Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Last week, I published a post entitled "Boundaries 101" to introduce the concept of boundaries—what they are, what they aren't, and what appropriate and inappropriate limits look like in different areas of life.
However, as one post about a concept as complex and important as boundaries is insufficient, I wanted to share some of the most common myths and misunderstandings people have about boundaries based on what I hear in my office. In doing so, my hope is that we can learn to "stick to our guns" in moments where we doubt if we're doing them correctly or not.
Harmful Myths About Boundaries
Setting boundaries is selfish.
My internal response when I hear this ^
False. The definition of “selfish” is lacking consideration for others and being chiefly concerned with your own personal gain. There is nothing “selfish” about saying you have a limit. There is nothing inconsiderate about saying, “Thank you for inviting me to your event, but I’m not free that day.” In fact, I’d argue that it’s more “selfish” to go to an event knowing that you'll be in a foul mood and making it harder for other people to enjoy themselves. (Honestly though, “selfish” isn’t even the right word; disrespecting your own boundaries is simply about being unkind to yourself.)
I always remind people that when you go on an airplane, they remind you that you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else. It’s a simple metaphor that reminds us that we’re actually able to be better partners, better friends, better parents when we have taken care of ourselves properly. When our emotional fuel tank is on empty, it does no good for anyone, including ourselves.
REFRAME: The idea that having limits is selfish is extremely problematic. Rather, it’s more appropriate to say that boundary-setting is a form of self-respect. So, next time you say no and feel “bad” or “selfish,” practice self-compassion and thank yourself for being on your own team.
2. Boundaries push people away.
No, no, no. I’ll tell you what pushes people away, and that is giving and giving and giving without ever setting a limit until you feel so used and taken advantage of that you lose it. And guess who you lose it on? The innocent person who had no clue that there was even a problem to acknowledge… BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T SAY THAT THERE WAS ONE.
Additionally, when we set limits around our emotions, time, and energy we are actually giving people a gift: we are giving them the gift of clear communication so that things don’t get lost in translation and so resentment doesn’t develop in the future. Believe me when I say that not defining boundaries is like Miracle Grow for resentment, which can be one of the most challenging things for people to overcome from my experience as a couples therapist.
REFRAME: Setting boundaries preserves and protects the health of relationships. You can say out loud, “I’m setting this boundary because I care about you and our relationship and want to protect it.”
3. Love has no boundaries.
A relationship that has no boundaries isn’t healthy, it’s co-dependent. Co-dependency is complex to define, but one of its core features is that the boundaries between two people have become permeable and unclear. In other words, there’s no separation between what’s yours and what’s theirs, whether you’re referring to emotions, finances, time, energy, etc.
The healthiest relationships of all have clear boundaries in place that are firm yet flexible. And sometimes, that might involve saying, “Because I love and care about you, I cannot continue lending you money each month.” “Because I love and care about you, I can’t allow you to continue drinking so much.”
REFRAME: Sometimes the most loving gesture is to say “no.” And sometimes the most loving thing is to say, “I love you enough to handle you being mad at me for a bit about this if it means keeping you safe and healthy in the long run.”
4. Boundary-setting means being rude.
If someone thinks you’re mean or rude for setting a boundary, it’s possible that they’re a bit of a boundary bully—someone who wants what they want regardless of how you feel about it. These are people who don’t like hearing “no” and might use strategies like guilt-tripping to make you feel bad about setting a limit. The person who has the problem in this situation is them, not you. Remember, there is nothing mean, selfish, or rude about defining your limits; it is your God-given right to do so as a human being, period.
Additionally, boundary-setting does not always have to be a super explicit, vocal thing. In fact, there are many other ways of setting limits around your emotions, time, energy, and ideas. Take the following examples:
Muhammed’s co-workers frequently gossip about one another. Whenever he sees this happening, Muhammed stays quiet and goes on his phone. He is setting a silent but effective emotional boundary for himself and communicating that he will not engage in this practice even though he hasn’t said anything.
Janice’s mom constantly vents to her about her husband, Janice’s father. Janice can set an emotional boundary by saying only validating statements rather than offering any advice. For example, she might say, “That sounds really hard, but I’m sure if you talk to dad you’ll be able to figure it out.”
Izaak is having dinner with friends who constantly question his political views. He sets an intellectual boundary (which protects his beliefs and ideas) by saying, “Let’s agree to disagree” as a way of ending the conversation.
Hua’s friend has a habit of talking about people behind their backs. During such an occasion, Hua responds with, “That hasn’t been my experience of them, but that sounds tough if it has been yours.”
Kayla feels uncomfortable around drunk people due to her experience of growing up with an alcoholic father. When people reach a certain level of intoxication, she sets an emotional boundary by leaving the party.
REFRAME: Practicing healthy boundaries is about getting clear about what’s okay to you (and what’s not) and honouring those limits in small ways, even if that means staying quiet, not engaging in a dialogue about something, or acknowledging another person’s point without taking it on as your own.
HOWEVER… there is a caveat to the whole “boundary-setting means being rude” topic, which I discuss below (point #5).
5. Healthy boundaries are about saying no to everything all the time.
I’ve noticed a trend wherein people who have previously been boundary-less (think people pleasers) start developing overly rigid boundaries to compensate, thinking that this is healthy.
Healthily setting boundaries does not mean saying “no” constantly and applauding yourself for doing so. Overly rigid boundaries are just as detrimental and unhealthy as overly permeable ones. Here are some signs that you have overly rigid boundaries:
You frequently cancel plans at the last minute with people because you’re tired or have found something better to do. If you do this more often than not, do not applaud yourself for having “good boundaries”; you’re actually being disrespectful of other peoples’ time.
You regularly say whatever is on your mind because you’re “just being honest” and get frustrated about other people being “too sensitive.” Being inconsiderate of how your words affect others is not an example of setting healthy boundaries; it’s an example of you being an ass.
You regularly think that people with different views from your own are “stupid,” “ignorant” or “uninformed.” You might not like someone's ideas, but you’re forgetting that everyone’s entitled to their own opinion—and everyone’s entitled to ignorance. Saying people with different ideas are stupid violates their intellectual boundaries.
You will never, ever stay past 4pm at work no matter what the circumstances are, causing other people to pick up the slack. I’m not saying that you should deprive yourself of having a good work-life balance, but being a good team member means making sacrifices for the greater good sometimes.
You operate from a place of wondering how things will affect you, not from a place of how things could affect you and other people.
You regularly change plans to accommodate your own schedule, needs, and preferences without considering how it could impact other people. This is disrespecting others' time boundaries.
REFRAME: Doing whatever you want, whenever you want in the name of “healthy boundaries” is not cool. If you want to act this way, fine. But please oh please do not hijack a very important word/concept so that you can feel better about being a bit prickish.
The Bottom Line
Boundaries are necessary for the development of self-worth and healthy relationships. When we fail to set limits of any kind, we make it far too easy for resentment to develop in relationships and emotional burnout to occur individually. Setting a boundary doesn’t make you a rude, selfish person; it makes you a considerate individual who has your own and other peoples’ best interests in mind.
On the other end of the spectrum, boundaries are also not about being overly rigid and saying “no” to everything because you suddenly feel like binge-watching Selling Sunset. Remember, healthy limits strike a balance between being firm and flexible.