By Selina Chapman
Sometimes life’s stressors are overwhelming. An important part of looking after ourselves that is frequently discussed is self–care. Often self–care can be lumped in with selfishness or self–centeredness that is to the detriment of others.
Self–care is neither of those.
Self–care is focusing on our own social–emotional–wellbeing so that we may also meet the needs of others. Self–care can include fun, enjoyment and connecting with others or ourselves. It can be as varied as our individual needs.
As a psychologist, I feel one common integral aspect of self–care are healthy boundaries especially when it comes to family dynamics and relationships. There are many interpretations and it depends on how that looks for each of us.
Exactly what are healthy boundaries? Well, they are most importantly NOT barriers. We all need barriers to protect us from threats, and sometimes we keep them around long after that threat has gone. In time our once protective shields can become fortresses that not only keep danger away, but can also keep us in, away from opportunity for growth and experiencing meaningful change. An example could be around “toxic” or difficult relationships.
Healthy boundaries are like buffer zones, or breathing spaces. They’re not too rigid and solid that they cannot adapt and end up keeping us isolated. They are not so porous that every emotion within our environment hits too close to home. Ideal healthy boundaries are ones that keep us emotionally safe, mentally well and allow connections in our relationships and interactions with others and ourselves.
Healthy boundaries can be felt as well as being seen. It can be feeling safe and secure, allowing opportunities to explore personal growth, saying no, saying yes, being comfortable in our own skin, recognising our needs emotionally and mentally and meeting those needs even if we fear possible negative repercussions or judgments. Such as giving time limits on phone calls, or time spent at functions or choosing to attend or not.
Healthy boundaries need to be created and maintained. They need to be able to change as our needs change. It may also take practice to become adept at understanding what we need and how to build our buffer zones.
It can be essential to have healthy boundaries in our relationships. Often, we can get swept up in the drama of others or feel dismissed because someone else’s problems might be “bigger”, and our voice is not allowed to be heard. Those toxic dynamics may feel oppressive or evoke feelings of anxiety. When this happens, we can feel isolated, alone, and unworthy. We can close our minds to alternative views, opinions or even our own needs.
Dr Marsha Linehan developed a therapy approach called dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). The concept of dialectical thinking means that two opposing or perhaps conflicting sides or views can and do co–exist. This involves changing from the closed way of thinking to an open one, and yes, it takes practice.
Imagine we have someone sitting alone on a see–saw. What happens to the see–saw? Gravity states that the side that is heavier must go down and the other side then goes up. If we are in a relationship, conversation, or interaction with someone, it can be like the other person is the heavier (or dominant) one on the see–saw. So, if their side goes down, we must go up and vice versa. In DBT this is a closed way of thinking. It can be characterised by ‘must, or ‘should’ or ‘but’. Such as ‘I am usually so capable of looking after myself, I should be able to do everything by myself”.
Dialectical thinking states that two opposing thoughts can be experienced at the same time. Let’s revisit the see–saw. The dialectical see–saw has a buffer zone or healthy boundary in the middle. This time when one side is occupied and it goes down, the other side can be whatever it needs to be. It can go down, or up, or stay neutral in the middle. This open way of thinking is characterised by ‘and’ or ‘sometimes’, for example, ‘I feel upset when my feelings are dismissed, and I can validate my own feelings when others don’t’.
Let’s have a practice at what it may feel like to have a healthy boundary. Next time you feel those dismissive thoughts or feelings, whether they stem from outside or within us, notice they are there and take a moment to pause, breathe and self–validate dialectically. Such as, if we say no to a social event and get negative comments in return, we could say, ‘They feel what they feel, and I can feel what I feel”.
We can all struggle with closed thinking, and practising building our healthy boundaries can be a core component in our self–care routine.
Selina Chapman is a psychologist at The Hearts and Mind Collective in Wyoming, works with all ages seeking empowerment and support. Selina says, “Seeking support for mental health can be about maintaining wellness as well as having extra help as and when we need it.