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3 Biggest Myths About Boundaries

And why we need them.

This post was written by guest author Sybil Ottenstein

Myth 1: Boundaries are big, destructive implosions.

Many of us believe that setting boundaries will have a catastrophic impact on our life. We assume that a boundary must be this massive, impenetrable wall between us and other people. Following this logic, we would need to move across the country to set boundaries with our family. Or we would need to quit our job to insert a boundary with our boss. We associate boundaries with painful heartbreak, big fights and dramatic endings. They’re overwhelming, scary, and frankly something many of us would rather avoid.

But the truth is, boundaries live on a spectrum. While, of course, sometimes a healthy boundary does look like a “big” and possibly dramatic demarcation, often boundaries are far more gradual and subtle.

Source: Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash
Source: Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash

Consider that person in your life who expects you to be constantly “on” and available. While at times that may feel healthy and appropriate for you, sometimes you find yourself anxious or drained by this dynamic. One way to exercise a “small” boundary here is by taking your time in responding to text messages from this person. This represents a subtle signal that you are not always “available” or on-call while still maintaining the connection.

We can practice healthy boundaries in ways that are invisible to others. These more flexible, “soft” boundaries are more for us than they are for them. Subtle boundaries represent important moments of agency and empowerment for the boundary setter, and yet may not even be noticeable by the recipient.

Whatever the size, in order to create and sustain healthy boundaries, we have to first and foremost believe we deserve them. That’s because we might receive pushback after we assert our boundaries. People in our lives may be upset that we didn’t respond right away or offended that we are taking more space for ourselves (especially if we’ve never done it before!).

When we receive that pushback, it is important to remember our self-worth and resolve. All people are deserving of healthy boundaries because we are inherently worthy and sovereign.

Myth 2: Boundaries are “one-size-fits-all.”

There is a belief that all boundaries are the same with all people. But boundaries are not a homogeneous experience. Rather, both boundary violations and the boundaries we create can look quite different with different people.

Personal boundaries can be crossed in a myriad of ways. For example, imagine your boss asks you to work during your vacation even though you’d been granted the time off well in advance (and really need it). Or imagine a family member who demands your constant attention and focus when you don’t have the capacity to give it. Or a stranger who walks onto the bus and stands too close to you when there is plenty of room, encroaching on your sense of personal space and security. These all represent distinct boundary-violation scenarios in which someone has overstepped your needs for space, sovereignty, and choice. Moreover, it may not be clear to you whether your boss, family member, or the bus passenger was aware that they were doing something that upset you.

Imagining several boundaries outside of the “one-size-fits-all” model, we acknowledge that it is OK to have different boundaries with different people. It is also OK and important to acknowledge boundary violations, even if only for your own recognition and preservation of relationships.

If we take the above examples, you might not feel as bothered by your boss’s request if it was in response to a rare emergency that drew your compassion. But you might have a different reaction if your boss had a track record of asking you and others to work during their vacations. Similarly, it might feel OK for one family member to reach out to you often, but not OK for another family member to do the same. Each relationship is unique, and chances are, you have different wants and needs with these two individuals. No two boundaries are, or should be, the same.

Myth 3: Boundaries hurt relationships.

Setting boundaries with people we care about is scary! But why is that? Boundaries represent limits, communicating to others what is and is not acceptable to us. The thought of saying “no” to people we love and respect conflicts with our basic evolutionary need to attach and belong. Our survival response is to stay close.

Plus, we all have a basic desire and need to connect with other people. In that regard, setting boundaries represents the opposite of what we are programmed to do. This can create feelings of fear, loss, and anxiety, which can make us want to remove the boundary and get close again.

The problem is that when we lean into the attachment and ignore our need for boundaries, we can lose our sense of self. For some, ignoring our need for boundaries means incessant people-pleasing—the unfailing attempt to satisfy and care for others at the expense of our own needs. For others, when our boundaries are not being stated or expressed, we end up pushing people away entirely. Without healthy boundaries in our relationships, resentment may seep in without ever being directly communicated, corroding the relationship from within.

The instinct to attach and stay close is just that—an instinct. We can choose when to lean into our attachment instinct and when to draw a boundary for the sake of our mental and emotional well-being. The next time a boundary of yours is crossed, consider asking yourself the following questions:

1. What is your response to the boundary violation? What happens in your body, and what emotions are you feeling? Whatever the response, our body and our emotions offer us information, showing us what we need to feel safe and seen. For example, anger can suggest there’s been an unjust or unfair action. Fear can mean that our sense of security and/or privacy may be in jeopardy.

2. What are your fears and resistances around boundaries, and where did they come from? What is holding you back from asserting yourself, even in a small way? Maybe it is appearing “mean” or “bad”? Perhaps it is losing connection with someone you care about? Ask yourself how likely it is that this fear will come true.

3. If you could have your desired outcome without hurting the relationship, what would that look like? How might you communicate that sensitively? Is there someone in your life whom you admire for the way they communicate their needs? How would you imagine they would handle the same situation?

Ultimately, boundaries are incredible gifts that we can offer to ourselves and the people in our lives. Instead of letting our fears control us, boundaries empower us to choose how we want to relate and respond. When we are honest with ourselves and others, we create greater depth, meaning, and reciprocity in our relationships.

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