Why setting personal boundaries is so very important

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Yara Shahidi believes in implementing boundaries and so should you. Here, Stylist speaks to four writers about how they knew it was finally time to stand their ground, and the extraordinary impact it had on their lives.

Last month, on asking 10 Stylist cover stars what they’d learnt over the last decade, boundaries came up. A LOT.

Reni Eddo-Lodge conceded boundaries were her key learning of the decade, enabling her to preserve her time and energy for the things she cared about; Lauren Laverne admitted to the joy of having worked out what she will and won’t accept; and Fearne Cotton said that learning her professional and personal limits had “improved everything”. The Stylist office was rife with boundary talk. 

And about time. Boundaries are at the core of our wellbeing. They act as an invisible guide rope, directing us towards sanity-saving decisions, encouraging us to address what is and isn’t acceptable and to be the enforcers of accountability. They tell us when enough is enough. At crucial points, they get us through sticky social interactions – yes to deleting those no-good-for-us Tinder matches. Yet, so rarely do we use them. Why?

It might be down to an unhealthy sense of self-worth; the need to people-please; a fear of being assertive; or just not having adequate role models. Whatever the reason, not establishing clear boundaries isn’t doing us any favours, especially with our mental health.

So how do we learn to say no? As an actor and activist, guest editor Yara Shahidi is no stranger to boundaries. In fact, she writes hers down. “I have a list called ‘What We’re Not Going To Do’,” she says. “It ranges from the trivial, like things I won’t eat, to the bigger moments. I word it that way because it helps me find the comedy in it. It’s my way of setting boundaries while keeping it in a place where I feel comfortable.” 

And, in these confusing times, speaking up rather than switching off is more important than ever, she says. “I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries, not borders. I’m fascinated with the history of borders. I’m constantly talking about how they are very political and something that, in many cases, should be disregarded in terms of how you choose to care about the world.”

Jodie Cariss, founder of mental health service Self Space, says: “Boundaries secure our integrity. They help us feel more ourselves and form more truthful and meaningful relationships. They can liberate us from resentment and anger.”

Here, four writers talk us through the moment they reset their own boundaries. 

“When work made me ill, I had to draw a line”

Cate Sevilla

Writer Cate Sevilla is former editor of The Pool.

While working at a global tech company, I found myself in a high-stress, highly unsupportive environment. A few weeks away from a big deadline, I was woken in the night by painful muscle spasms, like electrical pulses in my neck, chest and throat.

After multiple tests and doctors telling me to reduce my stress, I was sent to a physical therapist who noticed a large part of my problem was that I wasn’t breathing properly. Understanding that my symptoms were all to do with work made me feel embarrassed. I couldn’t believe I’d got myself into such a bad situation and hadn’t been looking after my wellbeing. The mental toll of navigating insurmountable daily tasks meant I constantly felt anxious, angry, frustrated and emotionally exhausted. 

With the help of a psychotherapist, I realised things at work weren’t going to change: I was in a constant power struggle with my manager, being asked to complete challenging tasks without enough time or resources, micromanaged and given ever-changing and conflicting objectives. I needed to leave, but in the interim I had to change how I worked, establishing two important boundaries: psychological and temporal.

I knew where the line was between what I could control and what I couldn’t. While I was powerless to change my manager’s behaviour, I could change my reaction to it. That meant instead of firing off a reactive, defensive reply to an abrasive email, I’d take a moment to calm myself, remembering that whatever made my manager send it wasn’t actually about me. 

Time-wise, I needed to invest in myself. Each week I’d block out time for appointments, yoga and massages. This was sacred to my health and recovery and I didn’t shift my plans around for work, even when asked. Setting lines that can’t be crossed has had a hugely positive effect on me. Boundaries have become a crucial part of how I approach work; I’m mindful about my reactions and focus on elements I can control. I still carve out time to look after my own wellbeing, too – and to breathe properly. 

“Not everyone needs to like me, I realised”

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Learning that it's okay to be dislikeable was a big learning curve for writer Jean Hannah Edelstein.

Lots of people aim to be polite, but I am compulsive, and not in a good way. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel huge anxiety and fear that I would say or do something incorrect that would hurt someone’s feelings. It was very much fuelled by the praise I received when I was young for being ‘nice’ – not kind, not smart, but nice. 

Nice meant taking care that my every encounter with other people was pleasant, regardless of the cost to myself. I never helped myself first. I smiled and nodded when I felt like screaming. I deferred to others; I went along with the group. I took the smaller half of the sandwich. On planes, I took the middle seat.

When I was dating, being polite meant I did everything I could to be agreeable to men, rarely expressing a preference unless pressed, never complaining. Throughout my life I’ve responded to people who have hurt my feelings with rictus grins, with waves of the hand, telling them not to worry, and then, once alone, collapsed under the weight of all of that thankless emotional labour. 

It changed one morning in New York. I hadn’t taken a commuter train from my old subway station since I’d moved to a new neighbourhood three years ago. But, this particular day, I’d met a friend for coffee before work and found myself on the same platform, waiting for the same train.

As I stood there, I recalled the time I’d met a man doing exactly the same. After smiling at each other every day for several months, we’d eventually matched on Tinder. We dated for a few weeks then he stopped texting. It was unkind, but I admit that although the story was endearing, we weren’t especially compatible.

‘Wouldn’t it be awkward if he came along now,’ I thought. You probably know what happened next. I looked over my left shoulder and saw my old subway crush stride down the platform and position himself by a door on the same train car as me. I really didn’t want to make small talk or even wave. That’s when I realised – I didn’t have to. 

What has changed? I’ve grown up, I suppose. I reached my late 30s and began to realise not everyone needs to like me. A baseline level of respect for others’ space is one thing, but knowing that I can choose when I lean in to making someone happy and when I’m just going to keep myself to myself has been life-affirming.

These new boundaries led me to turn and walk, with purpose, down the platform to another carriage. Did the man I met on the subway take offence? It doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s OK to just mind my own feelings. 

“As an introvert, I need time to recharge”

Poorna Bell

Poorna Bell realised that, by setting boundaries, she could inspire others to do the same.

It’s a rare thing these days for someone to have just one hen do – consider the trip abroad, spa days and the big night out. For most of us, it’s an expense we can’t afford, or we simply don’t have time. But wedding madness is contagious, and the hen do becomes a Hunger Games arena in which you each try to prove your friendship to the bride by saying yes to all of it.

Last year however, I said no. A close friend was getting married. We were doing a staycation one weekend (which I organised) and her London hen the following weekend. The girls organising the latter had a list of activities planned, including lunch, cocktail-making, dinner and drinks. I was exhausted just listening to it, but also, I simply didn’t have the funds. 

I realised part of why I’d felt resentful about hen dos in the past is that I always gave more of myself than I was willing to give. As a borderline introvert, I find it challenging to be in big groups for a long period of time. I can be the crackling energy-source of a party, but only in small doses.

Like a rechargeable battery, it’s critical I have some quiet time to myself. I thought this had come on with age, but looking back, I’ve always been like this – I’d just self-medicated my social anxiety with cigarettes and alcohol. 

Since suffering a bereavement four years ago, I’ve become more aware of my needs. I’ve learnt that boundaries around socialising are critical to how I function, and how well my mind is. I used to worry I was being selfish by saying no, but I’ve come to see it as a necessary part of self-care. That includes not over-stuffing my social calendar, being firm with flaky friends and understanding that saying no isn’t just saying it to stuff I don’t want to do, but also the things I want to, but don’t have the reserves to take on. 

I was nervous about voicing it to the girls because I didn’t want to be seen as a bad friend. Eventually I said I’d join them for part of it. Waiting for a reply was unbelievably tense, but then came the response that they also had lots on, so we agreed to stick to one evening event. I felt relieved, but also saw that by setting a boundary, I’d empowered others to do the same. And our hen? She was none the wiser and had the best time. 

“I lost myself, I had no opinions of my own”

Tanya Gold

Tanya Gold regained her own identity after an all-consuming relationship.

I was 27 when I met him, just out of rehab and scared of my own reflection. He was so talented, so charismatic, so adorable.

We were in the same business: journalism. We wrote together, holidayed together. He blotted out everything else, including the pain of my early recovery. His friends became my friends and my friends melted away. He helped me with my writing. I only realised later it wasn’t my voice in those early pieces, it was his.

But he could be very cruel. The price of our consuming friendship was my obedience. If I cheeked him in public – if I returned an insult with an insult – he would scream at me. I would always apologise. It was easier that way; and I felt I’d done something wrong by angering him. It stopped when he publicly insulted a friend of ours, a slander that could have harmed their career. I’d had enough of his bullying by then; of him telling me what to think, what to say, who to be. His egotism was rampant. 

I’d never inserted a boundary with him, never even tried. But I was over his grandstanding; if I defended our friend, it meant I was learning to defend myself too, albeit by proxy. I rang him because I doubted I could do it face to face. He screamed that he would never speak to me again, and he didn’t. That was 10 years ago. The punishment for asking him to amend his behaviour: absolute, permanent exile. 

But I had to do it. I was losing myself in him, and I barely had opinions of my own any more. I’ve never had another relationship like that, and it was narcotic: a kind of drug in which my powerlessness was soothing to him. I’ve learnt never to shackle myself to anyone, however tempting, because I deserve a soul of my own. And in doing so I learnt to become myself. 

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Photography: Phillip Toledana, Trunkarchive.com

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