Failing to establish healthy boundaries is a common contributor to stress, anxiety, and poor sleep. While boundaries are one of the less fashionable and more complex areas of self-care, they are crucial to your health and well-being.

There are two main components of healthy boundaries: setting them and honoring them. Let’s use an example to guide our exploration about how to improve on this.

How poor boundaries can a disservice to all involved

Imagine that a 38-year-old woman named Bridget has a sister Liz, who she’s very close to. Liz is a bit older, never married and has no children. Liz switched careers later in life and is having trouble finding a job (due to real issues like the economy, ageism, etc.). Liz talks to Bridget several times a day.

Bridget’s last phone call with Liz can last until 1 am, yet Bridget has to get up early to get her kids to school and herself to work. She feels bad hanging up on Liz and when she does, she continues to worry about her.

Bridget often multi-tasks putting her kids to bed while talking with Liz, so she also feels guilty not being 100% present with them, and her own bedtime routine is non-existent. She doesn’t get much time to connect with her husband. By the time Bridget lands in bed, she’s exhausted but she can’t sleep. She gets fewer than 6 hours of sleep each night.

Obviously, having support from your family is important. However, Bridget’s desire to be a good sister (who’s there for Liz at all times) has some important consequences:

  • Bridget is repeatedly sacrificing her own sleep, well-being, and health, paving a path to burnout
  • Bridget is unable to be present for her family; in turn, her husband and/or children may feel neglected and behave in attention-seeking ways that contribute to Bridget’s stress and feeling overwhelmed
  • Liz does not learn how to soothe herself and increase her own stress resilience
  • Liz continues to be wholly dependent on Bridget, who may not be the best resource to help her

Setting healthy boundaries

People in an “over-giving” Care-taking pattern like Bridget often have a clear vision of what they need. This is the first step in setting up healthy boundaries.

Bridget wants to have the last call with her sister end by 9 pm so she can be present with her family and start her own bedtime routine. She doesn’t want to feel guilty about this and wants her sister to know that she does care very much about her.

She knows that getting better sleep will help her be more productive, organized, and focused during the day, so her mind won’t be so chattery at night.

Bridget is confident that making this one small change about the phone call timing will have many benefits for her, her family, and her career. And like many people with unhealthy boundaries, she’s worried that it’s selfish and often feels guilty.

Remembering that Liz’s over-reliance on her robs Liz of developing her own, valuable strategies to manage stress, however, motivates Bridget to make the change.

Bridget decides to have a heart-to-heart with Liz (during the day!) where she empathizes with Liz’s feelings, reassures Liz she’s there for her, and states her need to wrap up phone calls at a reasonable hour.

Together, they also talk through some other ways Liz could get help when she needs it, including reconnecting with a past therapist. Liz seems understanding and receptive.

Honoring healthy boundaries

Healthy boundaries
Kudos to Bridget, because that first step isn’t always easy! Now the real work begins. Because after you set a boundary, you can expect it will be tested.

Let’s imagine that for the first week or so, it’s difficult but Bridget manages to hang up before the agreed upon time. Though she still feels guilty, her new routine has been fabulous.

She got the kids together earlier; she and her husband shared some nice moments; she even had time to read a few pages of a book before bed. And after the third night, she felt quite rested in the morning. She’d forgotten what that felt like!

But now–around 11 pm–Liz is texting Bridget like mad. “Why aren’t you answering me? Don’t you care about me?! I don’t have anyone!”, pop the notifications. Bridget has seen these kinds of messages from Liz many, many times before.

What choices does Bridget have, and how well do they support the boundary she previously set? Here are just a few options:

  • Pick up the phone and call Liz right away.
  • Text Liz back, empathize with and reassure her, say she’ll call tomorrow.
  • Ignore the texts entirely, acknowledging there’s nothing she can do to help (and that this doesn’t make her a bad person); call Liz tomorrow.

If Bridget picks choice 1, she’s back where she started; no boundary exists.

No boundary exists

While other options may initially seem cold, choice 1 keeps Bridget on the path of sleep deprivation, burnout, stress and anxiety. If it continues, Bridget will join her sister in crisis and someone else will be taking care of them both.

Bridget may require lots of practice and some support as she learns to make choices that re-prioritize her own health and well-being. To reach choice 3, Bridget may need her own therapy or coaching support to help her make this important mindset shift.

And of course, there may be several other options Bridget might experiment with to help her maintain this boundary while being true to her own values.

The benefits of boundaries far outweigh their discomfort

Establishing healthy boundaries is a crucial, and often uncomfortable, aspect of self-care.

The example I’ve shared here is an all-too-common family dynamic. As a sleep wellness coach[1], I am privileged to see how clients who are brave enough to establish healthy boundaries for themselves end up creating positive results for all involved.

“Self-care” is nothing without healthy boundaries, and unhealthy boundaries are often an overlooked contributor to stress, anxiety, and poor sleep [2]. What’s more, they can lead to more serious physical and mental health issues, including burnout. Waking rested each day is required to be able to hold space and truly help those you care about, both now and in the future.

If you’re a busy caregiver who lacks time or ideas, has little experience with self-care or would benefit from some support, consider joining a program like the 7-Day Self-Care Challenge [3]. Some initial discomfort could just save your life!