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Why Setting Boundaries Is Essential to Your Health


woman hiding under the covers

We’ve reached that time of year when we’re encouraged to say “yes” to all the things. “Yes” to a new gym membership and exercise regimen. “Yes” to new eating habits. “Yes” to sky diving or learning how to play the ukulele. “Yes” to seizing the day.

But what if I don’t want to seize the day? What if seizing the day makes me tired? What if all this pressure to seize the damn day leads to guilt, self-consciousness, low self-esteem, and burnout?

What if I just want to say “no”?

This past December, I attended the National Sex Ed Conference, and the topic of setting boundaries kept coming up. It makes sense. As a group, many of us were consent educators. And what is consent if not a form of boundary setting?

But in this case, the boundaries that kept coming up were those we set for ourselves as advocates and educators and humans who want to thrive in our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps one of my favorite quotes from the conference came from intersectional health educator Justine Ang Fonte. Consent, they said, “is not just an enthusiastic, freely given, engaged ‘yes.’ It’s about practicing consent every single day, every moment, in all of your interpersonal relationships. And part of that is recognizing: What are your boundaries? What are the things you need to feel comfortable… to feel safe? And who are the people that can really cultivate that safety for you?

It was a powerful statement from someone who was forced to withstand a nasty smear campaign earlier this year, leaving them physically and emotionally reeling. And it’s an important message for those of us who are also advocates, activists, professionals, parents, children, friends, people.

Why Setting Boundaries Is So Important

Shortly after the conference, I read Nedra Glover Tawwab’s Set Boundaries, Find Peace, which had been recommended by another attendee. In it, Tawwab writes about the different types of boundaries that exist, what boundary violations might look like, and how to clearly and effectively identify and communicate your own boundaries in various aspects of your life.

“My life before I had healthy boundaries was overwhelming and chaotic,” she writes. “But setting expectations for myself and others gives me peace. Inventing a life with healthy relationships is an ongoing practice, but it gets more comfortable with time and practice.”

Later on in the book, Tawwab defines boundaries by explaining that they are “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships.

“Expectations in relationships,” she writes, “help you stay mentally and emotionally well.”

In short, setting boundaries is a form of self-care.

How Can You Successfully Set Boundaries?

According to Tawwab, the key to effectively and successfully setting boundaries is to clearly communicate the boundary, and then to follow through with a consequence if the other person does not respect your boundary. She has a lot of examples in her book for what this might look like.

But if you’re still struggling with setting boundaries, there are other resources you might find useful.

For one, Tawwab has a companion workbook to Set Boundaries, Find Peace, called The Set Boundaries Workbook, which you’d better believe is on my wish list.

Fonte, the aforementioned educator, has a new Instagram account called @_good.byes_, on which they share customized boundary scripts. You can even DM them if you have special requests!

And then there are the other books that have slowly helped me get better at saying “no.” Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball helped me get better at asking for help, and setting expectations. Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout contains tips for minimizing stress. And for those of you who have already read these books and are itching for something new, Oludara Adeeyo’s Self-Care for Black Women just came out. In it, she helps readers prioritize their mental, physical, and spiritual wellness by sharing 150 self-care activities designed specifically for Black women.

Setting boundaries is hard. It can be scary to ask for what you want, and it may not come easily… especially not as first.

But next time you get that sense of internal dread over an interaction or an upcoming obligation, ask yourself: Whose expectations am I fulfilling?

You may find that in prioritizing the well-being of others, you’re doing so at the expense of your own. And don’t you deserve better than that?

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, VQR, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of GuerrillaSexEd.org. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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