Respect Your Limits: How to Make Healthy Boundaries a Non-Negotiable

04/23/2015 04:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

By Jan Bruce

In honor of Stress Awareness Month, we've made it our goal to strengthen your resilience ("Do this") and hold the line against stress ("Ditch that"). This week, we turn your attention to healthy boundaries, a non-negotiable for stress management.

Non-Negotiable: Healthy Boundaries
It's a fact of life that some people will push your buttons, amp up your stress, and drain your energy. And it's all too true that these same folks may be family members and friends. That's why being able to set and hold boundaries is vital to your well-being. When you have your feet planted and you know what's important for your health, it's harder to be swayed by the stress blowing in your direction. Here's how to put down your roots into solid ground.

Do This!
Know your own limits -- and respect them
Your boundaries aren't anyone's responsibility but your own. There will always be times when other people simply can't or won't act as you need, so it's your job to understand what you will and won't tolerate in a relationship, whether with your spouse, your mother, or your cubicle-mate. (Note: You can try with your cat, too, but that's an uphill battle.) It's also your job to make clear what sort of behavior is and isn't acceptable to others.

Pinpoint your "energy vampires." This week, pay close attention to how the people you interact with on a daily basis make you feel. Who energizes and inspires you, and who leaves you in a weakened, irritable state? The latter are your "energy vampires," the people who hook into every outlet on your power strip and drain you dry. Now, think about the situations that bring you in contact with such people. These are the relationships and circumstances that need better boundaries, so you can have some peace of mind.

Make a plan. Some situations you can predict and prepare boundaries for, like the co-worker who always wants to talk aggressively about politics over lunch. Can you eat someplace else for a change (or with someone else)? Maybe eat at a different time? Or perhaps you can help steer the conversation in a different direction (ask her about her dog, her kids, if she has any vacations planned). Deflection can be your friend. If you know things will get testy between you and your significant other, you may want to train yourself to do something besides react out of anger (e.g., excuse yourself and get a drink of water, take a breath, give yourself a quick pep talk, and head back).

Ditch That!
Stop falling in thinking traps
How you think about other people has an enormous effect on the stress you feel, especially when those thoughts are knee-jerk or unconscious. If your best friend flakes out on a coffee date and you immediately feel guilty that maybe you ask too much of her, and she's so busy you shouldn't even expect her to spend time with you -- that's way, way more stress than the situation probably warrants. Plus with all that heavy emotion, you've made it even harder to figure out and communicate a healthy boundary with your friend.

At meQuilibrium, we call these negative mental patterns "thinking traps," because more often than not, you fall into them without even realizing what's going on. Here's a quick tool to get yourself free.

Trap It, Map It, and Zap It First, trap it: observe your emotions and where you feel them in your body. Next, map it: Identify the thought going through your head that's causing the emotion. What thought or story flashed through your mind that created that emotion? Finally, zap it: Challenge the thought. Is it true? Recognize that most of what you're feeling came from your interpretation, not from reality.

Remember, the clearer and calmer your boundaries are, the more positive, respectful and supportive your connections will be.

Learn more useful information about stress and your health! Order meQuilibrium's new book, meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, co-authored by meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce, Adam Perlman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, and Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer.