Mental wellness in the workplace


“Modern life is  a lot more stressful because society has become more complex. There are now many more choices and many of these require a particular level of knowledge. Modern society is fast changing and most people struggle to keep up with the changes around them. 

This means there are few safe spaces in which to recuperate when we struggle with mental illness.”

1       Introduction

Our mental health has to do with our psychological well-being. It refers to our cognitive and/or emotional well-being. What it is about, is how we think, feel and behave. Our mental health can affect our daily life, relationships and physical health. This includes our ability to enjoy life and to attain a balance between different aspects and activities in our lives.

According to the WHO (World Health Organisation), mental health is:

“a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

The WHO stresses that mental health “is not just the absence of a mental disorder”. We might not have a specific mental disorder, but even so could still struggle in terms of our emotional well-being. All of us face the potential of suffering mental health problems: young and old, male and female, all ethnic groups, and all income groups.

We understand mental “disorders” here in the broader sense, as describing biological disorders and referring to any disability of the mind, brain or mental illness. This definition also includes drug and alcohol dependency.

Some of the most common forms of mental disorders are:

Anxiety disorder and panic disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Mood disorders, like major depression; bi-polar depression; dysthymia

Schizophrenia group of disorders.

It is a world-wide problem that governments and private medical aids underspend in the field of mental health – not only in terms of research, but also in terms of medicine and treatment facilities. In South Africa, about one in three people will suffer from some form of mental disorder during their lifetime.

South African morbidity data indicate that mental disorders are the third highest contributor to the local burden of disease, after HIV and other infectious diseases. It was also found that a staggering 75 percent of people who live with mental disorders in this country do not receive the care they need.

In terms of hospital resources for psychiatry, South Africa fares better than many other African countries, with 2.1 beds per 100 000 of the population. But there is, like elsewhere in Africa, a serious shortage of mental health professionals, with the personnel working in mental health facilities standing at 11.95 per 100 000. Of these, only 0.28 per 100 000 are psychiatrists, mainly in urban areas. (Vuyo Mkize, The Star July 2013)

The short-fall in treatment of mental health conditions is partly due to the lack of facilities and personnel, but also results from the attitude to, and lack of knowledge about, these conditions in communities.

1.1      Mental health and society

The complexity of mental illness is that it is often caused by a number of factors. Stress plays a major role in many forms of mental illness or, at the very least, exacerbates an illness. It is not easy to determine all sources of stress. Nearly all workplaces are sources of stress, but the same can be said of the majority of households and family relationships.

Modern society has a very particular understanding of so-called progress, which is based on the achievements of individuals, groups and families. There is a growing, although unrealistic, expectation that each generation should be better off than the previous generation. This not only puts pressure on our natural resources but also puts a lot of pressure on companies, and eventually on the workforce. This pressure applies right through the system and influences both blue-collar and white-collar workers, as well as those in the top echelons of organisations or companies.

This pressure to perform is also visible in all our other systems. Families, social activities, churches and even leisure activities are performance-driven. The expectation is that families should be perfect. Parents’ expectations of their children are often unrealistic and children expect their parents to be perfect. And what might start as leisure activities sometimes become so competitive that they cause and increase anxiety in participants. Religious organisations and churches can become a part of this performance-driven society.

Modern life is also a lot more stressful because society has become more complex. There are now many more choices and many of these require a particular level of knowledge. Modern society is fast changing and most people struggle to keep up with the changes around them.

This means there are few safe spaces in which to recuperate when we struggle with mental illness.

2       The workplace as a stressful environment

Most people spend more time during waking hours at work than at home and with their families. Mental health plays a key role in employees’ overall health. Poor mental health leads not only to burn-out and depression, but also contributes to physical illnesses like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions.

Mental health problems also have an impact on employers, in the public and private spheres. Both productivity and absenteeism increase when employees feel emotionally unwell. This could also affect the morale of other employees. In the private sector this could affect profit. Emotionally unwell employees also tend to be less helpful and supportive to customers, which could lead to businesses losing customers. Employers could also expect employees who are emotionally unwell to make more mistakes, which could lead to disastrous effects in certain industries.

2.1      Relationships

People sometimes say that they love their work – it’s just a pity that they also have have to deal with their colleagues every day.

2.1.1     Relationship with superiors

Many work contexts are hierarchical, which mean that we would have to fit into this hierarchy at some place or other. To have healthy relationships it is important to respect the hierarchy without being intimidated by it. We should be able to question those in superior positions. We need to understand the responsibilities of those in superior positions, but also shoulder our own responsibilities. Much anxiety is created by superiors and bosses who, in terms of their behaviour and application of policy, are not consistent. Many relationships are hampered by those in senior positions who are uncertain of themselves and try to manage by proving their own authority.

A manipulative boss destroys trusts and creates uncertainty in the workplace.

2.1.2     Relationship with colleagues and co-workers

Relationships between colleagues on the same level in an organisation are often hampered by office politics, competitiveness, jealousy and gossip. Do we interact with our co-workers without manipulating them?

2.1.3     Relationship with subordinates

If there are people reporting to us, we should reflect on our own behaviour and attitudes towards them. Are we reasonable and consistent in terms of our expectations of them? Do we treat them with respect? Are we honest and transparent in our dealings with them? Hidden agendas could destroy relationships in the long term. Are we dealing with those that report to us in a straightforward way without manipulating them?

2.2      Bureaucratic systems

Bureaucratic systems in most large organisations can drain a lot of energy from employees. Administrative systems should serve as checks and balances, rather than causing stress. One of the reasons is that people are shy to take decisions and responsibility for their decisions. Bureaucratic systems do not accommodate mistakes and learning from mistakes.

The conundrum is that many people who are frustrated by the bureaucratic red tape in the system often are a cog in the system themselves, playing their part in how it functions.

2.3      High demand for performance

The demand for performance not only comes from those in management. Customers who use your services and shareholders also expect everybody to perform at peak level all the time.

The latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI) result in more and more machines being built which can replace employees. The scary thing is that machines, as long as they work, function at peak levels without getting tired. Many machines are more reliable and make fewer mistakes than human beings, especially in monotonous tasks. They do not take leave, belong to a union or strike for higher pay. They are obedient and do not experience emotional fluctuations.

2.4      Other stressors identified

  1. Unreasonable expectations and tasks which an employee is not qualified for, will increase stress levels.
  2. Lack of control over the work process, which makes people feel disempowered.
  3. Monotony of certain tasks.
  4. Major shifts in companies caused by takeovers, mergers and right-sizing.
  5. Ambiguity about our job. For instance, selling something in which you, yourself, do not believe.

3. Where to start to ensure good mental health

3.1      Dealing with myself

To discover and live from within our true self rather than our false self is important. Brian Draper (2009) says we need to think about the following aspects of being human if we want to live according to our true self.

We are in communion with this world, and are not only consumers.

Interaction are important to human beings.

1.We are more than the jobs we do, the money we earn, the clothes we wear, the car we drive, or the house we live in.

2. We are cooperative beings and not just in competition with everything around us.

It is possible to stop seeing the world through the lens of victory and defeat. Constant competition teaches us to live with an endless fear of failure. People are often willing to cheat in order to do better and to create an image of victory. We create enemies just to win.

3. Each one of us is unique and does not simply stand in comparison with someone else.

We can’t improve our self-esteem by comparing ourselves with others all the time. Unfortunately many parents feed into this comparison approach by often, unconsciously, comparing children, rather than celebrating their uniqueness. All of us have heard conversations in which parents compare their babies. Something like: “My first baby cried more than my second baby”. This sounds like an innocent remark, but sets the tone for future discussions. As parents, we often set the example of comparing ourselves with others. Comparisons create extrinsic motives to do things, rather than intrinsic motives. I want to do better than somebody else, rather than I want to do my best.

4. We are more than just our ego

The term “ego” was made popular by Sigmund Freud and is not something negative. What it means is having a sense of I, the being or person that we each are. In psychology, one’s ego is one’s conscious mind, that part of your identity that you consider to be your “self”.

A healthy ego is when we are realistic in our thinking about who we are. The point is that we are more than our ego. We can also take on challenges that we are uncertain about. We can have dreams and passions that need courage and perseverance to realise.

What are your dreams for yourself?

What really makes you happy?

What are your fears?

Do you have unresolved trauma in your life?

Do you know how to care for yourself?

3.2      Decisions we take

We often make our lives unnecessarily complicated. Much of our stress relates to the effects of decisions we have taken in the past. What can we do about it? Some decisions can’t be turned around. But we are never too old to start making different decisions in the future. Before you take a decision, discuss the following with others and yourself:

Why am I in this position?

Will this decision make my circumstances better?

Who is affected by my decision?

Who benefits from the decision?

What will be the effect of this decision in the short term, medium term and long term?

What will happen if I wait a week before I take the decision?

Is there not a simpler or more cost-effective way of doing it?

3.3      Dealing with stress in the home environment

Most people live with others in their home and interact daily with others outside their work environment. But even if you live on your own, you are not guaranteed a stress-free home environment. Living alone poses its own challenges.

3.3.1     Relationships

Relationships with partners, children and family can be enormously rewarding but also stressful. Relationships are not like a switch that we can turn on or off. They develop over decades – just as problems often develop over a long time.

It is sometimes necessary to reflect on our relationships to determine who supports us and who we can trust. Who breaks us down, is manipulative and not trustworthy?

Which relationships should I invest more energy in?

Which relationships can I improve by changing my own attitude towards the person?

Which relationships must I let go of, because they are toxic?

Am I ready to be on the lookout for the possibility of new relationships?

3.4      Do not think about yourself as a victim


Why do you think the other line always moves faster than yours?

Whether you’re standing in line at the grocery store, or you’re trying to navigate your way through traffic, it always seems as if the other line is moving faster than your line. BBC Future explains that this has something to do with what we call illusory correlation. Illusory correlation exists to help us to make quick decisions based on limited information without doing a lot of mental maths. It means that, in comparing two things, we find them to be similar even when they’re not, like two lines at the grocery store. BBC Future explains:

“So here we have a mechanism which might explain my queuing woes. The other lanes or queues moving faster is one salient event, and my intuition wrongly associates it with the most salient thing in my environment—me. What, after all, is more important to my world than me? Which brings me back to the universe-victim theory. When my lane is moving along I’m focusing on where I’m going, ignoring the traffic I’m overtaking. When my lane is stuck I’m thinking about me and my hard luck, looking at the other lane. No wonder the association between me and being overtaken sticks in memory more.

“This distorting influence of memory on our judgements lies behind a good chunk of my feelings of victimisation. In some situations there is a real bias. You really do spend more time being overtaken in traffic than you do overtaking, for example, because the overtaking happens faster. And the smoke really does tend to follow you around the campfire, because wherever you sit creates a warm up-draught that the smoke fills. But on top of all of these is a mind that over-exaggerates our own importance, giving each of us the false impression that we are more important in how events work out than we really are.

“Most of us experienced the gruelling boredom of waiting in a line. Not only are lines boring, they can also be aggravating, and stressful. Essentially, we tend to think we’re more important than others, and that’s part of the reason why we hate standing in lines to begin with. If nothing else, a better understanding of the psychology behind why you think other lines move faster than yours will help you deal with that a little better”

4       Dealing with STRESS to ensure good mental health


Situations around us and in us cause us to show symptoms of stress:

  1. a) Physical: Rapid pulse rate; heightened adrenaline flow; increased sweating; the slowing of digestion; reduced immunity and immune system response; increased muscle tension
  2. b) Psychological: Panic, fear, emotion (such as anger)
  3. c) Behaviour: Fight, flight.


  1. a) We need stress to survive. Stress is vital for concentration and survival.
  2. b) Excess stress causes distress, and plays havoc with concentration and emotions.
  3. c) We cannot always change the environment – we cannot always escape stress stimuli.
  4. d) Finding a balance between good and bad stress.



How do I think and respond to stress? My attitude and response to stress are essential building blocks in dealing with stressful situations. We tend to blame our circumstances for our feelings of being stressed. It is true that our environment and factors beyond our control often play a role. But we, ourselves, are the main drivers and source of the stress we experience.

  1. a) How do I see myself in this world (identity issues).
  2. b) My understanding of and relationship with authority and power.
  3. c) Our desire for control.
  4. d) How we deal with loss and rejection.
  5. e) Success issues. What do I view as being a success?
  6. f) Guilt – realistic and unrealistic guilt.
  7. g) Perfectionism – dealing with the real and the ideal
  8. h) Ability to live with dichotomies, opposites, and opposing opinions.

4.3.2     SELF-CARE

Self-care begins with our attitude towards others and ourselves.


Forgiving others and giving others a second chance make us more relaxed.

4.3.4     BE POSITIVE

Although some people certainly have negative intentions towards us, such as a burglar or criminal, most people we interact with have positive intentions. People’s actions are shaped by their perspective of the world, but the reality of any one person may be very different from the reality of another. A single interaction between people is not enough to get to know each other. The map is not the territory and one page in a book is not the whole book.

How do you think about the world? Do we see the world as a dangerous place with more bad than good in it? A negative view of the world will make us more anxious.


There are limitations that we have to accept and live with. There are only 24 hours in a day. We have the body we have.

4.3.6     BALANCE

Closing ourselves off from other people and allowing other people to walk over us are the extreme points on this spectrum. In the next section, the importance of healthy boundaries will be discussed.


  1. a) God’s Kingdom does not depend on me. Working with God, not for God.
  2. b) Ability to find rest in God.
  3. c) Surrendering ourselves (an action of faith).


I copied the following “article” a few years ago. Unfortunately I do not know what the original source is.

“People make mistakes.  A professor said that failure was the only feedback – and it hit me in my core.  What if it is?  What if we make too much of failure?  In fact, when we fail, falter and miss the mark, we have to realise that we are here for a purpose greater than ourselves.  We are to live out that purpose, every moment of the day.  When we fail in our lives, it is never the end.  Nothing can separate us from the reality of life’s purpose and greater sense of our being, not even failure itself.  When people fail it is the faith and hope within us that enables us to get up – even after numerous failures – and walk again.

Failure will happen as sure as the next sunrise and maybe you are just tired, fatigued and overloaded and feel unable to concentrate properly.  Maybe things have not worked out for you the way you planned and dreamed.  Maybe it is that time of year when everything is unwinding and coming to an end.  But we need to realise that failure is never random.  Failure by design is more like it.  First there is internal slippage, followed by deeds driven by the inner screams of life that have either never healed or have never been attended to. Internal resolutions rarely address the persistent obstacles that sabotage our efforts. What crops up prior to most failure is what we call “self debate”.  This is when we talk to ourselves about how life works for us.  But these messages that we give to ourselves become glass ceilings against which we bump our heads.

Grab a pen and paper.  Create four columns and, in the first three, write down the names of two or three people that you know of, either personally or in history, who have failed.  Next, try to identify four or five things that each person did not pay attention to, and which resulted in failure.  List these under each name.  Do you notice a trend or a pattern emerging?  Now write your own name in the last column.  Think of a time in your life when you failed.  Write down five things that you did not pay attention to that resulted in your missing the mark.  Compare your entries with the three examples and see if you can pick up any trends.

We have said that “self talk” or “self debating” internal resolution is what most people experience prior to and during personal failure.  Again, on your sheet of paper, create two columns.  As you read through the eight typical “self debating” arguments listed below, rate in the first column how often (always/sometimes/seldom/never) you use or have experienced these arguments.  In the second column, write down how intense these debates have been – “I feel this way 100% of the time, 60%, 30%. Not at all.”

  1. Self limitation.

The debate goes like this:  “Why expend all that effort and energy trying to exercise self-control or create a new habit when I know that I’m going to fail anyway?  Why bother?  Just let it slide, don’t expect too much and you won’t feel so bad when you don’t get it.”

  1. Personal distraction.

Life is tough enough and getting involved with reality is hard work.  So one of the ways in which we continue to distract ourselves is to focus on instant enjoyment without having to invest energy in creating solutions, investing in people and living life to the full.

  1. A driven life.

When we look at the lives of great prophets, we discover that they were never driven:  instead, they were drawn into the future because of the joy that was set before them. We should not chase after elusive concepts of joy (satisfaction/success).  Many people are driven – but when they accomplish things, they still experience it as non-achievement, amplifying their silent screams.  Striving for more, we constantly chase … after approval, business success, recognition, the sense of pleasing God.  Doing things better than others and proving to ourselves that “we can” is the kind of “self talk” that leads to ruined lives.

  1. Manipulating others.

This debate will ruin your life.  It will keep you busy with conflict and always wanting to win. You believe you’re in the right and constantly have to prove it.  And then when you don’t get your way, you play the shaming, sulking, angry, passive-aggressive games that manipulate people.

  1. I can do this myself!

Self-sufficiency and rugged individualism create a lifeless life.  This debate concludes that if I ask for help I am weak.  This debate is driven by pride.  As a result we live behind masks where there is no need to admit how weak we feel sometimes.

  1. I am a survivor.

This thinking will not only ruin your life but also your identity.  You don’t learn from any experience in life or from what anyone else says because it is all about surviving.  You push to keep on slogging ahead as if you have to put up with almost anything.  We are not survivors and we are not victims.  We should be on an adventure, learning from everything as we intentionally explore new frontiers.

  1. I have to get it right.

This will destroy the joy, hope and contentment in your life.  Many people call this a commitment to excellence, but perfection is actually a flaw and is woven together with pride.  This makes us feel that if we do anything wrong, we are a big, fat failure.  Doing something and being someone are two different things.

  1. But nobody understands me.

“If only people understood me they would get off my back.  I’m trying my best given the circumstances.  Clearly people don’t understand that I also have demands in my own life.”  This thinking drives us to ignore advice.  We interpret it as criticism and it results in a lonely and self-protected life.

Once you have rated each of these debates, ask yourself:

*What if, instead of continuing to try and cope with life using a self-defeating pattern, I learn to deal with it?

* What would my life be like if I were not driven by these eight self-seeking and self-defeating debates?

* What if I stopped second-guessing myself and said: “Let me do it and learn, and change?”


“Virtually everyone needs to understand boundaries and how setting them is essential to experiencing freedom in every area of life. Where boundaries fail, relationships fail, people hurt, and life performance suffers. Boundaries affect us psychologically, relationally, physically, and spiritually.” (Townsend 2011:9).


“Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries.” (Cloud & Townsend 1992:27).

What are boundaries about? Boundaries describe our spheres of responsibility: what we are and are not responsible for.  (Cloud & Townsend 1992:60). We should accept that “made in the image of God” also means that we were created to take responsibility.

Taking on tasks and duties that are not your responsibility will not only lead to burn-out, but may also have the effect that you will unconsciously “help” others to neglect their responsibilities while you, yourself, end up overburdened.

It is not that easy to describe what a healthy boundary looks like, because it differs from person to person and may also be influenced by culture. The image of a picket fence helps me a little bit in describing it, although I know images often have their own limitations.

For me, and in my culture, it would seem to be appropriate to fence off my property. This may not be true for everybody. In some cultures, people prefer not to fence in their property and house.

Any fence clearly sets a boundary, and for me, a picket fence (used to create that boundary) is a welcoming structure. I can continue to communicate with someone on the other side of the fence without leaving my own property. I can also open the gate and invite anybody in, or even ask someone to leave my property. It creates a boundary but it still gives me a view of what happens in the community around me.

We need to set mental, physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries in our lives, just as homeowners set up physical fences and walls around their properties. These boundaries should protect us without isolating us. They help us to deal with any overflow of information and stimuli. They also help us to see with greater clarity what our responsibilities are and what they are not.

There are also different levels of boundaries. We can fence off our property, but there is a second layer of fencing created by the walls of my house. Some houses also have more windows and doors than others, so that they are more “open”, rather than “closed in”, and this affects the level of that particular boundary. A prison, again, would be surrounded by a very different boundary than that which surrounds a house with its open windows and doors.

The boundaries we create should not isolate us from others, but rather protect us and keep us strong and dynamic. We have already referred to the fact that inadequate boundaries could trigger burn-out. People who experience burn-out often set this in motion themselves by isolating themselves. They then have less energy to become involved in the community.

Our skin is one of the best examples we have of a good boundary. It effectively prevents bacteria and viruses from entering our bloodstream. It allows us to sweat to cool off. Without sweating, we would overheat.


Boundaries are not inherited, they are built (Cloud & Townsend 1992:64). This is an ongoing process.

The types of boundaries that we must set constantly differ. Sometimes it will be necessary to set physical and geographical boundaries. It may also be necessary, as an extreme example, to get a restraining order against another person who might harm us. Or, as part of the process of boundary setting, we might be required to leave a household, marriage, company or even a town and a country.

When we close the doors of our house we make it clear to outsiders that they cannot just visit without first knocking on the door. They then have to wait for us to open it. One step further would be to lock the doors of our house as a form of protection.

Emotional boundaries are more difficult to set. They have to do with the protection of our inner being, and setting boundaries is a way to create space for ourselves and our emotions. Breaking off a relationship may be one way of setting an emotional boundary. When we kindly request a person not to raise a certain topic because it causes us emotional distress, we are also setting a boundary.

Setting boundaries in terms of time is something that we are confronted with daily. Setting a time boundary requires us to learn to say no to others when necessary, or to ignore certain stimuli.

The need for boundaries can develop over time. We may, in the beginning, enjoy a particular project. But the project can snowball and later require more of our energy than was envisaged at the beginning. Setting boundaries is a way to regain ownership of our lives and can be necessary at times.

Other boundaries to think about, for example, are those around eating habits; dealing with money; controlling our tongue or temper.


Not all forms of boundaries are good. Unhealthy boundaries can increase depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, addictions, impulsive disorders, guilt problems, shame issues, panic disorders, marital and relational struggles (Cloud & Townsend 1992:28). Healthy boundaries allow us to keep certain things inside ourselves, and to keep others out.

Unhealthy boundaries can be either like (prison) walls, which keep too much out, or, they can be like a dilapidated fence, which keeps practically nothing out. A healthy boundary is something like a property with a picket fence – it is next to other properties and acknowledges that the owner, although fenced off, lives in community with others and not in isolation. Our boundaries should have gates and allow us to breathe.


There are many situations where different issues start to overlap, making it difficult to draw clear boundaries. This is the case not only in the lives of adults, but also children. One result of boundary confusion like this is that we may have too strict boundaries in situations where we should actually relax our boundaries. But confusion could also lead to a complete lack of boundaries at points where we need stricter boundaries. In short, the problem then is of not having boundaries when we need them, or, on the other hand, to have boundaries when we shouldn’t have them.

Parenting is one of the things we all struggle with. What we often see are parents who allow their babies and toddlers to do just as they like, but then introduce strict rules and boundaries when their offspring grow older, especially in their children’s teenage years.

Another kind of confusion happens when we set very strong boundaries for ourselves, but very weak boundaries for others. The way this plays out is that we always say yes when others ask something from us (weak boundary), but in return we never ask others for assistance (strong boundary) when we need help.

Children who are raised always to comply with adults do not become equipped to say no, should it ever be necessary. Children need to have the power to say “no”, even to an adult; or “I disagree”; “I will not”; “I choose not to”; “stop that”; “it hurts”. Other models of parenting include being permissive, with an anything-goes approach. Parents who cannot set limits for their children raise individuals who are unable to be emphatic, tolerate frustration or delay gratification. We need to explore the middle ground between authoritarian and permissive parenting (Judith Archer, clinical psychologist, Sunday Times 7/6/09).

Boundary confusion is also fuelled by double standards in parenting. For example, some parents apply double standards in their home – one for boys, and another for girls. Boys, for instance, may be allowed to stay out later than girls.

Parents are also sometimes inconsistent and reward children’s destructive behaviour. This interferes with the learning process of the child, in terms of what they should learn to believe and where to draw the line.

Unmet emotional needs in adults also hamper the healthy emotional development of children. Parents who do not respond to the real needs of their children or who are hypercritical, or absorbed in their own desires and needs, create uncertainty and confusion in their children.

6.5      FINE LINE

Parents should allow children to shoulder responsibilities appropriate for their age and hold them responsible for the consequences of their decisions. This will help children to develop a sense of establishing good boundaries themselves.

It is a lifelong process to develop a sense of establishing healthy boundaries, but starting early in life is helpful. Part of walking this delicate line is the ability to ask for help; to let others in; and to recognise our own needs. It is also one of developing the ability to notice others’ needs and respect others’ boundaries.

To toe this fine line should help us to enjoy safe relationships, in which there is give and take. Having good boundaries allows you to listen carefully to your partner’s story about a stressful day or their hurtful experience, and then be caring towards him/her in your response. The importance is to show care without taking responsibility for others’ emotional well-being.

Having bad boundaries result in non-responsive, ignorant attitudes towards others who are stressed and hurt. Bad boundaries can also lead to being over-responsive, to trying to solve the other person’s problems, trying to carry their pain and even to getting too deeply involved in the other’s struggles.

One of the things we should learn is that not all the help we receive or give is necessarily good for us or others.



People who can’t hear when you say “no”. To them, “no” means “maybe”, and “maybe” means yes.

They just cannot accept others as they are. They attempt to change others, to make the world fit their idea of the way life should be.

It is interesting to note that, according to one of the theories about this phenomenon, serious controllers actually resist taking responsibility for their own lives – so they need to control others.


They are less honest and upfront than the controllers. They try to persuade other people to cross their boundaries. They seduce others to carrying their (the manipulative controller’s) burdens. They use emotional language to persuade others and often deny their desire to control others.

They see others as responsible for their own struggles, but are on the lookout for someone to take care of them. They gravitate towards people with blurry boundaries who take on too many responsibilities and don’t complain about it.


Compliant people can actually be manipulative controllers – who hope that by being loving, they will receive love. It is caring with a hidden price tag attached. They are easily hurt when others can’t figure out the attached “price tag”.

Often, they are simultaneously the injurer and the injured. They hurt others but are also deeply hurt by others because of their own boundary problems. They typically set themselves up to get hurt.

They often isolate themselves from others. But then again, people also stay with them out of guilt. They often realise that people stay with them because they are pulling the strings. They then live in fear of being abandoned. Jealousy is often a feature of such a relationship.


We all love a quick fix for whatever we struggle with. There is, however, no magic pill or medicine to deal with boundary issues. For most of us, it is something we have to deal with from day to day. It is possible to become better at establishing boundaries and to improve our skills in dealing with them if we are prepared to put in the necessary effort. This is a process –  and sometimes we will do better, and sometimes we won’t.


We have to acknowledge that dealing with boundaries is an important issue and we have be willing to work on the issue.


Although there may be several drivers of inaction in dealing with boundaries, the thing most people recognise as a driver is personal uncertainty.


Strict and uncompromising boundaries can hinder communication. At the same time, healthy boundaries can help communication. It can also help in the parenting process if children know what the boundaries are.

“Parenting with love and limits, with warmth and consequences, produces confident children who have sense of control over their lives.” (Cloud and Townsend 1992:43)

We often set inappropriate limits for others. To set limits for your children may be appropriate, but to set limits for other adults may be inappropriate. What we must set limits for, and take responsibility for, is our own exposure to people who behave poorly. We can’t change other adults or force them to behave in acceptable ways, but we can and should withdraw from them if they don’t respect our limits.


There are legitimate wants and needs. It is important not to see legitimate wants as shameful and bad. But not all wants and needs should be seen as “legitimate”. For instance, not all households need the same number of bedrooms. A bigger family would need more rooms.



The core of our struggles about boundaries is located in our inner being, and eventually it will flow into our daily lives. A realistic view of who we are and what our shortcomings and talents are, is important. Accepting ourselves and an understanding of our needs and wants are also important.

We need to find a balance in our inner being, between those things that we can and should expect from others, and those things that they can and should expect from us. There should be a balance between the ability to give and to ask.

We must also learn to curb our impulses and desires and accept the concept of delayed gratification – accept that others can say “no” to us, not because they are against us, but because they have the right to draw their own boundaries. We must also learn to wait for our desires to be fulfilled instead of demanding immediate gratification. But we can also expect from others that they should curb their own impulses and desires and delay gratification.

It is also important to accept responsibility for our own life and the consequences of our decisions.


At times, we may experience rejection by other people. And this fear of being rejected is experienced strongly by most of us. It is this fear that can turn us into a people pleaser – always wanting to please others, even to the extent that we never say “no”, in order not to be rejected. The same fear may also cause us not to engage with others but instead to build walls around us. When there is no engagement, it means there is no possibility of rejection.

The fear of being alone can lead to us ending up in relationships that are not good for us, but which we endure for the sake of having company. Red lights go on when people say that “bad company (abusive company) is better than no company”.

The fear of failure can also cause us to build walls around ourselves and prevent us from engaging in meaningful relationships. Other fears which people experience are:

  • Hurting another person’s feelings
  • Abandonment and separation
  • Other people’s anger
  • Punishment
  • Being shamed
  • Being seen as bad and selfish
  • Being unspiritual OR Lacking spirituality
  • One’s own, overly strict and critical conscience
  • Unrealistic guilt


We are all in danger of establishing false boundaries based on false pride and a false ego. These false boundaries are not useful to us, they are also not sustainable and could even hurt us deeply. It is just as important, however, not to underestimate ourselves. Just as it is also a danger to overestimate what we can do. When we overestimate ourselves, we tend to put down false boundaries in the hope that nobody would “catch” us out on it.

It is important to develop the ability to let go of our own independence and the desire to want to do everything on our own. Doing this would enable us to open up about ourselves and to others. It would also allow us to face our own limitations and to acknowledge that “I can’t do everything”.

One of the limitations we should be able to accept is the fact that there are only twenty-four hours in a day. Most of us believe in the value of hard work. But taking on, for extended periods, more than we are capable of physically and emotionally, usually comes about because we refuse to acknowledge that we have reached our limit. We then tend to create a false boundary and close ourselves off from valuable advice from others. Not to let go then becomes an obsession. What is even more difficult when this happens, is that the things we are busy with are often for the benefit of others – family, community, clients. This gives us the excuse to carry on doing too much – because we believe we are helping others – even though we are in fact beginning to deplete our own emotional resources.

6.8.4     LOVE AS A DRIVER

Is it possible that we can love too much? Yes and no. The problem is not that we love too much, but that our love is sometimes based on particular premises that set up the possibility for us to become abused. This happens when love is based on our, or the other person’s, unsatisfied needs for attention as well as an unhealthy dependency. To love unconditionally does not mean that we should disempower ourselves and allow others (friends, partners, parents, children) to abuse us.

On the other hand, we can also set ourselves up to resist love in our lives. Loneliness can be the result of either resisting love, being over-critical, and/or being experienced by others as requiring a lot of attention – described as being “high maintenance” emotionally.


We can trust people who are not worthy of our trust too easily, or, we do not trust people who we should trust, who really are worthy of our trust.


Overstepping boundaries happens when one or both parties in any kind of relationship ignore the consequences of their actions. It is often due to false optimism in one or both parties that everything will eventually be OK, irrespective what is done.


It would seem that the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) is an example of a person with good boundaries. On his travels, he went out of his way to help the Samaritan in need, got others involved – and then he carried on with his travels.

A realistic understanding of our own limitations and the ability to let go, when necessary, is of great importance. Over-involvement often ends up in resentment – such as when we give more than what we had actually wanted to, or could, give.

We should try to be in touch with our feelings. Our feelings will tell us what goes on in our heart and will inform us about the state of our relationships. It means to take responsibility for our feelings and to own them. Others are not responsible for letting us feel OK. We need to work on our attitude. Our attitude is the orientation we have towards something.

We should know and own our belief systems, what the things are that we accept as true and which are usually the basis on which we negotiate our boundaries. We need to take responsibility for our choices. Making decisions based on others’ approval, or on the basis of our guilt feelings, will eventually breed resentment. Taking responsibility for the things we value and paying attention to them are important in boundary setting.


When we become better at implementing healthy boundaries, we should not expect everybody around us to welcome this development. This is a learning process for all the parties involved. The limit setter, as well as those opposed to the limits, will have to find new ways of dealing with the situation.

Some people, sometimes even those very close to you, might find it very difficult when you start to draw clear and healthy boundaries. You may even face the anger of parties who are not used to you saying “no” or drawing boundaries.

While we should be aware of our own self-centredness, we should also accept the self-centredness of others. Self-centredness means that we see others (the world) as an extension of ourselves and rewire of others that they must fit in with our desires, or that we are unhappy if they interfere with our world.

People who establish boundaries set limits, and they are thus interfering with our desires or those things that we feel we are entitled to. This makes us angry. A person who is angry with you for setting boundaries is, however, the one with the problem (Cloud & Townsend 1992:248). Allow the angry person his/her anger. But do not respond with anger. This is one of those situations where inactivity (not responding) is power.

7       SUMMARY

Mental health needs an all-encompassing approach. Only a wholistic approach will help us to be reasonably healthy mentally. Unfortunately, there are many stigmas associated with anything related to mental illness. One of the most prevalent ideas is that only certain people, those who are weak, are in danger. We know that mental illness is something all of us are vulnerable to. It is not something to be ashamed of, but needs treatment, like any other form of illness.

We have the task not only to look after ourselves, but also to be ambassadors in society for better insight into and understanding of those who suffer from mental illness.


  • What do people close to me say about me?
  • What does God say about me?
  • What drives me?
  • What makes me angry?
  • What allows me to feel fulfilled?
  • What stresses me?
  • What gives me pleasure?
  • What must I live with that I can’t change?
  • Why can’t I change these things?
  • What can I change – but struggle to change?

Dr Frederik B O Nel

Harry Comay Clinic, George – 27 October 2017

9       Sources

Cloud, Henry & Townsend, John 1992. Boundaries. Zondervan

Draper, Brian 2009. Spiritual Intelligence. A New Way of Being. Lion Hudson

Feldman, D A 2001. The Mangers Guide to Workplace Coaching. HRD Press

Goleman, Daniel 2006. Social Intelligence. The New Science of Human Relationships. Hutchinson

Greaves, Suzy 2004. Making the Big Leap. Coach yourself to create the life you really want. Zebra Press

Handy, Charles 1989. The Age of Unreason. New Thinking for a New World. Arrow

Rajgopal, J 2010. Mental well-being at the workplace. Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 2010 Sep-Dec; 14(3): 63–65.

Townsend, John 2011. Beyond Boundaries. Learning to Trust Again in Relationships. Zondervan

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