We all have personal boundaries: physical, emotional and mental limits we establish that let others know they can treat us, how they can behave around us, and what they can expect from us.
The boundaries we adopt vary from person to person, depending on our values, beliefs and life experiences. Ideally, our boundaries should work for our benefit; however, that’s often not the case. Many of us develop unhealthy (or ‘wonky’!) boundaries, and depression can make them worse.
SIGNS OF WONKY BOUNDARIES
Those of us with wonky boundaries struggle to put ourselves first. We are fearful of disappointing or letting others down, and as a result find ourselves agreeing to things we don’t want to do, tolerating bad behaviour and ‘people pleasing’. We avoid conflict, have low self-esteem and find it hard to stand up for ourselves. We often feel hard done by, resentful or overlooked.
Our wonky boundaries can lead us to feel responsible for other people’s happiness, and we feel constantly anxious and guilty. The smallest things can trigger us: we feel anxious about taking the last biscuit (I should leave it – what if someone else wants one, and hates me for taking it? ); if someone can’t get on a bus because it’s too full, we feel guilty (if I wasn’t on the bus, they could have got on. I should have walked!). It’s exhausting.
And depression magnifies our feelings. We feel like a burden to others, so we over-extend ourselves to try and compensate – our low self-worth makes it easy to disregard our own needs. But allowing our boundaries to slip can actually make us feel worse. It exacerbates our symptoms and puts strains on our relationships.
STRAIGHTENING WONKY BOUNDARIES
Though we might want to sort out our personal boundaries, doing so can feel like an overwhelming task – especially when we’re depressed. There are so many things to be considered, and when the most simple of tasks is a struggle, finding the mental energy to change can feel near-on impossible: especially when we believe we aren’t worth the effort.
However, as with any task we don’t need to overhaul everything at once. There are three main phases to straightening out wonky boundaries, and we can work through each in turn, taking tiny micro-steps. Even the smallest actions can lead to big change.
STEP 1: BE AWARE OF YOUR BOUNDARIES
Just being aware of our boundaries (or lack thereof) and the need to tweak them can be helpful in itself. When we’re tuned into how our behaviour affects us, we often course-correct automatically.
Notice how you relate with other people, and how people’s comments or actions make you feel. If you have a negative physiological or emotional response (like feeling icky, or uncomfortable, or panicked) it is likely your boundaries need bolstering.
STEP 2: DEFINE YOUR BOUNDARIES
The next step to building boundaries is to define what we want them to be. However, because depression can make us feel detached from ourselves, this can be tricky. Getting reacquainted with ourselves – our true selves, rather than the adapted self we present to the world – can help us work out what we need.
Although our brains might tell us we’re being self-obsessed or self-indulgent, allowing ourselves the time, space and tools we need to learn more about ourselves can help us define our boundaries. If you have access to them, talking therapies can be incredibly useful. Journalling, mindfulness and self-help books (like this one) can also really help.
STEP 3: ASSERT YOUR BOUNDARIES
Once we know what we want our boundaries to look like, we can begin to assert them. Again, there is no need to go all-in, you can work on one issue at a time. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Refrain from the drains: notice the people and places and activities that drain you, or make you feel icky. Work out ways you can minimise your exposure to them (your mood will thank you for it).
Defer decision making: if you struggle to say ‘no’ to others, change your default response from ‘yes’ to ‘maybe’. Not committing to a request straight away allows you time to consider whether this is something you really want to help with.
Speak up: to protect our boundaries we need to challenge unacceptable behaviour. It’s scary and uncomfortable, yes – but if we never tell anyone how to treat us, they will treat us in whatever way they choose.
Challenge yourself: if you have thoughts or beliefs that compromise your boundaries, challenge them. If you are causing yourself unnecessary anxiety or guilt, kindly but firmly call yourself out .
Say yes to you: it’s so hard to put ourselves first, but when we give too much we get depleted, cranky and unhappy. Instead, try saying yes to you. Learn the difference between feelings of obligation and genuine enthusiasm and only say yes to the latter. Prioritise self-care and practise self-compassion. You really do deserve it.
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