Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to develop healthy boundaries

Boundaries are vital to protect our wellbeing, says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll in her weekly column
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to develop healthy boundaries

Finding the right balance is key, when it comes to boundaries. Picture: Stock

BOUNDARIES are a set of guidelines that you adhere to within different relationship categories.

You’ll have your own specific boundaries for family, close friends, acquaintances, work and others. They are a set of rules that you create for yourself and how you engage with others, and so they are editable if you decide to ramp them up or wind them down.

Rigid boundaries or “keeping your guard up” can make you overly protective of personal information, close you off from intimacy or meaningful relationships, or cause you to keep others at a distance to avoid the potential of rejection or getting hurt. While appropriate in some scenarios, they can lead to you being cut off from worthwhile interaction, seeming detached or removed to those looking in.

Low-level boundaries can lead to you saying yes to everything and everyone at the expense of your own needs. You can get overly involved with others’ problems, and depend very much on the opinions of others for validation. Oversharing is common here, where nothing is filtered or considered too personal for discussion.

Boundaries are vital in order to preserve our wellbeing, but the level of boundaries is very important. Either too stringent or too weak, and your relationships suffer.

Healthy boundaries usually fall somewhere in between the two extremes described above. They allow you to honour your own needs, support your values, share appropriate levels of information, and communicate clearly. You’re able to say no when needed, but can be open with those closest to you without a fear of vulnerability.

The context of the boundary too is important. Depending on the people you’re with, you can adjust the boundary to suit the desired outcome. We all have tendencies towards one type or the other, so being aware of those tendencies and being able to choose to adapt can help to re-open channels of communication that were previously cut off, or protect those things that you were previously undervaluing, such as personal beliefs.

So next time you’re in conversation with colleagues, chatting with friends, or Facetiming family, check in with yourself and your boundaries. Are you being vulnerable, opening up, and engaging at a personal level, or protecting yourself to the appropriate extent? Are you trying to be all things to all people, or are you intentionally carving out time for yourself and your needs by turning down requests for extra commitments or workload? Do you have a fear of saying no, and the consequences of it?

Usually, the key is in the way you say no. Not too apologetic or over-explanatory, but by being courteous and keeping the communication channels open.

Boundaries in the context of Covid-19 are very relevant in terms of disagreements around appropriate behaviour, seeking support through the tougher days, and adherence to the guidelines.

If friends are flippant about the measures in place, and arranging large gatherings at times when they’re not advised, it’s important to have boundaries strong enough to be able to communicate your desire to “sit this one out”, so to speak. It avoids any misunderstanding, sets down your decision, and puts your mind at ease that you’re sticking to your values.

Conversely, if you’re struggling through the restrictions (as so many are right now), but have boundaries too rigid to reach out for help or support, then the suffering continues. Being able to ask for help is not possible with your guard firmly up.

At the moment, restrictions are tight, and our options in terms of physical meet-ups are limited. But as restrictions hopefully begin to ease, as we experienced last summer, there appears a grey area — things that you’re technically allowed to do, but that you may not yet be comfortable with. How do you navigate these scenarios? By ensuring healthy boundaries as much as possible.

Healthy boundaries are a balancing act, a constant experiment in what you need and want. 

That may change from scenario to scenario and day to day. Always be mindful of the context, the people you’re with, and your own personal needs. Life can be a mix of different boundary types, and they are there to serve you and your wellbeing should we choose to make appropriate use of them.

Boundaries are vital in order to preserve our wellbeing, but the level of boundaries is very important.


Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company. Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally. See www.intuition.ie and @intuitionhealthandwellness

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