Relationship issues are among the most common reasons people seek therapy, counseling, or coaching. When things aren't functioning optimally in our relational world, everything can seem off-kilter. No matter how varied the details of each situation, often, the root cause of relationship tension lies in the setting and maintaining of appropriate boundaries.
Personal boundaries foster safety and well-being in relationships. They are the physical, emotional, and mental guidelines we follow when teaching others how to treat us.
When we are raised in households where healthy boundaries were neither modeled nor encouraged, it can be difficult to tell the difference between what boundaries are and what they are not, rendering us less likely to take appropriate action when it is needed. Here are the top five erroneous beliefs that get in the way of healthy limit-setting in relationships:
1: Boundary-setting is an act of disrespect, aggression, or punishment.
Fact: Boundaries are protection, not punishment. It is up to each of us to determine what we will or will not tolerate. It is our responsibility to assert our boundaries (calmly and respectfully) and to disengage when they are not respected. Failure to honor our limits breeds resentment. Resentment may seem like it's about what another person is or is not doing, but it is actually our body's way of signaling us to set an appropriate limit and stick to it. Resentment occurs when we expect someone else to take better care of us than we take of ourselves.
2. Boundaries need to be explained, justified, or understood by others in order to be effective.
Fact: Though it is always nice to feel supported or understood, others do not have the power to decide what is best for us. Other people do not have to like or agree with our decisions. Each of us is free to determine how we choose to participate in any relationship or situation; no permission or explanation required.
3. Because I tolerated certain situations or behaviors in the past, I don't have the right to set limits in the present.
Fact: Boundaries do not have an expiration date. We grow and change and so do our boundaries. Someone I know once worked for a boss who expected his employees to work overtime, with little vacation. This friend never liked working long hours but chose to grin and bear it. However, once she had children, my friend was plagued by constant fear of disappointing either her boss or her family. Her physical and mental health consequently suffered. She ultimately discussed the situation with her employer, who was unwilling to grant flexible hours. After several months of stewing in her own resentment, she ultimately sought employment with a company whose work-life values matched her own--and she was so much happier!
Sometimes we must struggle in order to fully know our limits. However, the moment we realize situations or behaviors are harmful or destructive, it is always our prerogative to help ourselves.
4. Boundaries require others to change what they are doing.
Fact: Boundaries require us to change what we are doing. We cannot control how someone else thinks, feels, or behaves, but we can control whether or not we choose to be in the presence behavior that is counterproductive.
If someone we love is behaving destructively, we may wish for them to change. However, when our feelings indicate the current situation is no longer working, the onus is ours to change it. Remember, boundaries are not about punishing another. They are about protecting ourselves.
5. Someone else's negative reaction to my boundary means that it is "wrong."
Fact: Because no two people think, feel, or act the same way all the time, it is common for us to be in conflict with others. Sometimes setting a limit means someone else does not get what s/he wants, which can naturally lead to anger or disappointment. These feelings are not indicators of wrongdoing nor do they suggest a boundary reversal is in order.
Knowing who we are and how we want to be treated are prerequisites for healthy connection. We need look no further than our own thoughts and feelings to tell us what is or is not acceptable. The next time you notice yourself feeling angry or resentful, I encourage you to ask yourself how these bodily signals may be inviting you to set a limit in your environment. Knowing you can protect yourself is the key to feeling safe with others.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and Associate Producer of the New Orleans-based show, Death:The Podcast. She lives and works in Seattle.
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Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer whose therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of Seattle, Washington. She has been providing counseling and dating consultation services since 2000.