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Learning Boundaries: Navigating Burnout and Prioritizing Self-Care at Every Age

Learning Boundaries: Navigating Burnout and Prioritizing Self-Care at Every Age

Written by Amanda Turco, LPC

Boundaries can be so challenging, whether you’re 15 or 75! Recently, I have been having a lot of conversations with my clients about feelings of burnout and the importance of setting boundaries. Whether it is a more stress- free time of year or wildly busy, we often neglect our own feelings and needs and give into external pressures to always be doing more and putting others first. But what happens when our cups are empty and life keeps going?

Well first, let’s talk about WHY we need boundaries. We set personal boundaries so that we leave time to take care of our needs and recharge, so we can be a better partner, friend, coworker, parent, or whatever role you play in your life. It can feel selfish and even mean to say no, but we are only as useful as our energy allows us to be. If you are burnt to a crisp, you can’t say yes to anything! So how do you start?

Setting boundaries could mean we start saying “no” to social commitments or work responsibilities that add too much to your plate when you are already feeling overloaded.
You honor your need to stay home because you are feeling sad or tired and would rather be alone to journal or watch a funny movie than go out with friends
You reduce the time you spend with a certain friend because you notice you are feeling more negative or don’t like who you become when you are around that person
You start scheduling time for just you that you hold like a firm plan you’d make with someone else

Setting these boundaries for yourself can be hard at first, but I promise that the more you listen internally, you will notice improvements in your life externally. Research consistently shows that establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial for mental health and overall well-being. A study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2018) emphasized that individuals with well-defined boundaries experience lower levels of stress and anxiety. Establishing limits on interpersonal interactions, work commitments, and personal space aids in reducing the risk of burnout and emotional exhaustion, as demonstrated by research in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (2016). Plus, maintaining boundaries fosters a greater sense of autonomy and self-respect, contributing to improved self-esteem and overall mental health, according to findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015). These studies, and more!, collectively highlight the protective role of boundaries in safeguarding mental health, underscoring the importance of boundary-setting for emotional resilience and psychological balance.

So, now you may believe boundaries are valuable, but how can you get started setting them? It can be easier said than done, especially if you are brand new to setting limits. Try to plan mental check- ins daily to determine how full your cup is. Get to a quiet place, open a journal or a note app, and ask yourself how you’re feeling, what your energy level is that day, and pay attention to any other thoughts that come up. If you’re considering a specific activity, you could even do the imaginal of attending the event and seeing what gut instincts come up in response to that. This work will help inform you which personal boundaries you may need to set.

Once you have a pulse on your internal needs, you have to tell people about your boundaries (often one of the hardest parts!!). We communicate boundaries to help validate our own feelings and needs so we can prevent future conflict and improve relationships. The less we communicate to others, and we suppress our feelings, we tend to build more tension and resentment. Plus, the more tension we feel, it increases the likelihood that we may “snap” at another person which can increase conflict and really hurt our relationships. Some key things to keep in mind when talking through your needs:

Recognize the other person’s needs or attempt to understand the other’s perspective as you enter into the conversation
Communicate the boundary (be specific, sticking to the facts, i.e. I am not going to be able to come if the conversations about bad food/good food and dieting happen. It’s not working for my current mental needs.)
Identify possible solutions (I’m happy to remind you when the topic comes up, if you want to talk about calories and cutting intake, I’ll need to leave).

Here are some other examples:
I know you would like to hang out tonight and I love to spend time with you, I am feeling really tired today from studying and I need to get some sleep tonight, so let’s plan to hangout in a couple days when I am feeling a bit more energized and can have a good time!

I understand you want to talk about (x) and resolve this conflict. I am also feeling hurt and need some time to process it by myself. Let’s get coffee tomorrow when we are both more regulated and can have a productive conversation to resolve this.

I know you are busy with work and have a lot of commitments right now. It frustrates me when I ask you to do the dishes and they are still not done when I need to prepare dinner after work. Can we come up with a plan on how to work together with household chores?

I know we both have other social commitments, but I have been feeling a bit sad that we have not spent a lot of time together recently because I care about our relationship. I was hoping we can plan a hangout soon. Is there something you are feeling about our friendship that we can talk about?

If you are reading some of these examples and feeling a bit anxious about saying something like this, you are not alone! It can be hard to communicate and honor your needs at the risk of potentially hurting someone’s feelings or creating conflict. But remember, you are a person too! Think about where your cup is. What are the costs of not communicating these boundaries? What are the benefits if I do honor my needs and utilize my supports to help? In the short term, this might feel uncomfy, but the more we practice this the more we regain control over conflict, maintain personal respect, and improve external relationships. If you want some support identifying your boundaries and learning how to set them with others, reach out. We can help!


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