Many of the anxious people I treat struggle with having a clear sense of their identity. Their anxiety disorders make them second guess themselves, their thoughts and question their worthiness. They become extremely apprehensive about making people angry, losing friends, or being fired if they dare to say no or stand up for themselves. Because of these fears they often have very poor boundaries.
If you are an anxious person you owe yourself some boundaries. Boundaries not only help define or redefine your identity, they also reduce tension and restore feelings of self-worth. Boundaries are just personal rules that protect you from stress, being taken advantage of, or disrespected.
Gaining Peace of Mind
Although poor boundaries trigger anxiety, resentment, anger, and burnout. It is sometimes difficult for my clients to establish them. Many were raised to be kind people-pleasers and setting boundaries seems to go against their values and makes them feel guilty. It is sometimes helpful to think of setting boundaries as a way to conserve your strength and functionality. You can still be kind, helpful and a good person but you can no longer neglect your own needs for peace and downtime. Your priority is to heal your anxiety. It is important to embrace that you have a right and obligation to protect yourself. At first, setting boundaries might make you feel guilty, but as you start choosing yourself rather than sacrificing your peace of mind to meet others’ expectations you will experience less stress and feel less anxiety.
Here are some examples of how my clients have benefitted from setting boundaries and sticking to them.
One of my clients was troubled by phone calls from her mother. Her mother would call and keep my client on the phone for a long time. The lengthy phone calls often kept my client from studying for school and working on projects for her job. After she got off the phone, she would usually have to stay up late into the night to finish her work.
In these phone conversations, my client’s mother would mostly talk about herself and her problems but frequently she would segue into criticizing or “roasting” my client. Her mother would discuss my client’s past failures and tell her how her achievements weren’t impressive enough and that she would not be able to realize her goals. Helping my client set boundaries really helped her reduce her anxiety and depression.
My client decided that her boundaries would be: informing her mother of how long my client would be able to talk to her at the beginning of the call and then disconnecting when that time came. Her second boundary was telling her mother that she had to hang up if her mother started bringing up the past or criticizing her.
Establishing these boundaries with her mother and sticking to them improved their relationship and currently, my client is letting her mother help her plan her wedding. They are interacting in a much more positive way.
Another client was working for a corporation in person and moved to working at home during the pandemic. His scheduled work hours were 8 am-6 pm. Most days, he would end up being on video calls or answering “urgent” emails or texts until midnight. He would also frequently be asked to work on the weekends. His employers knew he was home during the pandemic and took advantage of it.
This client consulted me because he was struggling with worry and anxiety and had lost his appetite. He was experiencing physical symptoms like stomach aches and a racing heart and was unable to sleep. After he decided to set boundaries to create a reasonable work-life balance, I saw his smile. He was able to sleep and his stomach aches went away.
Setting your own boundaries
If you have decided to choose yourself and create some boundaries to reduce your stress and anxiety, here are the steps.
Do An Inventory. Take stock of your boundaries. Where in your life do you feel uncomfortable and anxious and where do you feel you already have good boundaries? For example, someone who works from home might constantly be asked to work late to fix other people’s mistakes and capitulate but feel anxious and resentful. At the same time, they might have good boundaries with their children such as clear bedtimes and rules about snacks.
Speak Up. When you set your boundary, speak calmly and firmly and don’t over-explain. Use “I messages” rather than starting with “you” which can make your audience defensive and unreceptive.
Keep It Simple. Say something like, “I need to have some family time in the evenings and I won’t be answering texts or emails between 6 pm and 8 am.”
Set Consequences. Make sure you set consequences for those who do not respect your boundaries as in the example above. Not getting a response is what will happen if you contact me about work issues between 6 pm and 8 am.
Be Firm And Consistent. At first, people will probably test you to see if you are serious. You teach people how to treat you. Stick to your boundary and it will be respected.
Becoming skillful at setting and maintaining boundaries will give you a sense of identity and control over your life. It may be difficult at first, but with experience and repetition it will become easier. Setting healthy boundaries will improve your confidence, relationships and reduce anxiety and depression. When you stop sacrificing your peace of mind to meet others expectations and choose yourself instead it will change your life.