Boundaries. If you’ve not heard the word in your therapy sessions, you’ll have seen it shared across social media. It’s the current buzzword which emphasises the importance of protecting our own physical and emotional space while encouraging others to do the same. The idea of setting boundaries is this: by expressing what you are comfortable and not comfortable with, and how you wish to be treated, you protect your identity and wellbeing.
Since the pandemic, the term’s popularity has been fuelled by people’s requirements for balancing new routines and priorities while managing self-care. Think of the pressure of lockdown, where so many of us had to live with imposing family members or have uncomfortable conversations with friends about why we wouldn’t attend inappropriate social gatherings. It was because of this traumatic experience that many of us felt compelled to set boundaries that we hadn’t previously implemented. Or reinforce ones we’ve long been trying to establish.
Yet while many of us are busy talking and reading about boundaries, there is still a large number of people who don’t know how to communicate their needs effectively. This is because the word 'boundary' can often be misleading. It conveys the idea that you should remove yourself from a situation or person that is causing you anguish or difficulty. Troublingly, this often seems to coincide with the dismissal of situations – whether friendships or work-related – and people – whether family members or ex-partners – as 'toxic'.
As a trainee psychodynamic therapist, it is common for me to hear that the majority of platonic and romantic relationships fail because boundaries have not been communicated. Instead of addressing the situation and laying down healthy rules, people would rather ghost or brand the other person as 'toxic'. This creates a blame culture which is not only counterproductive but allows people to sidestep accountability for their own responses.
I have seen countless memes on Instagram therapy accounts which claim to help us identify toxic people. The truth is that with the exception of some incredibly serious circumstances where a person has been abusive, very few people are 'toxic'. And even in those serious circumstances, would we call a rapist or domestic abuser 'toxic'? Probably not. There are other terms to describe their actions.
In reality, putting healthy boundaries in place ought to be seen as the act of fortifying relationships rather than building walls to keep people out or, indeed, avoid having difficult conversations about our needs and feelings.
You only need to watch reality TV shows like Love Island and Keeping up with the Kardashians, where dramatic arguments happen every five minutes, to see why this matters. These rows often stem from poor communication, where both parties quickly shut the other person down rather than talk and listen. Then we have social media platforms, such as Twitter, where people’s comments are ripped apart. Of course there are occasions where we should speak up against opinions that promote racial bias, sexism and homophobia or reinforce any sort of inequality but our responses should be channelled in more productive ways if we are to enact change. This communication tactic is exactly the same principle to follow when placing healthy boundaries.
When people set boundaries it isn't an attempt to hurt or dismiss another person. It's an attempt to continue their relationship with that person. Boundaries are set in the hope that you can better understand each other's needs moving forward.
Establishing boundaries sounds relatively straightforward when you read it in black and white. So why has it become difficult to express what we cannot tolerate? To describe and discuss what hurts us?
A lack of boundaries is often down to a number of reasons, such as the fear of upsetting or disappointing others. People with poor boundaries usually have a high level of neediness (or in psych terms, codependency) and tend to struggle with the thought of rejection or being disliked. Then we have those who prefer to blame others for their own emotions and actions rather than take responsibility. This lack of ownership can create confusion among everyone involved, leading to excessive and displaced blame. In psychology we call this 'defence mechanism, projection'.
When we project we tend to place an unacceptable part of ourselves, such as thoughts, feelings and trauma, onto someone else. It’s like going into someone’s house and dumping your clutter, then hating that person for having a messy house. Projection is an easy way to avoid accountability by making it someone else’s fault and is often a sign that healthy boundaries need to be set.
So how can we put a stop to this blame-game culture? Firstly we need to identify our own boundaries, then communicate these needs assertively. Then decide and explain what your consequences are when your boundaries are crossed. You’ll be biased by the context and person but when maintaining strong boundaries it’s important to do what you said you would do. While boundaries are often emotional, they can come in many forms, such as physical, material and time. This is what some boundaries can look like in practice:
Setting emotional boundaries means recognising how much emotional energy you can take from another person and what you can and won’t share or tolerate. Setting an emotional boundary can sound like: "I understand you’re going through a lot right now but I deserve to be treated with respect. I will not tolerate your abuse and will be taking space away from the situation."
Setting physical boundaries is the act of establishing your personal space and physical needs. Placing a physical boundary can sound like: "I’m not a hug person, I’m more of a handshake person when I greet people."
Your time is valuable and it’s important to protect how your time and energy is prioritised. A time boundary can sound like: "I can come to this event but I will be leaving after an hour."
Material boundaries can be anything that you possess, such as your house, money, clothing etc. Having boundaries over your items prevents resentment. Setting material boundaries might sound like: "I cannot lend you my car as I am the only person insured to drive it."
It’s important to have your own beliefs, values and opinions. Having mental boundaries means respecting others' beliefs, too. Setting this boundary may sound like: "I respect your opinion, even though I disagree, and I hope you can respect mine."
Holding the above boundaries is easier said than done, especially for those who fear confrontation. However it’s important to grow tolerance to that discomfort and instead of avoiding difficult conversations, calmly state what it is you require. A person with strong boundaries is not afraid of someone’s temper tantrum or an argument; a person with weak boundaries is. It’s vital to keep in mind that placing boundaries will never accommodate everyone’s needs and this in turn can create upset. If you are to have strong boundaries you must understand that you cannot determine how someone else will feel. Nor are you responsible for how they will react. A healthy relationship is not taking responsibility for the other person’s emotions but rather supporting each other in building high self-esteem.
Once you have communicated your needs successfully, it is important to remember that it is up to the individual to accept your boundaries but it is your responsibility to uphold those boundaries. It can be infuriating when someone continues to cross your line but it’s important to be consistent, compassionate and firm in these situations. Building healthy relationships can be a difficult process but ultimately it allows your relationships to be mutually respectful and caring.
For those who would still rather avoid confrontation or blame-shift to escape responsibility, keep in mind that when people set boundaries it isn’t an attempt to hurt or dismiss a person. It’s an attempt to continue their relationship with that person. The boundaries are set in the hope that you can better understand each other’s needs moving forward.
Stina Sanders is a trainee psychodynamic therapist.