Self-Preservation as Self-Care: How to Set Healthy Boundaries

By Nneka M. Okona Zora Neale Hurston, the foremother of Black women’s literature, so eloquently pe...

By Nneka M. Okona

Zora Neale Hurston, the foremother of Black women’s literature, so eloquently penned that Black women were “de mule uh de world” and even many, many years later, we can see how this statement still rings true. Black women are seen as the pillars of strength in nearly every circle we comprise. We are the backbones of our families, the shoulder always called upon to cry on. We are supposed to readily perform strength, on demand, no matter what our emotional or mental state.

We do not belong to ourselves: our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our hearts, our spiritual state. Our emotional labor is prescribed and expected.

Self-care is a phrase often uttered as of late, especially on social media. My thought is that we, Black women, now know the importance of tending to the trauma we have been dealt for hundreds of years and dedicating ourselves wholeheartedly to healing, moment by moment, day by day. And we know that self-preservation, an uncompromising notion of clinging to ourselves and maintaining the sanctity of ourselves, is a defiant, revolutionary act of self-care. Setting boundaries — along with enforcing consequences if said boundaries are willfully ignored — is a crucial part of this, too.

Quick story: for most of my childhood and well into my adulthood, I was a doormat. I was kind and had a giving heart but lacked strong discernment and sound judgment. People sensed this and took advantage, taking and taking and taking until they couldn’t anymore. Until there was no further use for my presence in their lives. Until I was depleted and drained and filled with resentment. And then they’d be gone. Learning to choose myself after this defunct pattern yielded to learning what boundaries are, evaluating where I needed to set them in my current relationships and how I could set them as the need arose in new interpersonal bonds.

Boundaries are the space between you and another person, a space where you end and the other person begins. Setting boundaries is a method of informing those around you how to treat you, how to care for you, how to interact with you in a way that is nurturing, fulfilling and makes you feel safe. It isn’t about forming a tight fence around your inner being. It is about ensuring you feel free enough to be yourself, in totality, with those you bond with, and interactions are healthy, reciprocal and beneficial. And also that your values are acknowledged, honored and respected.

Learning to set boundaries can be tricky when it’s new, especially if those around you are used to a certain dynamic. If it’s a new concept, there’s a chance guilt may set in because it’s uncomfortable but don’t let yourself succumb to guilt. Push through the discomfort. Growth is on the other side.

Truly ready to ensure all of your bonds are healthy, safe spaces? Use these guiding principles as a compass while learning how to set healthy boundaries.

Always choose yourself. Always take care of you.

Saying no is a complete sentence and requires no further explanation. If you really don’t want to do something, say no. If you were invited to go somewhere with friends but really need to take the night to get some much needed rest, don’t be afraid to say no for fear of disappointing them. It is better to be a disappointment to friends who most likely will be forgiving and understanding than be a disappointment to yourself because you are overexerting yourself. Be selfish, not selfless. No one but you will or is truly capable of putting yourself first and having your best interests at heart.

Firmly and directly assert yourself to those in your life.

Make a list of your values. Honestly determine what is important to you in your bonds with other people and keep these close to your heart. These are things that matter to you, these are things which make you feel valued and loved in your relationships. When behavior veers outside of what you deem acceptable according to your values, communicate that, immediately.

For example, if your partner has a tendency of speaking recklessly or raising their voice when they are upset with you, inform them you would appreciate if they would not raise their voice at you when angry. Make sure to use either “I feel…” or “When you…” statements to articulate your feelings. This is so you are explaining (and owning) how you feel and not casting blame on the other person to put them on the defense. By stating this, you are telling your partner there is a proper way to productively address issues and yelling is not one of them.

Be prepared to enact consequences if your boundary is not acknowledged, honored or respected.

Consequences aren’t a punishment or an angry thing as many of us have come to know. They are also not empty threats to manipulate the other person. Instead, consequences entail taking heed of a pattern of behavior, using that to inform future interactions and stating what will happen going forward. It might mean you no longer correspond with a person as frequently or not at all, and the relationship changes because their actions communicate a lack of respect.

For instance, perhaps a friend insists on calling or texting you late at night. This bothers you and you tell them, directly, to please not call or text you late and night (setting a boundary) and if they continue to do so, you will not answer when they reach out to you so late (consequence). Remember, this is about you. This is about engaging with others on your terms, what makes you feel comfortable and safe.

Ensure the boundaries you set are firm and stand behind them fiercely.

Boundary setting is often a learning curve and is not one size fits all for every person or situation. If a person is a repeated offender of poor behavior, your boundaries may be more rigid than say, for instance, a boss who has all of a sudden become overbearing and situationally difficult to deal with.

It is important to note your boundaries are only as strong as your commitment to following through on them. Stand behind what you say. Don’t let the (temporary) discomfort and guilt that arises prevent you from doing what you need to do to protect yourself. An example of this would be telling a friend you don’t like when they consistently cut you off in conversations because it makes you feel unheard (setting a boundary). Tell them if they can’t take the time to listen, you’ll will limit the conversations you have with them (consequence) but then a couple of days later go back to letting them cut you off mid conversation. You’ve communicated the opposite of what you intended: that what you said wasn’t that big of a deal and they can continue to conduct themselves in this way without any repercussion. It’s rewarding bad behavior and putting yourself back where you started. Prevent that; stick to your guns. Follow through.

Be patient (and gentle) with yourself. This is a process.

This is a journey, a multi-step, methodical, measured, slow journey. It won’t happen overnight and it will be difficult initially. You’ll be pushing back against an old way of interacting and shifting into more positive and healthy methods of engaging. The result, however, is well worth the effort, discomfort and plethora of other emotions that may arise — reciprocal relationships with people you respect who treat you lovingly, kind and nurture you in precisely the way you need.

Self-preservation as self-care is a fine art and boundaries are one component of that masterpiece. Invest in yourself through creating space and a lovingly flow between those you care about is yet another way to ensure you are taking care of you in the best way possible.

Photo: Shutterstock

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog,, her website, or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.

You Might Also Like

0 speak

Flickr Images