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When you can’t say “no,” it’s easy to burn out. The secret? Listen to your body to find your natural limits—along with core power, strength, and inner peace.
Have you ever planned the setting of a boundary down to the tiniest detail—how you’d leave a dinner date with that emotional-vampire friend at 8 p.m. on the dot, say “no” to the boss who asks you to do just one more thing, or finally make time to tap into your creative wisdom—only to find yourself veering off course yet again? Most people have: It’s part of our common humanity. But when we allow our boundaries to be undermined or overturned too often, our well-being suffers. We feel stressed, disconnected, even ill. The good news is that with practice, and using yoga and mindfulness as guides, we can learn to develop strong boundaries. What’s more, they can bring better health, emotional balance, creative fulfillment, stronger relationships, and an evolved sense of compassion.
Blogs and books devoted to boundaries often make it sound simple: If you feel depleted, just say “no.” They define boundaries as the outer limits of what we should do for others or tolerate in their behavior. When we’ve crossed that line by saying “yes,” we feel taken advantage of and burnt out. This is a good start, but to truly understand the process and to set healthy boundaries, it helps to think of boundaries as a system.
Our Boundary System
Imagine an apple with three layers. The outermost layer (the apple’s skin) is the easiest to see and relates to behavior: the time you give to help a friend or partner, or how much you pile onto your own plate. Do you pour creative energy into someone else’s career plan and neglect your own? When setting boundaries on this level, we often face overwhelming guilt, thinking that we’re letting others down. Rather than giving in, think of this guilt as an affirmation that you’re on the right track.
The middle layer (the flesh of the apple) is interpersonal: To what extent do others’ moods influence your own? Do you ever come home in a good mood, for instance, only to have your partner’s black cloud of bitterness blanket the rest of your day? When you feel someone’s emotions as though they were your own, you may be filled with the urge to relieve their suffering now, no matter the emotional cost to yourself. The key is to feel compassion without taking on their suffering.
The innermost layer of boundaries (the apple core) is intrapersonal: It involves your connection with your deepest self. How linked are you with your body in each moment? When you meet someone whom all your friends like, do you disregard your body’s signals—the clenching in your abdomen or the tightness in your throat—that tell you that this person isn’t safe for you? When we lack boundaries at this level, we often have nervous system imbalance (think anxiety and depression). The trick to forging these innermost boundaries is to cultivate deep embodiment: the ability to be present with sensations as they change from one moment to the next.
Many people fear that setting strong boundaries will make them seem or become uncaring. Paradoxically, however, it actually helps us be empathic in a healthy way. Social scientist Brené Brown, PhD, who has researched boundaries for years, has found that setting limits allows us to be more, not less, compassionate.
Try the yoga sequence and meditations to help find your natural boundaries. You’ll start to recognize and trust your gut feelings and radiate truth, affecting you and others in a positive way!
Our body’s natural boundary systems
Our physical body has its own barrier systems that are essential to optimum health and can serve as a barometer for setting limits. Here are just a few:
- The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls respiration and heart rate, among other things. It constantly scans our inner and outer environments to decide what’s safe and when to sound the alarm. When it’s out of balance, we become vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
- The immune system assesses what’s “me” and what isn’t; if it detects something foreign, it mounts a response to fight it. When this system is out of balance, we get sick often or suffer from autoimmune conditions.
- The enteric nervous system (ENS), often called our “second brain,” determines what’s nourishing and what causes inflammation. This system not only controls our digestion, it also plays a key role in immune response. And it helps regulate mood. When it’s out of whack, we get gut disorders, bacterial and mood imbalances, and more.
5 signs you need a little boundary CPR
- Symptoms of nervous system hyper-arousal: Feelings of anxiety, increased heart rate, shallow and rapid breathing, and tight muscles and connective tissue.
- You are often exhausted, even after a good night’s sleep. Your energy reserves are depleted, and self-care seems elusive.
- Negative stories are on repeat in your head, or you tell them to anyone who will listen. These stories are often about the selfishness of others, and reflect resentment about the people you are helping. You feel like a victim, while others are to blame.
- You feel intense emotions that seem disconnected from your own experience and more linked to other people’s feelings. This is called “emotional contagion”—you catch others’ emotions the way you would the flu.
- You feel out-of-body, ungrounded, and almost ethereal—despite a regular yoga practice—and find it hard to connect with your inner truth, detect your needs, or even figure out what you want for dinner.
Are you an empath?
While many of us are affected by emotional contagion, some people feel others’ emotions to the nth degree. If this sounds familiar, you might be an empath, and your wonderful qualities, when left unchecked, can compromise your health.
Four telltale characteristics of empaths:
- It’s tough to know where you leave off and others begin, or which emotional experiences are yours and which come from others.
- You’re often not in your body. For empaths, all that “feeling into” the experiences of others can mean that you dissociate.
- You’re prone to nervous system overdrive. It doesn’t take much—sometimes just a crowded, loud party sends your nervous system into alarm.
- You have trouble with intimacy. Your relationships are filled with intense interactions. You get so entangled that making a clean break from someone is often the only way to get the space you need.