Learning to Live Within Limits by Amy Hutto, LICSW, PIP
1. a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.
"Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others." - Brene Brown
Mental health is more than just the absence of illness, but it is also the presence of wholeness and wellbeing. It is the sometimes elusive ability to live within our means and to set healthy boundaries for ourselves. I truly believe that peace of mind can only come from a realistic understanding of ourselves. At the risk of sounding too simplistic or perhaps even selfish, I believe self-care really is at the center of prevention when it comes to maintaining and sustaining good mental health. My mom often told me, "You have to learn to take care of yourself because no one else can do it for you."
Mental health is a personal responsibility and one that can feel overwhelming and hard to attain. Our mental health suffers when we forget or ignore the fact that we are limited beings or when we expect others to provide for our emotional needs, happiness, and security.
Several years ago, I was reeling from the effects of working in a toxic environment when I sought out an opportunity to step away from the fast pace, numbers-driven, high-pressure rat race of corporate America to work part-time in a support role at my local church. I won't go into all the details, but suffice to say I lived outside of my physical and emotional capacity, not affording myself any compassion, and it took a toll on me. As a result, I decided to quit my job before having a backup plan. It was a scary, massive step of faith that I did not foresee as a viable option, but taking that step became a necessary part of my journey toward becoming a healthier person. It was as if I had walked into a completely new world with an entirely different philosophy about life, family, and community.
When I arrived on the scene in my new assistant role, I was anxious, skeptical, exhausted, burned out, and dealing with the effects of a stress-induced auto-immune condition. If I am being honest, I was embarrassed and deflated while relieved to be free from the stress of the previous job. Still, working outside of my trained profession and "taking a break" from the career field I had worked so hard in for nearly two decades was a blow to my pride. I felt as though I had given up or settled for less. But the truth was that I had been pushing myself far too hard (long hours, late nights) and too long trying to achieve too much (striving for quantity above quality). I was a complete and total mess, always tense, aiming to manage more, often on the verge of tears, and feeling guilty and inadequate in each of my roles. I was wearing too many hats and trying to meet too many needs, often overlooking my own needs and neglecting myself in the process. As time went by, I gradually began to detox from the adrenaline and harmful stress levels I was used to managing.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am no stranger to the Church and practically cut my teeth on the Baptist Hymnal, but never had I spent my work week that close to the sanctuary! Having spent the entirety of my professional career working with the public in government agencies, the private sector, and, more recently, corporate health insurance, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still manage to survive financially (at least for a season) with a much lower pay scale at a much slower and more intentional pace. In addition, this change offered an environment where I was encouraged to care for my family's needs as my first priority and then to engage meaningfully with my co-workers toward a common goal together. As a result, I began to slow down and started moving from a mentality of surviving into a mentality of thriving. And while no job is perfect, it was life-changing for me in the best way. I recognized the unhealthy mindset I was operating under and began to heal.
With the global pandemic came another opportunity to pivot and gain a new perspective. On March 13, 2020, the world I knew changed drastically as we all left the office and went home to work. Being at home slowed me enough to downshift again. Being an extrovert and quarantined within the four walls of my tiny house allowed (forced) me to attune to things I had completely overlooked before, like the multitudes of colorful birds that live in my backyard, the elderly couple that walks around my neighborhood lake every single morning holding hands, my daughter's amazing ability to sleep past noon, the wonder of home-cooked meals, and the sound of my own breath as I sat in complete stillness without the need to put on makeup or rush through traffic to be at work by 8 o'clock. What began as both uncomfortable and unfamiliar quickly became a natural, more rhythmic way of life–living, breathing, eating, sleeping, and waking, repeatedly without interruption, moment by moment, day after day, week after week, and month after month. And it was life-giving for me in the best way.
Slowing down to a snail's pace allowed me (pushed me) to notice the large amounts of excess in my house. Our family has been working on decluttering possessions and living by "The Container Concept" (coined by Dana K. White, Creator of A Slob Comes Clean and writer of Decluttering at The Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff) by choice and out of necessity. The Container Concept is the idea that we are allowed to keep/own any item that fits within the container designed to hold it. If an item doesn't fit in the assigned container, we get rid of it or trade it out with another item we are willing to part with so that everything in our home is "able to breathe" and easier to find when we need it. It resembles what my grandmother used to refer to as "a place for everything and everything in its place." Essentially, this selection process is a way of prioritizing and setting healthy boundaries. As a result, we keep only what is necessary and of the best quality to be better able to manage, steward effectively, and use the things we own without the overwhelming quantity of excess.
As human beings, we are very much like containers. We have a mind and body that are inseparable. We are designed with flesh and blood, intricate and dependent systems that are fragile and utterly outside our control. Even our next breath and heartbeat are impossible without our Creator causing them to be. The essence of everything we are is contained within our humanness– it is our capacity to exist on this planet. We live, breathe, eat, sleep, wake, and repeat the boundaries and limitations that are the container of our human bodies. Yet, in our busy and pressurized western society, we can easily forget that we are not created to be robots.
We live in a culture that would have us believe the delusion that we are more than capable of succeeding– that if we try hard enough to be, to do, and meet every possible challenge and deadline–that we can supersede our own limitations and climb the proverbial ladder of success (whatever that may look like for us). And while reaching the top of the ladder sounds empowering and validating, it is often just not realistic or healthy. We are not machines. This unrealistic expectation to defy our human design is not only not possible, but it can be devastating, to say the least.
Speaking as a working wife and mother, I can quickly become consumed by the enormous needs of those around me. As women, we are asked to not only care for our own and others' needs but to achieve beauty, health, fitness, modesty, and moral fortitude to gain self-worth and value in the eyes of others. We are often expected to work, finish college, get married, and have babies on a timeline. We're sometimes obliged to be the primary financial providers of our families, to be excellent household managers of finance, chores, and meal preparation. We are compelled to be the ultimate caregivers to our children and often grandchildren. Yet somehow, we are also expected to have time to develop hobbies or interests so that we don't become too overly enmeshed in our husbands' or children's lives. It is, again, a set of expectations impossible to do well not because we are failures but because we are fearfully and wonderfully made to be human! (Psalm 139:14) And with our beautiful humanness comes a defined capacity–the requirement to rest, eat, work, worship, breathe, and interact in relation to God, others, and ourselves in a way that respects how we were created physically and emotionally.
As a mental health therapist, I daily talk with individuals who are struggling with the aftereffects of trying to live outside their capacity. The effects range from depression, anxiety, panic, trauma, addiction, eating disorders, and a plethora of relationship issues. Ignoring our own needs for the needs of others is a sure path toward a destination filled with a multitude of emotional problems. We will eventually pay a high price when we try to live outside of our created design.
God has created us with boundaries, which are a part of His good design. Even in the creation landscape, we observe the geographical limits and lines of oceans, shorelines, the rise and fall of mountain ranges and valleys, sunrises and sunsets, and the horizon dividing skies and seas. Setting good boundaries is the first step in the journey toward improving mental health.
Setting Personal Boundaries
"Boundaries are basically about providing structure, and structure is essential in building anything that thrives."- Henry Cloud.
Prioritize Self-Care First: Meet your own basic needs first before trying to care for another person. This concept is the "put your oxygen mask on first" idea. Also, remember," you can't pour out of an empty vessel," etc. Once you have attended to your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, you will be better equipped to engage with and care for others out of the overflow of your life, not out of obligation or in ways that are detrimental or unhealthy for you. You are just as valuable as the people in your life.
Become More Self Aware: Attend to your personal physical and emotional needs by slowing down, breathing intentionally, and mindfully paying attention to your body's amazing design. This mindfulness helps us begin to return to the basics and notice that our "containers" are not created with unlimited capacity. We simply are not intended to bear the immense weight of constant news reports, social media, and the vast information that bombards us daily. Therefore, it is healthy to unplug from devices and tune into our bodies and environment as we reconnect and calm our minds.
Plan: Schedule time for proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, work, play, and social interaction. Start to set limits with your time, energy, money, and resources. Establish a calendar that reflects what is important to you and live by it.
Establish Healthy Relationships: We need meaningful connections and time with other people. Once you have assessed your own needs and desires, setting firm boundaries can help you begin to relate to others in realistic ways that honor your limitations and respect the needs of others. Realize that people are not capable of meeting all your emotional needs; only God can do that.
Communicate Your Boundaries: Clear, assertive communication with others is necessary to ensure that others know how you expect to be treated and what actions you will take if your boundaries are violated. Letting others know how you feel and what you need is foundational to good mental health. Saying "No" clearly and regularly is crucial to setting clear boundaries and allowing a margin for living a lifestyle that honors your body and mind. This communication takes practice and a willingness to stand up for yourself even if others do not support or agree with you.
Practice Self-Compassion: Talk to yourself as though you are your own best friend. Self-talk is essential to helping you relate well to yourself and others. Having an attitude of gentleness and kindness toward yourself allows you to learn from your mistakes and grow stronger. Conversely, treating yourself judgmentally or self-critically will leave you mentally broken, feeling guilty, depressed, and defeated. Remember, this is an ongoing journey. Progress, not perfection, is the goal.
Living according to God's design makes sense and is good for our mental health! Operating within our capacity and as we are created will bring peace of mind and allow us to live a more full and meaningful life.
If you are in an unsafe situation or need assistance, please talk to a professional who can help you begin to become more self-aware and make a personal plan of action to prioritize and establish healthy boundaries for yourself. For additional resources, go to PsychologyToday.com, BetterHelp.com, CCEF, and Elite Counseling Center.