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How to Set Healthy Boundaries: 3 Crucial First Steps

“You change for two reasons: Either you learn enough that you want to, or you’ve been hurt enough that you have to.” ~Unknown

I learned about boundary work when I was teaching in the NYC jails with male prisoners.

After driving onto a maximum security island of electric, clanging gates, I encountered metal detectors, hallways filled with yelling, chaotic inmates, and tension and anxiety in the air that was almost tangible.

I started my work day tensed up and ended it drained, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

In other areas of my life, the same thing was happening. In my personal relationships, I couldn’t find the edges where I ended and others began. I sometimes felt powerless, unsure of who I was in relationships, and unheard. I wasn’t sure how to change my life, but I knew that I had to.

Because I didn’t set healthy personal boundaries, I was exhausted, I couldn’t focus, and I felt consumed by drama around me, in both my personal and professional lives. As I result, I dealt with a lot of conflict, failed to take care of myself, and generally disliked my work.

Since I knew I loved my work, I took some time to reflect on why my job wasn’t working for me. I then decided to try some experimenting.

I started doing a little boundary and grounding work each morning before I even entered each facility. At the end of each day, before I went home to my baby, I did a short releasing meditation in my car.

It worked so well that I began to notice a marked difference in the flow of the classes I taught, my relationships with my students, and my overall enjoyment of the day. I left energized and excited by my work, as opposed to drained and burnt out.

I was able to go home and be completely present with my daughter, instead of taking my day with me and letting it creep into our evening.

My boundary work has been crucial in my personal relationships, as well. As I started doing this work to protect myself and center myself in the jails, I realized that I could do it with the people in my personal life, too.

I began to see immediate effects in my relationships, as well as in the quality of my everyday life.

Even though I no longer work in prisons and jails, I still do this work just about every morning. When I let it slip, when I don’t take time to ground myself and honor my boundaries, I can feel a big difference.

Nowhere has this work impacted my life more than in my personal relationships. I used to feel like every person who I spent a lot of time with blew me around as I got caught up in their life. I noticed myself taking on aspects of their personalities and lifestyle and losing myself.

After doing this work, I now surround myself with people who are really attracted to me because of who I am. How I show up in the world: by my strength, my motivation, my passion—how absolutely me I am.

And I stay me. It’s not even a struggle. I am centered in who I am and what I love and I have my boundaries in place, so the people and circumstances around me can’t shake that.

If you’d also like to maintain healthy boundaries to feel more centered, these three steps will be a good start:

1. Check your personal engine light.

Think about how you feel when you’re around someone who drains you and upsets you, someone with whom you feel you lose yourself. How does this feel in your body? How does it feel in your mind? How does the presence of this person affect you?

Now look at this list of feelings and sensations you’ve made, and imagine that your body is like a car, with a dashboard full of warning lights.

You’ve just identified what I like to call the “check engine light” for your personal boundary system. It’s a security system warning that your personal energy field has been breached, and you’re letting in stuff that isn’t yours.

This is really important. When our boundaries are weak, unguarded, or unclear, we let in all sorts of stuff that isn’t actually our stuff, and we give away our own personal energy unconsciously.

That means you’re dealing with a breach of your energetic security system and a leak of your own personal energy. You’re looking at warning signs indicating that some work needs to be done, some boundaries need to be shored up, and you need to return to center.

2. Ground yourself as preparation for maintaining boundaries.

Grounding is akin to the way a tree sinks her roots to stay secure in a storm. It’s the first tool in creating healthy boundaries—nurturing a connection with ourselves, our centers.

Our root system is both our anchor and our boundary system. It keeps us from being blown about in other people’s winds. It gives us a way to focus and still ourselves to connect with our heart and our intuition. That’s what keeps us steady and connected and focused.

There are as many ways to ground as there are people. I like to take five minutes to actually imagine my root system connecting me into the earth, like a giant oak tree. Here are some other ideas:

  • Meditating
  • Saying a prayer, affirmation, or mantra in the shower in the morning
  • Offering a blessing over your morning meal or beverage
  • Chanting or repeating affirmations in your head as you walk to work or school

Try different ways—you’ll find the one that works for you!

3. Notice the people and places that tend to drain you.

Before entering those places or exposing yourself to those people, take a few minutes to imagine breathing a bubble of protective energy around you. Think of it as a space that will only allow love and positivity inside it, deflecting anything else. Really see it and really feel the force of it around you. Then recognize what you need to do to maintain that space.

These three steps will help you create and maintain healthy boundaries. Building boundaries is like any muscle or practice—the more you work with it, the better it serves you!

Photo by h. koppdelaney (with colors brightened)

Avatar of Britt Bolnick

About Britt Bolnick

Britt Bolnick is the owner of In Arms Coaching, heart-centered life coaching for women. You can connect with her at www.InArmsCoaching.com.

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  • http://www.coachhhollywood.com life coach

    Nice reading this post. Amazing ideas!

  • @astridsiry

    Lately seems like you are reading my soul and the things that are struggling 
    within it. Thank you so much for share a piece of your own soul with us. It really 
    helps. Namaste!

  • @astridsiry

    Lately seems like you are reading my soul and the things that are struggling 
    within it. Thank you so much for share a piece of your own soul with us. It really 
    helps. Namaste!

  • Checkpaperlock

    The timing of your post relative to my recent personal realizations is crazy!  The friend that I spend the most time with happens to be a self-sabotager, something I’ve known for quite some time but I always felt, hey, to each their own, if she has no desire to cure the issues in her life, it has nothing to do with me. However, upon recent reflection, I’ve noticed that being so close to a self-sabotager is NOT irrelevant to my life because parts of my life have started to resemble hers (not a good thing, because I happen to think her life is rather sad), namely the isolation and alienation that she inflicts upon herself along with the incensant complaining.  I started noticing my circle getting smaller and smaller.  I was complaining all the time (I’m known to be a very bubbly, fun, and optomistic person) and very high strung all the time.  After much contemplating and examining, I realized I was taking on her negative habits and just yesterday came to the conclusion that (a) I’m an empath, and (b) she is a drainer.  This is obviously a very toxic combination, and I’ve been trying to decide the proper amount of distance to keep from her. Part of me felt that ending the friendship was too harsh, yet the other part of me is scared that ANY interaction with her at all will lead to the absorbtion of her negativity.  Until your post, which offers a happy medium between the two.  Rather than completely ending the friendship, I’m going to try distancing myself AND following your boundary advice.  I never realized how fully someone else’s issues can find their way into your life but this newly found wisdom will change how I choose the company in my life.

  • Britt

    Checkpaperlock: Thanks so much for your AWESOME example of how boundaries and the lack thereof can play out in relationships — I love the middle ground you’ve found after reading this article where you distance yourself and build some boundaries that serve you. I’d also like to mention, that even more powerful than distancing yourself (and taking even less effort) is the practice of connecting inwards and aligning yourself with your own center– that’s where your authentic self will shine so powerfully that it will both deflect energy that is mis-aligned with yours and ATTRACT more energy that is aligned with yours. Then you’ll find everything happening almost effortlessly — and who knows, maybe your friend will begin to use you as an example to make some changes for herself.

    love,
    Britt
    http://www.InArmsCoaching.com

  • Britt

    Thanks, Astridsiry…thanks for reading and for noting the resonance!

    love,
    Britt
    http://www.InArmsCoaching.com

  • Daniel

    Thanks, I had forgotten to take care of my aura :)

  • http://twitter.com/grahamgunn grahamgunn

    Nice post! looking forward to trying as a practice

  • http://droppingtheact.blogspot.com/ Taryn

    yoga has been a great way for me to ground myself and come back to a sense of calm. Since starting yoga, I’ve been less stressed and anxious at work and at home. You’re right – we absolutely give our good energy away. This is something I am always working on! Thanks for the reminder.

  • Arlene

    wonderful…almost every post deals with issues i need insight on…i’ve been hungry for such a long time!

  • Britt

    Taryn, you are so welcome. Thanks for the reminder of gentle, loving ways to be present in and connected to our centers!

    love,
    Britt
    http://www.InArmsCoaching.com

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  • nancy

    Thank you for this excellent post

  • Britt

    Thanks, life coach! I loved writing it.

    love,
    Britt
    http://www.InArmsCoaching.com

  • Britt

    Thanks for reading it, Nancy! Hope it gave you some tips to begin this crucial work — it’s really changed so many areas of my life.

    love,
    Britt
    http://www.InArmsCoaching.com

  • Anonymous

    Great post.  Being without good boundaries is like having a radio station not quite tuned in – the good stuff gets lost in the static.

  • Rebecacristina

    Funny! I’m having issues with someone that literally makes me feel ill. They share nothing but negative energy like a dark cloud. I don’t want to be rude.

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  • Britt

    Hi Arlene,
    I’m so happy this came at just the right time for you.
    I agree…this is a GREAT source of really inspirational blogs!

    love,
    Britt
    http://www.InArmsCoaching.com

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  • Townsendb1976

    This is a great article. I’ve been struggling with boundaries and letting other people’s energy drain me. The checklist is a great reminder of what I need to keep myself strong!

  • http://twitter.com/debbiejanelao Debbie ♥

    I need this! To protect myself from all the bad vibes surrounding me. Thanks!! ♥

  • CC

    Hello, my dear teacher friend gave me your address after I called to tell her I could not go on her daughters 40th b-day, all womens, celebratory vacation to Scotland; primitive camping trip to the Outer Heberde Islands fall of 2012. I postponed explaining to her due to my unemployment; it’s been four months and a lot of rejection! So, between what knowledge I have in my mind, spirit & soul, along with this incrediblity bright light website of yours (ours-belonging to whomever needs), I can indeed feel inspired, grounded and awake again. Of course, there are other issues too! There always are, and they probably can be easily solved when the time is right. So, thanks you, your gifts are a blessing!

    Happy day to all! ccgems

  • Kevin

    There is a rarely-used concept  that is part of Toyota’s lean manufacturing called “hansei” – a reflection on what works and what doesn’t.  I’ve found that working on this during my 40 minute commute home creates the boundary and grounding you describe.  A meditation on what worked during the day, what didn’t, and a resolution on what to do about it.  By the time I get home work is behind me and my family is before me.

  • Sherri_clark

    Wonderful, thanks! Sending this on to my daughter in law who is dealing with tremendous career issues right now, I am sure she will benefit from following these techniques.

  • http://twitter.com/MilkThePigeon MilkThePIgeon

    I think this is really, really important for some people.  I say some people, because it’s definitely not everyone.  People who tend to be described as “sensitive” when they were younger have a big issue with this.. I know because I’m one of those people.  I think it’s more unusual to find it in a guy, but my point is just the same: having a psychological ritual or psychological boundary is extremely important for some people.

    For example: two places I cannot (Ever) go to without having a mentally boundary set: The Mall, and Amusement Parks.  I have no idea why, I just feel like everyone around me drains me. I can feel stuff in the air.  It just saps the life out of me, and was like that ever since I was young.

    Definitely a worthwhile read – thank you :)

    Alex over at milkthepigeon.com

  • embrace evocative

    Great post.

  • Olivia

    this is so true! thank you so much

  • Jfdevinejr

    Great information, important and very often overlooked. My personal awareness point in similar (and recurring) scenarios ;why do I continue to allow /participate in unhealthy situations….. That’s a really important question

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Britt, you’re an empath! I love what you said here:

    “Really see it and really feel the force of it around you. Then recognize what you need to do to maintain that space”

    Yes, it all about awareness in the end, and noticing what we need, individually. The meditations are a direction to get that process of connecting with our intuition and awareness of what is happening kick-started!

    On a side-note, it took me ages to figure out why the most popular meditations (visualizing light etc), didn’t work for me. If you’re an empath, you need to FEEL things, so yes, I also found myself adding the feeling sense to classic “bubble of light” and “envisioning grounding chords” meditations. When I did that, they suddenly DID work :)

    popping over to your website now :)

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  • Pmhagwood

    “”Learn to love problems like you love desserts.”

    Friend, enemy, and stranger… only our enemies can help is develop positive qualities.

    Those are the lessons from my teachers that I use every day to help me remember what is real vs what is only my mind. A friend is only someone who does what we want, a stranger just hasn’t done anything yet, but an enemy is someone who gives us opportunities to practice patience and tolerance, all the qualities that help us reach enlightenment. So who of the three is the most valuable?

    Pretty cool huh? That’s why I dig Buddhism. Now if I can just be mindful of this all day long. That’s the trick.

    Love your tips, love your words, much love everyone!

  • Wysteria00

    Loving the site,,,lots to think about
    While I can prepare myself, and say a mantra, what do you do when you have to work with negative, people? I work in a small (20 person) office. Everyday is drama,,,she said this,,backstabbing,,I try to stay out of it,,but they suck you in. Short of never talking,,,what would work? Don’t say get a different job,,,they are scarce here,,,any advice would be appreciated. Thank you

  • scilla!

     =) i try to read one blog a day, and I was drawn to reading this blog today by its quote and first sentence.  what really caught my attention, however, was your step number 2! the first sentence was my exact thought this morning during my sun salutations and yoga… i really felt myself being grounded.  the extent of this blog has helped me realize the importance of how being grounded in oneself can benefit my spiritual health and uniqueness on this earth.  i am so happy i read this today because i now know how i can use these steps to really set boundaries, which never crossed my mind before as attainable.  this will really help me find balance in my life. thank you!

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  • Britt

    Hi Wysteria,
    I can SO relate to this! And it’s a wonderful, wonderful question. And you’re right — setting boundaries isn’t about just checking out of situations. I’ve worked with prisoners around setting boundaries and they sure as heck don’t get to walk away from uncomfortable situations.
    If you go to my blog at http://blog.inarmscoaching.com/ there’s a free mediation that I gifted on setting up healthy boundaries. My advice is for you to practice it each day right before you go into work — in your car, outside the building, whatever works for you.
    I’d love to hear back from you — feel free to email me at britt@inarmscoaching:disqus .com
    love, Britt

  • LadyTamborine

    Brit,
    Great post.  Love the “check engine” metaphor.
    I use a similar metaphor…the traffic signal.
    First you see a yellow light (warning you to slow down and prepare to stop) and then you see the red light (mandating you stop).
    How many times have you seen that yellow light, and rather than slow down – you step on the gas? You made a quick decision to ignore the warning, take the risk (ticket or accident) and forge your way through the intersection.
    Or perhaps you weren’t even paying attention and last thing you remember is the crash?  You were thinking about the destination (fun, $, etc.) and can’t really even remember how you got to that intersection in the first place.
    This is one of life’s lessons for us; pay attention to the YELLOW lights.  They are out there, whether you chose to see them or not. 
    It’s up to us to pay attention to our check engine light/yellow signals  – know our boundaries…and be prepared to stop.
    Thank you for the great post.

  • LadyTamborine

    Checkpaperlock,
    I so know where you are coming from.  These people can zap the life, energy and positivity right out of ya, can’t they?
    Boundaries are crucial to ANY type of relationship.

    I think teaching our daughters/young women the importance of boundaries is important too.  Having a strong foundation provides a more stable house.

  • http://caroldekkers.wordpress.com/ Carol

    After a lifetime of boundary violations (“you can’t/don’t really feel that way”, “your perceptions are wrong”, “I’ll bring in witnesses to prove I never said that”…) including childhood leading straight into a co-dependent marriage, I find myself happily divorced at middle age and grappling with the fact that every boundary I ever tried to set was “wrong” according to those who purported to love me.  In fact, their “love” overrode my own best self-interests and I got lost in serving others to my own detriment.

    As I begin to build the rest of my life (not rebuild because my boundaries were shattered from a very young age) – posts like this one are invaluable.  I am an over-giving person who needs to learn self-care (it’s not selfish!), boundary setting (I deserve it), and the right of first refusal (it’s my god-given right) of anyone who abuse me emotionally or physically.

    At this late age, I’m happy to be alive (if I was still in the marriage, I would be six feet under today by my own or another’s hand) and thankful that I’m not alone in the world with these issues.  (Can you believe I took to heart my ex-spouses proclamation that “there would not be bullies in the world without ready and willing victims like you?” – and believed it was I who was crazy after all these years?)

    Thank you for your wisdom and support through this blog and others.
    Carol

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=4907945 Neil Martin

    I am totally digging the yellow light metaphor! What a great way to check in with yourself. I’ve definitely been guilty of “rushing through the intersection” one too many times. Thanks for that!

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  • colin

    “When our boundaries are weak, unguarded, or unclear, we let in all sorts of stuff that isn’t actually our stuff, and we give away our own personal energy unconsciously.”
    Would you be able to explain a bit further what you meant by personal energy field being breached? And how do we give away our own personal energy?
    Thanks for the insight.

  • pawlik1

    O wow! I just had a confrontation at work with a coworker who I thought was a friend but I read these tips and realized she has been draining me. She is the type I need time to ground myself before she starts the 20 questions. I let her know how I felt today and now is making me feel bad about it. However I’m trying to set boundaries with her. These tips help!

  • Tim

    Thank you, Britt, for sharing this post. You must have been a pretty strong woman to work in a prison and raise a child at the same time. I need to work on my boundaries and this post has been very helpful. Mine is women who want to get me to do stuff for them and I can’t seem to say no. I like the personal check engine light analogy. Very cool.

  • Moh

    No offense but… meh.

  • Jordan

    I appreciated this article!

  • ruth

    Oh Wow! Your story so resonates my feelings for an environment I visited once before. I remember visiting my brother in a maximum facility climate one year. After visiting my brother I was so drained coming out of that environment that I could do nothing but cry. Once I cried, I felt a release, a release of something that I took on (unknowingly) while visiting with my brother. However, my visit to him was what he needed. I helped redefine his thoughts about wanting to be close to family and whatever bitterness he had about that issue. It was that belief that he released, which fell onto me. The ending…he immediately put a transfer in moving himself closer to family and is receiving more visits since. Note: I was the first family member he had seen in ~4 years.
    Namaste!

    Thank you for this beautiful article.

  • peggy sue

    I am studying my master’s in psychology and a particular female classmate and I hit it off, and exchanged phone numbers. The following week, I sent a text that mentioned I had experienced a rather stressful week. (I would think most people might back off then….or at least be aware I might be a bit drained). But instead: this woman literally showed up at my house! I had not even told her where I live!!!! I brushed it off, as I was sitting outside and my street is fairly centrally located in our town smallish town. Big mistake. Check out NPD: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. When I began to assert boundaries-she became like a wolf. I was about to take away her personal “fix” and incite a narcissistic rage. The only thing she could relate to was how good of a person she is-and how damaged I am. I calmly outlined boundaries (like she doesn’t know from class, right?) and she simply ignored me. Didn’t even respond. My first good lesson on NPD’ers. Not one I want to revisit. And this restructured how I make friends also.

  • hhagen

    Society is very aware
    of how important it is to be healthy. People pay thousands of dollars per year
    to personal trainers, fitness centers, health food stores, nutritionists and
    even to their doctors to make sure that they are in optimal health. In the
    United States, there is a common expectation that employees work over 40 hours
    a week, juggle the activities of a family, which may include a spouse, children,
    grandparents and the family pet, and while doing this, maintain a healthy
    lifestyle. However, it can be challenging to maintain a happy, balanced,
    healthy life without setting personal boundaries. In order to feel successful
    in work, family life, and health, people should be aware of the outcome of
    their choices. Deciding what matters to them physically, emotionally and
    mentally is the framework they use to set personal boundaries. Establishing
    healthy personal boundaries is a lifelong practice, and as people change, so do
    their boundaries. Healthy personal boundaries
    for one person may not be the same for another.
    There are many indicators to help understand what constitutes a healthy
    personal boundary, but the foundation to setting healthy personal boundaries
    starts with, belief, attitude and opinion.

  • Tommy M

    so what happens when a boundary includes involving the police? My wife a few years back while we were separated had a “welfare” check called on her by her doctor that resulted in her being assaulted by the police and a guilty charge of battery against a police officer…My wife is high conflict and likes to throw things, throw things at me or hit me…When she becomes unstable and her posture is threatening I tell her to back off or I’ll call 911…she’s backs off, but later she says that i’m “mentally abusing her” for threatening the police on her considering what she’s been through…