“How to Set Boundaries for Well-Being,” Ensign, September 2020
I sometimes search for a perfect “to do” app to help me manage all of my responsibilities. Checking items off a list brings me a sense of satisfaction. But, honestly, it also sometimes leaves me feeling exhausted and discouraged. How do you decide what to do when everything and everyone seem equally important? Despite our best efforts to accomplish everything, we may believe we just aren’t doing enough.
But that’s not true.
The truth is, we don’t have an endless supply of time, energy, and resources. We can’t be everywhere and do everything for ourselves and everyone else—we’re only human, after all! But we can support and serve others while maintaining our well-being. The key to this balance is setting healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries means recognizing your personal limits and establishing parameters to protect yourself from being violated, neglected, or manipulated. This article will explore three areas of boundaries—emotional/mental, relationship, and spiritual—as well as look at the Savior’s example. So put down the checklist, take a deep breath, and let’s dive in!
People often strain their emotional and mental limits after spending too much energy in certain roles. For example, a girlfriend who takes sole responsibility for her boyfriend’s addiction-recovery process. Or an employee who loses sleep because her boss keeps asking her to work overtime. Or a roommate who listens for endless hours to everyone else’s problems, much like a therapist.
One way to be mindful of your emotional and mental limits is to consider what past experiences and current environments drain your emotional and mental energy. If you grew up in a family where you played the role of a caregiver, you may find yourself acting that way in all of your relationships. There are certain environments you may need to avoid because it will pressure you to give to everyone else and ignore your own wants and needs.
In such situations, you can learn to give yourself permission to create and stick to boundaries. Here are some phrases the people in the earlier examples might have used:
“Helping you overcome this addiction is turning out to be more than I can handle alone. Let’s think of some other people we can loop into your network of support.”
“I’m happy to work overtime—the extra money is helpful—but I’m concerned about the number of times I’m being asked to do so. I haven’t been getting enough sleep. Can we please talk about making some adjustments?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have time to talk tonight because I need to study for a test. But you’re important to me, and I’d love to talk tomorrow if you’re free at lunchtime.”
Be warned: you might feel guilty for choosing to take care of your well-being at first. But acknowledging that your own needs are important will actually help you accomplish everything else with replenished mental and emotional resources.
You can often recognize that a relationship boundary has been crossed when you have uncomfortable or resentful feelings toward others. These feelings can suggest that someone in the relationship has unrealistic expectations or perhaps that you are being taken advantage of. Take a moment to think about your relationships—friends, family, ward members, coworkers, significant others, and so on. Do any of them bring up feelings of distress? If so, you might need to establish some boundaries or strengthen the boundaries already in place.
Ask yourself, “What is it about this relationship that is bothering me? What adjustments would help me feel better?” For example, imagine you have given a friend permission to use your account to buy things online, but now you feel stressed out because the number of times is increasing and your friend often pays you back later than you anticipated. You know right off the bat that things would be better if he had his own account to make purchases or at least gave you a heads-up when he made a purchase. The more you think about it, the more you realize it would lower your stress level a lot if you didn’t share passwords with him anymore.
When you’ve identified a boundary that may help, explain it to the other person directly and calmly. Likewise, be calm and bold about telling someone when they’ve crossed a personal boundary of yours. By communicating your feelings, you trade resentment for the chance to strengthen your relationship.
It’s normal to feel afraid of how others will respond to boundaries you set. Just keep in mind that setting boundaries is a sign of self-respect. Others should respect you too.
Religious practices are a great way to care for yourself and can give you strength to live at your best. But we need to be careful not to place such heavy emphasis on these practices that we neglect other important dimensions of self-care. It is a mistake to think that if we focus only on spirituality, the other aspects of our lives will automatically be strong.
For example, when I don’t take care of myself physically, I find it difficult to enjoy church as fully or feel the Spirit as deeply. Because our soul is made up of both our body and our spirit, each dimension of self-care supports and sustains the others.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles encouraged us not to spread ourselves too thin when he said: “We can ask ourselves, ‘Am I committing my time and energies to the things that matter most?’ There are so many good things to do, but we can’t do all of them. Our Heavenly Father is most pleased when we sacrifice something good for something far greater with an eternal perspective.”1
God has given you responsibility over all aspects of your well-being, including spirituality. Just as temples periodically need renovations and maintenance, it is important for you to take time to regularly tend to other areas of your life that need care and attention.
Let’s look at a few examples of the Savior using boundaries. While He served and lifted others daily, He also went to the mountains alone to pray (see Luke 6:12). He asked disruptive and mocking people to leave (see Mark 5:40). And in one particular case, after a long day of teaching, He fell asleep (see Luke 8:22–25).
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke about this last story when he said:
“For those of you who earnestly seek to bear another’s burdens, it is important that you refortify yourself and build yourself back up when others expect so much of you and indeed take so much out of you. …
“I have always been amazed that [Jesus] could sleep through a storm on the Sea of Galilee so serious and severe that His experienced fishermen disciples thought the ship was going down. How tired is that? How many sermons can you give and blessings can you administer without being absolutely exhausted? The caregivers have to have care too. You have to have fuel in the tank before you can give it to others.”2
Whenever we struggle or feel exhausted, we can always turn to Heavenly Father and the Savior. They can rescue us and support us because Their capacity is infinite. There are no boundaries to Their healing power. The Savior’s invitation comes with a powerful promise: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Learning to set boundaries takes time, so be patient with yourself and others. Start by establishing some guidelines that help you take care of yourself. For example, you could decide to play basketball each Tuesday night, or dedicate every Sunday to spiritual development, or make a rule to not check emails after 7:00 p.m.
Another step you could take right away is to practice saying no at appropriate times—meaning times when saying yes would be harmful to your well-being. Instead of trying to be a rescuer, offer support instead. Help the person access resources such as a trusted therapist, a meaningful book, or comforting scriptures. Sometimes people may simply need to sit with a friend while they experience pain instead of having you try to fix their problems. These supportive actions allow people to grow and become resilient as they exercise agency.
As you take responsibility for setting, communicating, and sticking with your boundaries, draw strength from Heavenly Father and the Savior. They will help all aspects of your life stay strong, lively, and firm regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in.