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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Do I Set Healthy Boundaries?

As women with big hearts, we often ignore our own needs. But it’s essential that you stand up for yourself and learn how to set healthy boundaries. Here are some easy ways to create limits that will honor your time and heal your relationships.

Meet our expert panel

  • Sharon Martin, author of The Better Boundaries Workbook, is a psycho-therapist, mental health writer, and media contributor on emotional health.
  • Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University.
  • Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW is a licensed therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace.

Ditch the guilt

We’re socialized to put our needs last, which is why we have to normalize boundaries as a healthy part of life — not just for ourselves but for the people in our lives, says expert Sharon Martin. She explains that, far from a harsh line in the sand, boundaries are often a compromise. “You might say, ‘X isn’t working for me; what if we try Y?’ There’s no reason to feel guilty because boundaries are just a request for someone to make a change.”

Shift perspective

“If you’re not sure if you need to set limits, ask yourself if you would behave the same way in the other person’s shoes,” says expert Suzanne Degges-White, PhD. For example, if they always ask you to do them a big favor, would you do the same? “We make mutual investments in our relationships. So if you find you’re doing all the giving, it’s likely a sign that you need to make space for your needs.”

Start with small stuff

To build your confidence, start with minor boundaries, says Degges-White. “You might tell a friend who’s always late, ‘I know you have a lot on your plate, but I need you to respect my time.’” Practicing on the small stuff helps you graduate to more complex dynamics, like financial boundaries. “You might say to your husband, ‘I understand you want to pay for X, but you can’t use the credit card in my name.’ Boundaries simply say, ‘This is where I end, and you begin.’”

Lead with honesty

“My favorite way to express a boundary is simply by saying, ‘I’m noticing that…’” reveals expert Nedra Glover Tawwab. “You might say, ‘I’m noticing I need more time for myself,’ or ‘I’m noticing that when I always say yes, I have no energy for myself.’” This simple phrase works so well because it doesn’t make it about the other person. “You’re revealing your needs and inviting people who care about you to help you honor them.”

Call on a boundary buddy

“It’s so helpful to have a boundary accountability partner,” says Glover Tawwab. Just let them know your goals, like, “From now on, I’m going to say no to X draining tasks,” and ask them to nudge you back on course if they see you “boundary backsliding.” The limits we set for ourselves are about relationships, so it makes sense that it takes a village to help us maintain them.

Keep faith in yourself

In the end, even the strongest boundaries can become “mushy” over time if we lose sight of our own self-worth, says Degges-White, acknowledging that staying the course can be challenging. “Keep coming back to your values like a touchstone by reminding yourself, ‘I treat people with respect, and I expect the same from others,’” she encourages. “The boundaries we create for ourselves let us claim space in this world and reflect who we are at our core.”

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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