June 14, 2024

Boundaries: Healthy Limits Leading to Healthy Relationships or Rigid Ultimatums Leading to Isolation?

By Sydney Kittrell
Mental Health & Wellbeing

Therapy-speak has become popular as people have become more curious and accepting about mental health. Words like triggered, narcissistic, trauma, and toxic are often used outside of therapeutic contexts, and this can be a wonderful thing! Understanding psychological concepts and discussing the meaning can lead to productive conversations and can help foster meaningful relationships. However, sometimes therapy-speak can be used as a weapon, creating the idea that the person using the language is somehow superior or has all the answers. It can be intimidating on the other side.

One particular word that has found popularity outside of the therapy room is boundaries. You’ve probably heard someone say, “oh that’s a boundary for me,” or, “that crosses my boundary,” or perhaps you use this word yourself. Let me first say, boundaries are so good and essential! But what happens when boundaries are rigid and lead to isolation and disconnection? In this blog, we’ll explore the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries and how to set up a boundary.

So What is a Boundary Anyways?

Simply put, a boundary refers to a guideline that establishes expectations. Boundaries can be applied in a wide variety of contexts. In the work setting, someone may set a boundary around time management to avoid burnout or a boundary on coworker relationships to avoid messy dynamics between personal and professional life. Boundaries even exist between a therapist and a client! A therapist has emotional boundaries: expressing empathy and compassion but not becoming overly involved or enmeshed in their clients’ lives. But the boundaries that I really want to explore here are the boundaries set in family, friend, and romantic relationships. Healthy boundaries can lead to fulfilling and meaningful relationships while unhealthy boundaries can lead to isolation or enmeshment, so it’s key to understand the difference.

Characteristics of a Healthy Boundary

  • Clear communication: The need or limitation is described in an honest and kind way.
  • Flexibility: Contexts change and people change! If a boundary is no longer needed or no longer makes sense, it’s important to acknowledge that rather than holding tight onto a boundary out of fear.
  • Mutual respect and consent: Yes, self-care can be so important and boundaries are great in cultivating self-care AND it is key to respect the person you are setting the boundary with by honoring their autonomy and not trying to control them.

Characteristics of an Unhealthy Boundary

  • Poor communication: Sometimes boundaries are scary to set! So they’re communicated in a way that only half explains the needs or limitations so the boundary appears more digestible. But this can lead to misunderstanding and resentment.
  • Rigidity: Sometimes using the word “boundary” makes it seem like there’s no possibility for compromise or conversation. If the boundary being set is rigid and inflexible that can lead to strained relationships and potential isolation.
  • Manipulation or Control: If a boundary takes away someone else’s autonomy or involves manipulation with the ultimate goal for personal gain, it is an unhealthy boundary!

How to set a Healthy Boundary

Reflect on your needs: Don’t set a boundary in the heat of the moment. Take some time to understand yourself and what you need in the relationship or situation. Perhaps your career just ramped up and friends are still wanting to hang out every week night. Take some time in the new position, see what free time looks like, and then when you have a better understanding of your new social capacity, that’s the time to communicate. And the time and place for this conversation matters as well. Try to find a time when all parties can be calm and fully present.
Use “I” statements: No one likes to feel blamed or accused. That can often lead to shame, defensiveness, and unproductive conversations. Use “I” statements to communicate, for example saying “I need…” or “I feel mad when …” rather than “You never…” or “You make me feel …”
Assertive and Collaborative Communication: Be clear and honest when setting a boundary; this is not the time to sugarcoat or walk around the core issue. At the same time, make sure you give the other person an opportunity to respond, really listening to what they have to say in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect.

Reach Out

Ultimately, boundaries can be a great tool in practicing self-care, expressing needs, and maintaining respect and integrity in relationships. Therapy can be a great place to further explore what setting healthy boundaries looks like. If this interests you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Written By

Sydney Kittrell

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