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Boundaries, what do they mean?

The concept of boundaries has entered the lexicon as part of “therapy speak”, but many people are misusing the term

THE WASHINGTON POST – Sophia Benoit, a 30-year-old comedian and advice columnist, believes it’s important to set emotional and physical boundaries at work and in relationships. But she’s seen plenty of people misuse the term too.

A friend uses the term ‘boundaries’ to make sure “the friend group does what she wants to do”, Benoit said. “Like, ‘I’m not going to go to the beach today, that’s my boundary; we’re going to go here.’”

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 said 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 behaviour 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.

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 psychology instructor at the University of Toronto Mariana Bockarova.

Using a boundary to justify selfish behaviour

Boundaries are not a means to manage another person’s behaviour 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.

Literary executive from Los Angeles Sera Scott, 31, said a former live-in partner asked her to move after meeting someone new, and justified hurtful behaviour by invoking mental wellness and boundary-setting.

 “I would say something like, ‘You’re really changing your behaviour towards me all of a sudden,’ and she would say, ‘This is just me setting boundaries, it’s not me changing behaviour.’”

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 said 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.”
Author of Running on Empty No More Jonice Webb said that healthy boundaries can be ways to protect yourself from being uncomfortable, put upon, misunderstood or over-controlled. But some people, she said, mistake setting boundaries for making demands.

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 behaviour, but you’re changing your own behaviour.

“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.” – Rebecca Fishbein