5 Tips to Set Internal Boundaries

Recently, we talked about willingness being the secret sauce to learning how to feel and tolerate discomfort. There’s great benefit to accepting reality, exactly as it is in this moment, even if you don’t like it.

Now, I want to dive a little deeper. This is for those of us who sometimes find it really hard to unstick ourselves from our stories. Myself included. When we get hooked by a thought, emotion, sensation — a story — we lose touch with the present moment. We’re paying more attention to our internal experience, and the more we feed it, the more it grows, first through thoughts and feelings and eventually through our behaviors.

We’ve all seen the many motivational memes, mugs, posters about setting good boundaries, but they all focus on external boundaries. I want to talk about setting boundaries within our own brains. Isn’t this really what being in the moment is all about: being mindful to notice what’s happening internally and to choose what comes next?

Here’s an example.

Last weekend was a doozy for me — lots of change and uncertainty in the air, which I just did not recognize as it was happening. I became fixated on how something would turn out, because not knowing felt intolerable in that moment. The details don’t matter (remember our content is generally irrelevant), but the process does. The fact that I engaged with it as I did is what needs my attention. By the time I’d realized just how far I’d fallen down through my rabbit hole of worry, I had wasted time, shot too much cortisol through my body, and, frankly, felt like shit. My brain was like a runaway dog! And its leash was too long. I needed to put some boundaries on it and pronto.

The same basic 5 tips I used can help you too.

Here are 5 tips for setting internal boundaries:

  1. Practice noticing. I’ve noticed some clients’ eyes glaze over if I say “mindfulness” or “meditation,” so I’ve started using the word “noticing” instead. The more we can notice what’s happening inside our head (in relation to our thoughts and feelings), the better shot we have at pulling ourselves out of the rabbit hole faster or not even going down it.
  2. To help with noticing, set several reminders on your phone to check in and pay attention to how you’re feeling. This doesn’t have to be more than a couple of minutes, but when the reminder goes off, really settle into your body and tune in to what you’re thinking, feeling, and sensing.
  3. Recognize the danger. If you’re spending more than a couple seconds on a specific thought, if you keep returning to it, or analyzing it, I’d be on guard.
  4. Once you notice what you’re doing, shorten that leash! Find something in the present moment to ground yourself. It can be your breath, what you see, hear, smell, taste or, whatever it is that you’re currently doing. This is essential.
  5. Go do something that matters to YOU, not something that feeds your anxiety. Get active, play with your dog, call a friend, dig in your garden. Avoid social media or anything else that keeps you in your head.

Every time your brain tries to take you back down the rabbit hole, you need to yank your leash back to the present moment. I will say to myself “yeah, I’m not going there” and reset to either my breath or whatever I’m doing or whomever I’m with. You may need to do this 20 times a minute, but the moment will pass. It always does. The more you do this, the better trained your attention will be. What a gift that will be.