Mental Boundaries: How to Say No to Your Own Mind

Most of us know how important it is to set good boundaries with other people. From standing up to bullies in the schoolyard to saying no to an overbearing mother-in-law, we generally get the idea that it’s important to have good boundaries with other people.

Of course, it can be challenging to actually set those boundaries—not to mention enforce them. But at least it’s a known problem, something we have words for and can at least think about doing or ask for help on. I’ve even suggested a few simple rules for setting healthy boundaries with others.

But there’s another domain of boundary-setting that most people never even consider: setting boundaries with their own minds.

Which is too bad because setting boundaries with yourself is at least as important as setting boundaries with other people…

Most of our emotional struggles are a direct result of not having good boundaries with our own minds.

A few quick examples:

  • Stress-eating. When your brain sends you a craving for potato chips as a way to alleviate stress, how good are you at setting boundaries on that craving and saying no?
  • Chronic worry. When you’re feeling anxious and your mind starts throwing more worries at you, how good are you at setting a boundary and saying no to obsessing over and elaborating on those worries?
  • Dwelling on mistakes. When you’re feeling down or depressed and your mind surfaces a memory of some previous mistake or failure, how good are you at setting boundaries on how much time you spend ruminating on the mistake?
  • Procrastination. When you’ve got work to do but your mind tempts you to browse social media or clean your office, how good are you at setting boundaries on your impulse to procrastinate?

Most of us move in whatever direction our mind pushes us: If it starts worrying, we tend to just keep worrying; if it starts craving, we tend to act on that craving.

But just like the inability to say no to other people can have devastating consequences, the same goes for the inability to set boundaries with and say no to our own minds.

From arguments with a spouse to panic attacks and self-sabotage, many of our struggles come down to poor mental boundaries.

Luckily, with a little self-awareness and some practice, you can get better at setting boundaries on your own mind. Because like any skill, it can be cultivated and developed over time.

And just like there are dramatic improvements that come from setting better boundaries with other people, there are some pretty incredible benefits that come from setting better boundaries with your own mind.

In the rest of this article, we’ll use the example of chronic worry and anxiety to walk through how to set better mental boundaries with your mind.

But before we do that, let’s take a quick minute to clarify what we actually mean when we say setting boundaries with our own mind

Setting boundaries with your mind means managing your attention

When you think about saying no to a craving for junk food, for example, what does that actually mean?

  • You’re not literally communicating with your craving like you would when you say no to another person requesting your time.
  • You’re not casting a magic spell that somehow makes the craving disappear in a cloud of purple smoke.
  • And you’re certainly not physically resisting the craving like you would when a bully tries to knock you down on the schoolyard.

So what do we mean, really, when we say we want to get better at setting boundaries with our own minds?

To answer this, think back on some time when you did successfully say no to your own mind…

  • Maybe you resisted a craving for junk food and stuck with your diet
  • Maybe you stopped yourself from going down another rabbit hole of self-criticism
  • Or maybe you stayed focused on finishing up an assignment for work instead of getting distracted by video games or social media

In all those cases of setting good boundaries with your own mind, the key ingredient was controlling your attention—what you chose to focus on or not.

You can’t control what your mind decides to throw at you—whether it’s a worry, a distracting thought, a painful memory, or some difficult emotion like sadness or shame. But you can always control your attention.

Setting boundaries with your mind means taking responsibility for your attention.

That’s it. And it’s not rocket science.

Of course, the fact that it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy

Controlling our attention—shifting our focus onto something helpful and productive rather than letting it be drawn to something unhelpful and destructive—can be very difficult.

For example:

  • During a conversation with your partner, it can be surprisingly hard to keep your attention on what they are actually saying rather than focusing on your super witty comeback that you have locked and loaded. But just because something’s hard doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
  • If you’re out of shape, running a mile can seem damn near impossible. But with a decent plan, a bit of effort, and plenty of patience, just about anyone can work up to running a mile.

Similarly, the ability to control your attention and set boundaries on your mind’s unhelpful content can be strengthened over time with practice.

Up next, we’ll look at the example of how you can greatly reduce your anxiety by setting boundaries on your worry.


The best way to lower your anxiety is to set boundaries on your worry

There’s only one thing that causes anxiety: Worry

Everything from childhood trauma to a bad night of sleep can make you more vulnerable to anxiety. But the thing that actually causes anxiety in the moment is worry. For a deeper dive on this, check out: Worry Is the Engine of Anxiety →

For example:

  • Let’s say you had an overbearing parent growing up who used to criticize you any time you made even the smallest mistake.
  • As an adult, you no longer have to deal with that parent or their criticism on a regular basis. But your mind still expects it.
  • Which means when you make a small mistake at work, your mind immediately throws a worry at you… Oh no… I’m probably going to get fired!
  • None of that is under your control. But luckily, on its own, a single worry isn’t going to lead to that much anxiety.
  • But more than likely, that single worry captures your attention and leads to a series of more worries that elaborate on and extend the first one: What if my boss thinks I’m lazy? Now I’ll never get that promotion… My team probably won’t want to work with me anymore. What if our client hears about it and leaves because of me?! I’ll probably lose my job! Etc.
  • A single worry is a drop in the bucket. It’s the 20 minutes of follow-up worry that leads to the hurricane of anxiety.

So what does this have to do with setting mental boundaries?

Well, you can’t control whether you had an overbearing father as a kid. And you can’t control whether your mind throws an initial worry at you after making a mistake. But you can control how you react to that initial worry.

Specifically, you can allow your attention to get sucked into more worries (which will generate a lot of anxiety), or you can shift your attention somewhere else (your work, a conversation with your kid, the beautiful color of the fall leaves in the park you’re walking by, etc.)

Of course, even if you initially successfully set a boundary on your mind’s pull to worry, over time you may find your attention wandering back to the mistake and those worries. So it’s not only about shifting your attention once in the moment—it’s about committing yourself to keeping your attention off of unproductive and anxiety-producing worry. This means repeatedly catching your mind wandering and refocusing it on to something else.

And that is what setting healthy boundaries on your own worry looks like.

Here’s another, more colorful, way to think about it:

  • A worry is like a street vendor trying to sell you cheap trinkets as you’re walking down the street to get to dinner with a friend.
  • If you stop and engage in a conversation with the person, there’s a good chance you’ll end up handing him $10 bucks simply to get out of this awkward and uncomfortable situation.
  • But now, not only have you wasted $10, but you’ve probably also made yourself late for your dinner.
  • Similarly, if a worry tried to “stop you on the street,” you can stop and have a conversation with it. But likely this will just lead to more worry and a lot of anxiety plus not accomplishing whatever it is you were doing before it showed up.
  • Alternatively, you can gently acknowledge the worry and keep walking.

That’s the idea behind setting healthy boundaries with our minds. We acknowledge unhelpful or distressing things but we put a boundary on them and don’t get sucked into them. And the way we do this is by managing our attention.

In the case of anxiety, the better you get at setting (and enforcing) your boundaries on your worry, the less anxiety you’re going to feel as a result.

Even better, because you will be less consumed with worry and anxiety, you’ll have more time and energy to focus on and be present for whatever really matters in your life—your family, your work, etc.

How to Set Mental Boundaries: 3 Simple Steps

Remember that setting healthy boundaries with yourself simply means taking responsibility for your attention and not letting it get sucked into unhelpful mental patterns.

Here’s a simple 3-step process for getting started:

1. Acknowledge the distractor

The first step is to simply acknowledge whatever is pulling your attention and that you’re feeling pulled.

So you might say to yourself:

  • I feel myself wanting to worry about the mistake I made on the Johnson file.
  • Wow, I’m really feeling a strong craving for ice cream.
  • I really feel like just watching more TV instead of going to the gym.

As the old saying goes: Name it to tame it.

When you acknowledge an unhelpful mental event plainly and honestly, you rob it of some of its power and make it easier to shift your attention on to something more productive.

Bonus Tip: Write it down on paper. This helps you get perspective on the worry/craving/impulse/etc and makes it easier to detach from. For an example of this, see Why You Should Write Your Worries Down on Paper →

2. Validate the emotion

Usually, we have a hard time setting good mental boundaries because some painful emotion is present and pushing us to make unhelpful choices.

For example:

  • An initial worry creates some initial anxiety.
  • And we assume that by thinking about the worry more (Where did it come from? Is it true? How do I stop it?), we can avoid the anxiety.
  • Unfortunately, this strategy tends to backfire leading to even more anxiety.
  • This is similar to how criticizing yourself for wanting to procrastinate only leads to more shame and a higher probability of procrastinating.

So, instead of impulsively reacting to difficult emotions and trying to get rid of them, try validating them instead…

  • I’m feeling anxious right now. I don’t like it, but anxiety can’t hurt me.
  • I’m feeling guilty about not doing this work easier. But everybody procrastinates sometimes. And just because I feel guilty doesn’t mean I’m bad for feeling it.

Validating difficult emotions means compassionately acknowledging that, while painful, emotions aren’t bad and you’re not bad for feeling them. More on this technique here: How to Validate Your Emotions in 3 Simple Steps →

3. Clarify your values

It’s a lot easier to refocus your attention onto something helpful if you have a strong, clear value attached to that new object of focus.

For example:

  • Imagine you’re struggling to keep your attention focused on the game of cards you’re playing with your daughter.
  • Instead, you find yourself ruminating on the argument you just had with your spouse.
  • I bet you’d find it a lot easier to stay focused on your daughter and your game together if you reminded yourself of how important a value it is for you to be present and attentive with your kids.

Values are like motivational fuel to help you stay focused on the right things—and avoid getting sucked back into unhelpful things. Which is the whole idea behind setting mental boundaries.

But the trick is that clear, specific values are much more motivating than generic, vague ones…

  • Using the example above, if you simply remind yourself to Stay present that’s good, but not super motivating.
  • On the other hand, imagine how much more motivated you would be to maintain a good mental boundary and stay present if you told yourself this: Being present with my children is one of my core values. I want to notice every little expression on their faces and soak up as much of this precious time that we have together while I can. When I’m with my kids, I want them to feel like I’m 100% with them. I remember how great it felt spending time with my grandmother because she was always so present and focused. I want to do the same.

So, if you really want to keep your focus on something helpful instead of getting sucked back into unhelpful thoughts, worries, impulses, etc, take 30 seconds and briefly clarify what the value is behind the action you want to take and then make it real by adding specifics and color to it.

More on how to identify and clarify your values here: 7 Ways to Discover and Clarify Your Personal Values →


All You Need to Know

Just like it’s important to set healthy boundaries with difficult people, it’s just as important to set healthy boundaries with your own mind when it’s being difficult.

The key to better boundaries with yourself is making a commitment to manage your attention—what you choose to focus on or not.

When you’re trying to set a boundary with your own mind, these 3 tips should help:

  1. Acknowledge the distractor
  2. Validate the emotion
  3. Clarify your values

5 Comments

Add Yours

Hi Nick, I found this article very insightful and practical – thank you! I wanted to ask if and where you’ve written about small exercises to train the attention muscle. I agree that managing attention is key to psychological health, but many individuals may struggle to do so because of very strong pulls towards worrying, as in the case of OCD sufferers experiencing compulsions, or someone with social anxiety at a party. I presume you’ll suggest mindfulness as an exercise for best attention training. Would that be correct?

Excellent article! It is super helpful to approach anxiety and worry in the way you suggest. It makes lot of sense
Mandeep

Yes! This is so important. But for me the struggle is not so much with staying on task, but the opposite : setting healthy boundaries to work, not because of an over demanding boss, but over demanding personal goals and expectations. It’s so hard to stop when you get into the flow, but all too often I ignore my body’s distress singles and need to exercise, stretch, get up and relax. I pay the price later, and then beat myself up for it. I guess I need to clarify my values : yes, I want my work to be done well, to be efficient and timely, but I also value my own physical and mental health. So I guess I need to find a way to hold both those competing values in tension, to balance them.

Nick I’m so glad I found you as your advice and logic right on – I don’t feel alone with my overly anxiously mind👍

Leave a Reply