaining mental health, recovering from addiction, and building healthy relationships with others. It also helps determine what is and isn’t comfortable for us to talk about with or around others and especially how it relates to us and our relationship with ourselves.
As licensed marriage & family therapist Michelle C. Brooten-Brooks explains to Very Well Health, some of the benefits of setting boundaries include:
- Avoiding burnout: Doing too much for too many people is an easy way to burn out.
- Less resentment: Giving and helping others is a strength, but when it turns into doing too much for others or letting others into your space, resentment can start to build up. Setting boundaries can reduce or eliminate resentment.
- More balance: Sometimes the boundaries we need to set are with ourselves. For example, while it can feel like a nice escape to binge-watch a favourite show, staying up too late on work nights can lead to exhaustion. Setting a boundary with yourself to go to bed earlier may provide more balance.
5 simple ways to set limits
Boundaries are a self-care tool and can be uncomfortable in the beginning. The more you practice setting them, the more easier they get.
Here are some useful examples.
- Start small: Setting boundaries is not easy. The key is to start small and focus on one thing at a time. For example: “I know when I eat too late, I have trouble sleeping. I am going to set a boundary to help me get more sleep, by making sure I finish eating at a certain time“.
- Build them early: It can be hard to set boundaries in a longer-pre-existing relationship, so if you can set one straight away, it is a lot easier to work with. This might be, for instance, around a conversation that seems to always get heated around religion, politics, health etc.
- Be consistent: Letting boundaries slide leads to confusion, new expectations and demands among those around you. If you change your mind around a boundary, communicate that clearly with your reasoning, to avoid a misunderstanding.
- Create a frame: To frame is to convey boundaries, limits, openings, and options for you and others. It also means carving out time for ourselves. For example, if it’s a matter between you and your body, consider practising a daily body gratitude habit which allows you to see it differently at least once every day. If you live with a partner, or family or have a busy social life this might look like spending a couple of hours alone each weekend, for your own self-care.
- Respect others’ limits: Setting boundaries means respecting each other limits, too. This may include other people who have different values, beliefs, or opinions, from yours.
Consider these suggestions as protective “emotional borders” you can build between others and yourself: this will take some effort and practise but there’s nothing more empowering than saying NO on your terms.
To start reclaiming your time and your mental well-being, tune into what it is that you really want. Instead of saying YES on impulse, get into the habit of asking yourself: “Am I agreeing to this for me?”