Learn by an example how creating healthy boundaries can contribute to more refreshing sleep.
As part of my initial conversation with clients, a question I ask is “what are you doing during the day to set yourself up for healthy sleep at night?” The answers I hear are variations of:
- Absolutely nothing – ”I’m too busy during the day, taking care of everyone else!”
- The usual things – “I eat right, I exercise a few times a week, I don’t drink a lot of caffeine,” etc.
The people in the second group are doing some activities you might label as “self-care”. That’s great!
Yet both groups may continue to struggle with sleep if they fail to address a stubborn, underlying contributor to stress and anxiety: unhealthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries are one of the less fashionable and more complex areas of self-care that we cover in sleep wellness coaching.
Here I’ll talk about two components required to establish healthy boundaries for refreshing sleep: setting them and honoring them.
An example: when fires are burning all around you
Let’s set up an example we can use to talk about unhealthy boundaries and how they might be negatively impacting you physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Joan recently became the marketing director for a large financial services company. She has a team to manage, a strategy to develop, and her prior experience is in a completely different industry. Her new team is overworked; one member is on an existing performance improvement plan (PIP). People keep asking questions and sending information: in person when she’s in the office; also via phone, email, text, and Slack.
After a few months in her new role, Joan feels more like a fire-fighter than a marketing director. Her new boss is rarely available, and Joan hates the idea of bugging him because maybe then he’d regret having hired her!
Personally, Joan is engaged. She and her fiance James live in separate residences but are talking about buying a home together. Joan’s retired parents are starting to show their age; she’s concerned about the future care they might need. Since they live in another time zone, sometimes she’s on the phone with mom later than she’d like. Her mom often complains about her dad, making her uncomfortable.
Joan typically works until about 2 am. She knows she should spend more time with James, or relaxing. She also knows she should get to bed earlier, but believes that if she doesn’t stay ahead of the work, tomorrow will be really bad.
When Joan does get into bed, she notices her breathing is very fast or she’s been holding her breath without realizing it. It takes her at least an hour to fall asleep, and she frequently wakes during the night thinking about work or her parents. She’s also second guessing her decision to get engaged–there will be so many changes if she gives up her condo and moves in with James!
Unsurprisingly, Joan wakes feeling exhausted, averaging 4-6 hours per night. She’s started to notice her eye twitches sometimes (annoying!); her hands occasionally shake too. Joan recently had a physical and was given a clean bill of health by her doctor: she was told, however, to keep an eye on her blood pressure.
Step 1: Setting healthy boundaries for refreshing sleep
Several boundaries come into play in a scenario like this.
First, Joan isn’t giving herself adequate sleep opportunity–she’s unable–or more accurately–unwilling, to put down her work before 2 am. She’s lacking a boundary with HERSELF. Her mind is happy to support this decision by rationalizing that if she just does one more thing, tomorrow won’t be so bad. Her intuitive voice, however, knows she’ll continue to feel like a firefighter and she must learn how to stop.
Joan isn’t setting healthy boundaries with others either. At work, Joan doesn’t have boundaries with members of her new team. At home, Joan has boundary issues where her mom is concerned.
Leaky boundaries in one area of our lives often bleed into other areas. While this may sound dire, it’s actually a good thing: it means a positive shift in one context may cascade into others.
Joan decided that the first and easiest boundary she would experiment with her team at work. Instead of being continuously available, she set some “office hours”–dedicated in-person and virtual times when people could come to her for help.
However, she went a step further: she also responded to their questions differently. Instead of fixing problems, her first response became something like: “That sounds challenging. What do you see as possible solutions?”
Joan was encouraging members of her team to generate their own options and ways to overcome problems. Whenever she thought an idea was on the right track, she encouraged them to pursue it. If it wasn’t, she asked, “what else?”
After a few months, Joan noticed that folks on her team were asking her fewer questions. They seemed more empowered, more self-sufficient. This reduced the number of fires Joan had to fight, and freed up her time for more strategic work. Her days felt more focused and productive. She felt pride in what she accomplished during the day; working until 2 am didn’t feel as necessary.
Step 2: Honoring healthy boundaries for refreshing sleep
Making these shifts isn’t always easy. Your new boundary will be tested. Yet this is the most important aspect of a healthy boundary: if you can’t hold or honor it, a boundary ceases to exist.
As you might expect, there were at least a few times when David–the employee on the PIP–messaged Joan in a panic. She felt guilty not responding right away, so she did. The result? Her whole day got swept away in an emergency that in the end, didn’t turn out to be so urgent after all. Working late that night, Joan felt angry at herself. She also kept replaying the situation over in her head when she finally did climb into bed.
Another time, she replied to David’s message with, “I understand your concern! Please put together some ideas and let’s talk about it [at designated time].” A flurry of messages came back. When she didn’t respond, David showed up at her door. Joan was now feeling angry and guilty, so again, she decided to fix David’s problem by sacrificing her own boundary.
Sarah showed up next. She saw that David was able to get through, and Joan ended up back where she started.
Or did she?
The nice thing about experimenting with boundaries is that you never fail. You always learn something!
Joan rededicated herself to honoring this boundary with her team. She did this by reconnecting with what she truly wanted–her vision for her own self-care and her work-life balance. Joan desired more opportunity to sleep and to have a peaceful mind when she laid down at night. She wanted to feel proud of herself for being productive (and mentoring her team toward their own successes) during the day.
After another month of practice, Joan achieved this (and much more). With improved sleep, Joan was able to acknowledge the scariness of her upcoming life transition, yet feel confident she’d made the right choice to marry James. She spoke to her mom about how some topics were off limits, and conveyed that she’d be off the phone by 9 pm ET.
Self-care is nothing without healthy boundaries, and unhealthy boundaries are often an overlooked contributor to stress during the day, poor sleep at night, and longer-term health concerns. Waking rested each morning is required to be able to hold space and truly help those you care about–at work and at home–both now and in the future.