Anxiety – A Problem with Boundaries

It’s 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. You still have, among other things, three loads of laundry to do, groceries that need buying, a dog to bathe, dinner to cook (and eat and clean up), and two bathrooms to disinfect. Add one more thing, and your head will explode.

Then, the phone rings. Cringe. You know it’s your sister before you even look. She talks too much, you have a million things to do, and what if she starts ranting about her coworker again?! Blood pressure rising, you answer the phone. An hour later, you know all about her office nemesis, vacation plans, and dreams of an Etsy store. You feel flustered the rest of the day and angry the next because you have to wear dirty underwear (it was all in the last load you didn’t get to), and your dog stinks to high heaven. Anxiety has infiltrated your life—because you just couldn’t say “no.”

 Anxiety can result from poor boundaries.

 One trigger for anxiety is a lack of boundaries, an inability to say “no” to things or people. Boundaries define who we are and who we are not. They dictate what we allow into our lives and what we keep out.

As psychologist Henry Cloud puts it, we get what we allow.

If you allow your sister to take up more time than you have to give, then you simply won’t have the time for what’s on your own plate. The natural feelings that result from this scenario are anxiety, feeling flustered, and agitation. You get what you allow.

Reasons poor boundaries and anxiety go together.

So why does this happen? The subject of our example illustrates a common way poor boundaries yield anxiety. She felt as though she had to talk to her sister—almost as if she didn’t have a choice. Listening to her sister, making sure she didn’t feel disappointed, angry, or hurt (which the sister might have felt had our subject cut the conversation short) took priority over what she needed for own life—managing the to-do list and not overextending herself. She tried to make her sister happy and took responsibility for her sister’s feelings, blurring their boundaries. By doing something she didn’t want to do (talk for an hour), she effectively allowed herself to matter less than her sister. The result: anxiety. Does any of this sound familiar in your life?

Set firmer boundaries to lessen anxiety.

It’s important to realize that you’re not a jerk if you tell someone “no.” You do not exist to make everyone happy. Let other people take responsibility for themselves. You matter just as much as everyone else! Keeping these principles in mind, check in regularly with your emotions. If you notice your blood pressure rising or sense agitation blooming, that may be a signal that it’s time to take care of yourself. Step back and evaluate the situation. Are you trying to make someone else happy by doing something you don’t want to or don’t have time to do? Decide what you have to give, and don’t give beyond that. If guilt plagues you after you decline a request, examine your choices to see if you have actually done something wrong or harmful. Remember, it is not wrong or harmful to allow another person to be responsible for him or herself!

Defining what you want your life to be and feel like will help stave anxiety that is related to loose boundaries. Sometimes people have deeply held beliefs that if they don’t make others happy, they are not nice, or they are selfish, or they are a bad Christian. Jesus didn’t live to only make people happy and do what everyone else wanted. Giving to others was an important part of his ministry, but he also said “no” to people and graciously let them be responsible for themselves and for their emotions. If your guilt persists, there could be some underlying factors that you may need to address in therapy. There is hope for your anxiety, and you have the power to change how you feel. Deciding what you will (and won’t) allow in your life is a great place to start. You get to be in charge of your life!