Setting Boundaries for Mental Health

By Eric Dorsa

By the time you are done reading this I am certain you will be thinking to yourself, “How many times can one person say the word boundaries?" Trust me when I say that I need to because I believe boundaries are that important. I believe boundaries actually saved my life.

Before I began healing in my mental health journey, my life completely lacked boundaries. I was raised that way. In my home, love was expressed by completely pushing your needs and wants aside to meet the needs of those around you. The worst thing you could be in my family was selfish. Boundaries led me to something deeper, something life changing. Boundaries led me to more than what is acceptable and unacceptable. My search for boundaries led me to the foundation of worthiness. Before I began healing, I didn’t believe I was worthy of love, respect or identity. I had been conditioned and needed some "un-conditioning."

I’ll never forget the first time I actually discussed boundaries with my therapist. I am certain this wasn’t the first time she said it, but it was definitely the first time I heard it. We were discussing a text message I received from my mother saying that I was going to hell for being gay. What followed me reading her that text was profound.

She first asked me why I let my mother talk to me that way when I was an adult. The second thing she asked me was if I believed my mother. My life lacked boundaries because what I believed was that I was not worthy of protecting myself or challenging what I was taught to believe. I felt helpless and powerless against my beliefs.

The first step in setting boundaries in my life was to question what I believed about them. Remember: I said the worst thing in the world you could be in my family was selfish. This belief was surrounded by shame and conditioned me into being a "yes" person, a perfectionist and a doormat. What anyone thought of me was all that mattered, and the worst feeling in the world was when someone was upset with me. It was unbearable. Setting boundaries was equivalent to creating conflict, and conflict was unsafe. I first had to question what I believed about myself and the world.

Healing is all about connection.

A boundary lets those in my life know what is acceptable to me and unacceptable. A boundary says, "This is the line, and this is how you cross it." They are actually what creates authentic connections and are centered in my values. Some boundaries are firm and fixed; some are flexible and temporary. Some boundaries are hard; some are easy. Boundaries are always necessary.

I value honesty and vulnerability, and those two things cannot survive without boundaries. If these are my values, I cannot authentically show up to a relationship that does not allow me to be honest without being punished or made to feel like I am crazy for expecting honesty. When my mother texts me or says something hurtful about my queer identity, I can choose to respond or not respond based on my values. These are boundaries. I can say something like, "I do not share your beliefs, and when you send me messages, it is hurtful and I feel like I cannot be vulnerable with you."

When a boundary is crossed, we often feel angry because a belief about ourselves and the world has been challenged. Our sense of safety and security has been violated. Oftentimes I have no idea that a boundary has been crossed or lacking in my life until I am confronted with discomfort. What was underneath my PTSD, anxiety, substance use and eating disorder was a deep feeling of unworthiness.

I believed I was not worthy of taking up space, having emotions and, most importantly, expressing what was okay and not okay. Boundaries are about respect centered in integrity and dignity. They are not walls. My negative coping behaviors were walls. On one side was me, safe and protected, on the other side was all of the things in the world that made me uncomfortable. But that is the thing about walls. There is no connection through walls.

Let me be clear: Questioning my beliefs and setting boundaries was not an overnight matter. It took a tremendous amount of time, love, and support from those also walking the same journey with me.

Today, when it comes to my mental health, I realize that a boundary that is non-negotiable for me is that I have to put my mental health first...and this is not selfish. Putting my own well-being first is what actually allows me to be my best self for those I love. I grew up in an abusive household that had absolutely no boundaries. This lack of boundaries or mutual respect created a reality where I had no idea where I began and where other people ended.

Today I realize that no one else can do the healing work for me, and if no one can do it for me, then I cannot do it for anyone else. I cannot do the work for you, but I can certainly show you what it looks like the same way so many others have done for me.

Today I know that putting my own oxygen mask on first is in fact not selfish. It is the most loving thing I can do because when I am taking care of myself, I am better able to show up for you. Boundaries saved my life because they showed me that shame was actually the obstacle to me feeling like I was worthy of them being there in the first place. 

Written by

Eric Dorsa

Eric Dorsa is an LGBTQ advocate, actor, comedian, and drag queen currently living in Chicago, Illinois. As an advocate for the LGBTQ community, Eric travels around the country sharing their…

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