A Therapist Explains 6 Things People Get Wrong About Setting Boundaries

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist By Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Elizabeth Earnshaw is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, writer, and the owner of A Better Life Therapy. She received her bachelor's in adult organizational development and education from Temple University and her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University.
Things People get wrong about boundaries

Illustration by Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

"Boundaries" has become a buzzword that comes with a lot of connotations. Even though maintaining healthy boundaries is absolutely necessary for having healthy relationships throughout your life, there's sometimes confusion about what it actually means to have boundaries and what they should look like in your life. Here are six things people tend to get wrong about boundaries that I've noticed as a therapist:

1. It's not just about the things you don't want but also about what you do want.

Boundaries aren't only about saying no, although this is certainly an important part of it and one way to act on your boundaries. Boundaries are also about knowing what you need or want. This means sometimes we say, "I don't want that" or "I can't do that," and sometimes it's about saying, "I need this" or "I have to…" or some such.

Examples of boundaries that ask for what you need are:

  • "I need my shirt to be returned by X date."
  • "I need to save money."
  • "I need to be able to take time to eat."
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2. You can be kind and compassionate while still setting boundaries. 

Setting boundaries is not about causing harm, although they might still be hurtful to the people on the other side of the boundary. When we are setting healthy boundaries, we do so from a space of fairness and compassion. And when we see that the boundary has made the other person sad, disappointed, or even angry, we can approach that with empathy rather than guilting or shaming ourselves. You can acknowledge that person's emotional response and exercise love and care toward them while still staying firm on your boundary.

3. Boundaries aren't meant to keep people out; they're meant to make it easier for people to get close.

Without boundaries, we can have a sense of faux intimacy in which we feel as if we are close to the other person when, in reality, we are enmeshed or codependent with them. With boundaries, we welcome true intimacy by communicating our needs and our limits clearly so as to avoid the buildup of resentment.

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4. We all have boundaries.

Boundaries let us know when something has gone too far and is threatening our well-being in some capacity. Every person on this planet has boundaries. Even people who say they don't have boundaries or seem to have no boundaries do have them. Some people might exist in an environment where their boundaries are rarely challenged or tested; some might not know how to ask for their boundaries to be respected and regularly let others cross them; others may have boundaries they know instinctively but do not know how to verbalize them.

For those of us struggling to be in touch with their boundaries or speak to them, the first step is learning to be aware of what your body is telling you about your needs and your limits.

5. Even couples need boundaries.

Even people who love each other deeply need boundaries. Boundaries show the other person how to be successful with you and let them know what's happened that might be a problem. This opens the door of communication so that you can continue to work together to be the best partners you can be for each other. In a long-term relationship, boundaries might sound like:

  • "I need to have influence over how we spend our money."
  • "When I'm tired, I need to be able to go to bed. Please don't play loud music after X time."
  • "When we go to your family's house, I need X."
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6. Boundaries aren't just something you have with other people.

Boundaries are something that actually start with the self. At the core of boundary-setting is the ability to notice what you need and to make sure it happens for yourself. That can look like setting boundaries around the way you engage with your health, your money, your time, your things, or your relationships. Having self-boundaries is the ability to notice that your body is saying, "I'm tired" and finding time to rest. It's the ability to say, "I need more money for the end of the month, so I'm going to save that instead of spending it." It's doing what's right for you. When you start there, it becomes much easier to do it everywhere else.

Boundaries can be complex, and it's OK if you stumble once in a while with trying to maintain them. Learning to respect and protect your boundaries is something that we have our whole lifetimes to practice, and with time, it'll only become more and more natural. 

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