The concept of boundaries has entered the lexicon as part of “therapy speak,” the use of terms that therapists use in a clinical setting, but are often wrongly applied in mainstream culture.
Therapists say that while it’s healthy for people to talk about setting boundaries, many people use the term incorrectly — and when misused, a boundary can become a means of controlling someone else’s behavior or making demands.
But how do boundaries work? Why do we need them? And how are people getting it wrong?
What does it mean to set boundaries?
Boundaries are personal guidelines people set to help them maintain healthy habits and relationships, or to protect themselves according to their comfort levels and values.
While the concept of boundaries has been discussed in the psychology community for years, the term became especially popular in the 1990s, spurred by best-selling titles like “Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin” and “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.”
These and other self-help books “very assertively proselytized for boundaries,” said Lily Scherlis, who wrote about the origins of boundaries for Parapraxis Magazine.
Today, setting boundaries has become a hot topic on social media, where therapists and self-help gurus post videos and memes dispensing tips about boundaries and mental wellness.
Setting boundaries at work and in relationships
There are all sorts of ways to set healthy boundaries. You can set a boundary with yourself, such as going to sleep at a certain time or avoiding situations that make you uncomfortable.
Professional boundaries might include avoiding office gossip, saying no to extra tasks when your workload is too heavy or never working through lunch.
You also can set boundaries in personal relationships that reflect how you want to be treated, such as taking a half-hour of alone time after work so you can decompress.
If you’re in a conversation that makes you uncomfortable or someone is behaving toward you in a way that makes you feel bad, it’s appropriate to set a boundary, said Mariana Bockarova, a psychology instructor at the University of Toronto.
For instance, a relative at a family function may quiz you about your dating life. “That might feel really uncomfortable. It might feel like someone’s prying information out of you,” she said. “Saying something like, ‘I don’t really like talking about that,’ would be an appropriate example of a boundary being crossed and handling that.”
If you’re in a romantic relationship, Bockarova says, a boundary may look like asking your partner not to yell at you during an argument or not to criticize the way you dress.
“It is your right as a human being to say, ‘This makes me uncomfortable,’ and either that person stops, or you remove yourself from that situation,” she said.
Controlling behavior masked as a boundary
While boundaries can be useful tools for self-protection, therapists say they are increasingly seeing some people misuse the term to justify trying to control other people’s behavior.
Leah Aguirre, a psychotherapist and co-author of “The Girl’s Guide to Relationships, Sexuality, and Consent,” says that while the proliferation of therapeutic terms has given people access to necessary mental health tools, people may overgeneralize concepts such as boundaries and triggers, and use them to rationalize certain behaviors.
“What’s great about social media is we’re familiarizing ourselves with all these mental health and psychology terms, but we’re not understanding that there’s context and nuance to these terms,” she said. Instead, Aguirre says, these words can become tools for manipulation and even abuse.
“A boundary can become abusive when you’re infringing on someone’s autonomy and personal life and identity,” she said. “If you’re saying, ‘My boundary is for you not to have male friends,’ for example, which is something I see a lot in abusive dynamics, it’s essentially a means of control,” she said.
Aguirre says she has clients who feel guilt after being told they are not respecting a boundary. But in reality, the other person in the relationship is misusing the term as a means of control.
“It’s easy to fall into these abusive or manipulative dynamics because you want to respect someone’s mental health journey,” she said.
Using a boundary to justify selfish behavior
Boundaries are not a means to manage another person’s behavior or choices that are made independent of you.
If you tell someone you don’t like it when they wear a certain outfit, or you don’t want them to post certain photos of themselves, “that’s not a violation of a boundary, that’s just a preference,” Bockarova said.
Sera Scott, a 31-year-old literary executive from Los Angeles, says a former live-in partner asked her to move after meeting someone new, and justified hurtful behavior by invoking mental wellness and boundary-setting.
“I would say something like, ‘You’re really changing your behavior towards me all of a sudden,’ and she would say, ‘This is just me setting boundaries, it’s not me changing behavior.’”
The experience made Scott feel like she no longer had control of her choices or environment. “I had to rush moving out, and I ended up in a place I wasn’t that excited about. I was really not happy there,” she said. “Now I see how manipulative that was.”
Using boundaries to be bossy
Benoit says sometimes people invoke the concept of boundaries when they’re really talking about personal preferences to justify acting in their own interest.
“We’ve all been taught that you’re not supposed to cross people’s boundaries,” Benoit said. “But if it’s always someone saying, ‘I want to do this thing and we’re all going to do this thing,’ that’s not boundary-setting, that’s being in charge.”
Jonice Webb, author of “Running on Empty No More,” says that healthy boundaries can be ways to protect yourself from being uncomfortable, put upon, misunderstood or over-controlled. But some people, she says, mistake setting boundaries for making demands.
“It’s important in romantic relationships to have boundaries be a back-and-forth conversation, so you’re not saying, ‘Here’s what I need, and do it — or else,’” she said.
“If it’s a real dealbreaker, like, ‘If you cheat on me, I’m out,’ that’s one thing,” Webb continued. “But if you’re asking them to change themselves, that’s not fair.”
It’s important to remember that setting boundaries is about how you want to be treated or live your life — and how you react when someone crosses the line.
For instance, if you’re in a romantic relationship with someone who seems to flirt a lot with a particular person, it’s okay to say: “I worry about this relationship you have with this person; it makes me uncomfortable.’
But if you can’t come to an understanding around the issue, you may decide the relationship doesn’t work for you. “That would be a healthy boundary,” Webb said.
In this case, you’re not asking the other person to change their behavior, but you’re changing your own behavior.
“It’s important that we’re seen and heard for who we are,” Aguirre said, “And not made to feel like we don’t have a choice in our day-to-day decisions.”