In my last two articles, Finding Time When You’re Too Busy to Breathe and How to Make Choices When Everything Is a Top Priority, we dove into the challenges of finding time for yourself in the midst of a busy schedule full of obligations and important responsibilities and of making conscious choices between competing priorities. In this article, we explore one of the potential outcomes of making choices: the need to set healthy boundaries for ourselves and others around what we will and won’t do.

Recognizing the need for healthy boundaries

If your role is largely being defined by the imposition of other people’s expectations, it may be time to identify, define, and communicate your boundaries. The place to start is – as always – with awareness. This means recognizing your own feelings when a boundary has been crossed. Discomfort and resentment are two key feelings that psychologist Dana Gionta, Ph.D., has noted as “red flags or cues that we’re letting go of our boundaries.”

People typically have one of two reactions to recognizing that a boundary is being crossed. One is to feel helpless to do anything about it and just go along with what’s asked (or demanded) of them, resenting it all the while or feeling like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t. The other is to get angry and resistant, either overtly or passive-aggressively, all the while feeling guilty for not doing (or not wanting to do) what’s expected of them.

The challenge with enforcing healthy boundaries

Once you recognize that a boundary is being crossed, the work that comes next involves taking responsibility for consistently respecting and enforcing healthy boundaries. This can take the form of something as simple as noticing what and who drains you and developing visualizations and self-care rituals to create separation between parts of your day and protect yourself from negativity, as described in this article by Britt Bolnick.

It may also mean speaking up, which is often easier said than done. A handy checklist by Martha Beck can help you determine whether you need to work on saying ‘no.’ Setting healthy boundaries and saying ‘no’ can be uncomfortable at first. Whether you’re held back by guilt or you anticipate and fear push-back from the other person, this brief Oprah article on learning to say no invites you to explore the gap between what you’re currently doing and what you’d do in an ideal situation by asking the question: “If you could say no to someone or something, knowing that there would be absolutely no hard feelings or negative consequences, who or what would you say no to? Is there a project you would give up? A relationship you would end? A date you might break?”

Meeting with resistance

Establishing and communicating boundaries to another person can be an exercise in learning about yourself, that person, and your relationship. You may need to work on how you frame your statements (e.g., using “I” statements instead of “you” statements) and learn to be aware of your body language and tone of voice. You may find you need to repeat yourself more than once. The other person may push back against the change in the status quo, challenging you to be consistent and hold your ground. You yourself may feel guilty, embarrassed, or selfish.

These are perfectly normal reactions to setting a new boundary, especially with someone who is important to you. They can be worth digging into for increased self-awareness. They are also well worth pushing past.

The other person may respond graciously from the outset or react one way immediately and then adjust gracefully, or they may struggle with the change a bit. Their verbal and nonverbal messages to you and whether and how they go about respecting your request – all of these provide you with valuable information and insight.

How you interpret their response and how much room you leave the other person to adjust to the change is also useful to notice, as well as what triggers each of you as you learn this new form of dancing together.

The end result

It may seem easier to keep laboring away – constantly trying to expand the time we spend on obligations toward others while sacrificing sleep, personal time, self-care, down time, and creative projects – than have to make tough decisions among conflicting priorities.

Having to make choices about our priorities is not comfortable, nor is it easy. Fortunately, that means that this is where things get interesting.

When we wrestle with the concept of priorities and deliberately face the tough decisions, including establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries, we give ourselves a new form of power: the power of conscious choice.