By Brooke Sprowl
In the past several years, people have been throwing the word “boundaries” around like it’s their job.
But as so often is the case when pop culture co-opts terminology from clinical psychology, complex ideas are taken out of context and distorted to the point that they can cause more harm than good.
Here are three surprising misconceptions about boundaries that can sabotage your relationships and mental health.
1. Boundaries are actions, not words.
There’s a big difference between setting boundaries and enforcing them. Setting a boundary is a verbal expression of where our lines are whereas enforcing boundaries is an action taken to protect ourselves when our verbal expression is not understood or honored.
Often, we expect another person to enforce boundaries we are unwilling to enforce ourselves. In other words, we believe someone else should act in accordance with verbal boundaries when we ourselves aren’t willing to do so.
We tell someone else that they cannot cross a certain line but then take no action to back up what we’ve said.
When we set boundaries with words without enforcing them with actions. Pseudo-boundaries externalize responsibility onto other people and disempower us from taking full ownership of the situation.
By contrast, “true boundaries” are the actions we take to protect ourselves regardless of how the other person behaves. This empowers us to take control of the situation fully rather than leaving ourselves at the mercy of someone else’s compliance.
Quite often, we beat our heads against a wall, repeating our pseudo-boundaries over and over to no avail. But we fail to see how using words alone without taking any meaningful actions in accordance with what we say can actually perpetuate the problem.
In some situations, words can only take us so far. So, if you’re in an argument with someone and you let them know you no longer wish to continue the conversation and they won’t stop, take action.
Removing yourself from the situation or even calling the police if the person tries to stop you from doing so are examples of true boundaries. Actions are much more effective, empowering, and meaningful than words.
2. Boundaries are not entitlements or demands.
There’s an increasing trend in which people are weaponizing the word “boundary,” believing that any time they express a want, need, or request, they are entitled to automatic compliance from the other person. They then accuse the other person of violating their boundaries if the person does not unquestioningly do as they ask.
Expressing what we want or need doesn’t obligate the other person to act accordingly.
When we make requests, we must honor the other person’s autonomy to make their own decisions about what is right for them. Otherwise we are abusing the idea of boundaries and using it as a proxy to control another person.
If we mistake requests for boundaries and believe others are violating our boundaries when they say no to us, we can become entitled and tyrannical with our needs rather than assertive and fair.
Our needs and feelings don’t get to trump those of others. When our needs conflict with those close to us, it’s important to learn to negotiate both people’s boundaries and find a compromise that feels healthy for each party.
If your needs and values are too disparate or inflexible that this isn’t possible, it may be necessary to end the relationship or to take space until such time that you can find a middle ground that works for both people.
3. Ultimatums are not boundaries.
Ultimatums are often mistaken for boundaries, but they aren’t the same thing at all. They’re threats.
Threats are damaging to relationships because they are about controlling another person––and power and control are the defining features of abusive and codependent relationships.
Ultimatums entail the kind of unilateral decision-making designed to force someone’s hand, which is anathema to the collaborative communication required of a healthy partnership that’s characterized by equality, autonomy, and mutual respect.
Rather than threaten someone with ultimatums, it’s important to simply express your needs and boundaries directly and assertively.
Letting someone know how their behavior is affecting you is important. Telling someone they have to behave differently––“or else”––is a power play.
You can certainly let someone know if a certain course of action is causing you to need to pull back from a relationship and request that they behave differently, but in healthy relationships you should never threaten someone.
Relationships shouldn’t feel like a game of tug-of-war or a power struggle.
If you’re feeling the need to resort to ultimatums, that’s a red flag. It’s a symptom of deeper incompatibilities, codependency issues, and communication problems that need attention and healing. If this is you, therapy is a really good place to explore and heal these relational patterns.
The reason it’s so important to understand what true boundaries are is because when we mistake pseudo-boundaries, requests, and ultimatums for true boundaries, we create a lot of unnecessary miscommunication, power struggles, and pain in our relationships.
When we lump all of these ideas into the same category, we end up believing we are advocating for ourselves when in actuality we may be behaving in ways that are passive, entitled, manipulative, or controlling.
This tends to have catastrophic effects on our relationships and may lead us to feel extremely disempowered if we continually perceive our boundaries to be violated when in actuality, we may not be setting true boundaries at all.
Feeling powerless and ineffectual in relationships can create a victim narrative, which in turn can feed into depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, codependency, self-doubt, and many other pernicious mental health problems.
When we understand that true boundaries are actions––not words, entitlements, or threats––we can begin to feel completely empowered, strong, and effective in our relationships. We no longer have to rely on another person’s behavior to change in order to get our needs met.
Gaining greater clarity within ourselves and learning how to communicate assertively and to set true boundaries tends to change the way people in our lives receive and respond to our communication. This can create major breakthroughs on both a personal and relational level.
Taking full ownership for what we will and won’t allow in our relationships, we let go of the relationships in our lives that aren’t working, which makes room for the higher-level connections we so deeply desire.
We change the game not by changing other people, but by creating the safety and strength within to let go of power struggles and take empowered action.
Brooke Sprowl is the founder and clinical director of My LA Therapy, a concierge wellness and therapy center devoted to healing anxiety, trauma, relationships, and depression. She is the author of the upcoming book, Why You SHOULD Date Emotionally Unavailable Men: Use Your Unhealthy Relationships to Transform and the creator of Coherence Theory, a personal transformation methodology that incorporates scientifically-backed research from optimal psychology, peak performance neuroscience, and evidence-based therapeutic techniques. Her new company, My Truest North, is devoted to using optimal psychology to help mission-driven entrepreneurs and conscious influencers attain peak performance, discover their higher purpose, and leverage their platforms to support social and global causes. My Truest North is also dedicated to educating people to use their unique talents, skills, and passions to make the largest impact possible on social and global issues, and to discover how higher purpose can serve as an accelerant for personal transformation, productivity, and awareness, and can lead to a deeper sense of meaning and joy.