7 key ways of setting boundaries to protect your health

Oprah Winfrey’s 'SuperSoul Sunday' guests share why setting emotional boundaries is the key to creating positive and healthy relationships.

When I was younger, I loved to study. I was good at writing essays, completing coursework and reading widely on any subject - but there was also a problem. I was living with a severe pain related condition which limited what I could do.

Very often, I couldn't get to school for days, or weeks at a time.

I would teach myself the work at home, my mother would take it to school for the teacher to mark, and it would then be returned to me.

Although it wasn't easy I persevered, and managed to get high grades.

Word started to spread about how academic I was, and at times I'd get phone calls from other people - often adults - asking me for assistance with their own work.

"I'm having a bit of problem doing this essay," they'd say. "Would you be able to help me with it?."

Or, "I'm so stuck. Help please! Need to give it in by Friday!"

And, keen to help, I'd say yes.

That created another issue.

I was already far behind on my own assignments  - and now I was using energy reserves my body didn't have to help other people with theirs too.

I also worried that I wouldn't be able to help the other person in time. After all, I could rarely keep up with my own course work. What chance did I have of completing someone else's?

My mother explained the importance of saying no, telling me the necessity of prioritising and letting others know what I could and could not manage. But I found it hard to listen.

Instead, I'd stress myself in the effort of trying to help other people while my health and coursework suffered.

If I didn't help they'd be upset with me, I reasoned, and I'd be letting them down too.

It never occurred to me that by jeopardising my health the only person I was harming was myself.

It took years for me to learn the importance of my mother's lessons of setting boundaries in daily life. 


Why Boundaries are important

Boundaries are vital for our everyday functioning. It helps provide a structure of self-care.

  • I've found that when esteem or confidence is low, it is easy to drop one's boundaries and give in to the whims or requests of other people, even if it might be detrimental to my health.
  • Yet having clear set boundaries are an important part of self-identity and recognising your worth as an individual.
  • If you're struggling with health issues, for example, and those around you are not supportive, then one way of setting healthy boundaries is to decide what is acceptable to you or not. For example, if a loved one is constantly dismissive of you, you have to set a clear boundary that such language is not acceptable to you.

Kate (not her real name) told me that her teenage children constantly belittled her struggles with chronic fatigue - letting her know what an inconvenience it was to them that she was always ill.

"It felt like they were blaming me for being ill. When they were younger they were a bit more understanding, but I guess as they grew up and I got worse it wore on their patience. I felt terribly guilty - I wasn't the mother I wanted to be - so I found myself pushing myself all the time to do things for them, but it just made me worse and worse which frustrated them more. I felt like I was being spun round in a spiral and I just couldn't get out of it."

Of course the emotional pain of her children being upset with her, and her own sense of regret at not being able to be there for them as much as she wanted to made her health worse.

One of the ways she managed to set boundaries was by refusing to push her body beyond its limitations in order to please them.

"As much as I love my kids I realised that my health had to take priority. I made the decision that if they were going to be hostile to me when I was so ill, then I wasn't going to force myself to cook dinner for them when I could barely stand or move.  After all, they were in their mid-teens and old enough to help round the house more anyway.

"At first it was hard for me to do this - they are my kids, after all. And of course they didn't like it - but I was able to take the time I'd normally use to prepare dinner to rest, regain some energy and do something enjoyable for myself. Now they realise that there are days when they'll simply have to go in the kitchen and fend for themselves. It also means they're a bit less critical of me now - as they've seen that there are consequences for their behaviour."

Suzanne's issue was different.

She was fortunate enough to have a spouse who bent over backwards to assist her.  So she found she had to set boundaries of a different type.

Although she realised how lucky she was to have such help, she still needed to maintain some independence - even if it was a struggle at times. She really loved cooking, and her boundary was to tell him that there were days she just wanted to be in the kitchen and cook the meal herself, even if it took longer and meant dropping the odd item of cutlery here and there.

Photo: Didin Emelu, Unsplash

Photo: Didin Emelu, Unsplash


Here are seven simple ways of setting boundaries to protect your health:

  1.  Know your health limits. If completing the task for someone makes your health worse, emotionally or physically, then you have every right to say no. You need to be clear about the impact it will have on your health - and if it's going to be detrimental to you.
  2.  Make it clear. I used to go into so much detail when I was unable to help someone. I'd explain about my health, the tasks I hadn't been able to complete for myself, and how much it would affect me if I forced myself when I wasn't physically capable of it. Clearly, I felt guilty about letting the other person down. But really - there is no need. In fact, when you go into too much detail you're just giving the person an opportunity to try and get you to change your mind.  It's fine to simply say, "I'm so sorry - I won't be able to help you with this right now."
  3.  Buy some time. If you honestly feel unable to say "No," then you can tell the person you'll get back to them. This isn't ideal as it drags the situation out and gives the impression that you might be able to accommodate them, but it's better than saying an instant yes to something you know you simply aren't capable of doing. It gives you time to think of an alternative solution to help them. But if the answer's going to be a firm no, then don't keep them waiting too long! 
  4.  Take note of your feelings. Do you only hear from the person when they need your help with something? Do they then disappear and only call again when they need more assistance? How does that make you feel - are you fine with it, or do you feel resentful or uncomfortable? If it's the latter, that can be a sign you're not being appreciated or valued. A sure signal that it's time to draw up those boundaries again.
  5. Remember to keep the focus on you. Instead of outlining things by pointing out the other person's shortcomings, you can explain things in terms of why it's important for you. 
  6. Turn off your smartphone. In establishing healthy boundaries, it's important to have a regular habit of self-care to nourish the spirit, the mind and body. This can be as simple as turning off the television or smartphone for one afternoon a week in order to spend time by yourself or connect with a loved one.
  7. Know your non-negotiables. It's best to work out what these are ahead of time and then stick to it. For some people it's their family meal time. Unless it's an emergency, they won't take calls while they're all eating dinner. For others, it might be their exercise routine. For my friend Adele, it was organising the annual family barbeque. After doing it for five years straight, she decided that her boundary was that she wouldn't arrange any more unless she received help and support from the wider family. "I guess Ijust want to feel appreciated," she said.