Boundaries, Part I: Next Level Boundary Setting

Boundary setting is one of the most popular topics in counselling therapy today. Posts about boundaries on our social media get more engagement as the algorithms get to work on some hot content. But I’ve noticed that in the topics that are more viral, the quality of the nuance and sophistication drops by equal measure. Because of this, boundary setting has a pretty poor reflection in the PopPsych of our times.

The Ordinary Story of Boundaries

The common social media post on the topic of boundaries goes something like this:

Your boundaries are weak and porous (probably because you have been taught this by mistaken or even malicious parents and others). This is rooted in your desire to be kind and nice. But letting yourself get walked all over by those loose boundaries isn’t kind and nice at all, and it produces feelings of resentment. You betray yourself and do a disservice to the very relationships you are trying to protect and support. The answer is in establishing new boundaries—firm and nonporous boundaries, which will keep people from transgressing upon you. And not only will boundaries have this relational effect, but they will better reflect an empowered sense of self, the self who calls the shots around here.

How does that sound? Familiar?

And maybe it rings a little true for you too. That might be for a couple of reasons. First, it just might be accurate! Many people really do have personal histories that are reflected in this narrative to a useful degree, and I would guess that it is one reason this narrative has become so popular. Another reason might be that it’s so familiar to those who follow ADHD-TikTok and Mental Health Instagram that it just feels right at this point. A third reason is that there is a special hook that therapist content producers get to leverage called the Barnum Effect:

the tendency to accept certain information as true, such as character assessments or horoscopes, even when the information is so vague as to be worthless.

We love hearing stories about ourselves, and our lives are so unbelievably rich and populated with so much data that it is really not all that hard to stretch compelling narratives to be a good fit. Here is a metaphor I love: all the little memories (data points) in our personal histories are like stars in the night sky, a relatively random array of things-that-have-happened. And lots of psychological theories and so on are like constellations—if you look hard enough you can map one of these pictures onto your own data-sets with little problem. We tend not to overly assess the “goodness of fit”, just that the fit is good enough. The reason this is important is that this effect—the Barnum Effect—is a powerful force in therapy and wellness journalism more generally.

It’s briefly worth noting that this particular narrative about boundaries is often gendered. There is what I would say is a pretty consensus opinion that for a woman to learn to set firm boundaries is an act of personal empowerment peppered with feminist legitimation. But men are much less frequently asked to push their partners and friends away, to erect rigid and self-directed walls around themselves and their social ecosystems. If you play these two scenarios out and investigate your own experiences and subjectivities on the gendered difference regarding boundaries in therapy and outside of it, I would be very curious about your insights! In discussion with clinicians at Nightingale of diverse identities, I think we have found that, for better or worse, this narrative seems to have a hold in the therapeutic discourse.

This is important for many reasons, but one of them is because of algorithms: this story of how boundaries come to be and how they need to change for us to heal is particularly effective when directed at women. Therapy-instagram, as an example, is typically over 80% women. When we produce this kind of content instead of more sophisticated types of content, we get rewarded with algorithm fuelled engagement and the narrative deepens, because we are so incentivized to repeat what already works rather than tell a new and thicker story.

The Problem with this Story

And maybe this would be fine if the Primary Version Of The Story was really excellent. It would be a good tradeoff in that case to have such popular appeal. But this story is actually doing a lot of harm.

Boundary as fenceFirst, it is a totally reductive telling of how boundaries work. The metaphor of a boundary is not a wall that you either set well or fail to set well. Boundaries should be thought of like a living porous layer between you and the world. They are flexible and responsive; they are liquid and translucent. They can never fully protect us from the transgressions of the world, nor is that their only purpose. When I hold my baby so close to me and feed him his bottle before bed with his soft head pressed lightly against my cheek, that is also a reflection of good boundary work—I am letting another creature so close into me. Boundaries are bidirectional and conceiving boundaries as a wall in the first place is a mistake.

Boundaries are also never impermeable, even when we attempt to conceive of them as such. They are not walls. They are relational forces that imply, seduce, cajole, suggest, and influence. They are messages to other people about the kinds of things that are likely to go smoothly between you and me. You can have the most rigid boundaries in the world, and if I ignore them, I can transgress upon you regardless—they are not material forces. This is obvious I’m sure, but it’s important to say because sometimes I hear people overtly blaming themselves—blaming oneself is a form of victim blaming—for transgressions done against them, as if this was a fault of their boundary setting capacity. We need to be accountable for our boundaries and be careful, for example, not to get resentful for generosities that we have offered to our friends and colleagues. But we also need to recognize the limits of our responsibility. Others can still do harm to us… and that is on them.

Third, this narrative eliminates stories of boundaries in our history. I absolutely experience clients whose problems with boundaries are the complete opposite to PopPsych telling: they are too rigid, too fixed. The lesson that will be most useful to them is experimentation and curiosity with softening. This is made more difficult when the expectations established by dominant stories always point in one direction, that of more firmness and less porousness.

Good Boundaries

As with all things in therapy, doing well begins with knowing oneself. Applying a formula taken from the general information flow of PopPsych is always going to get you into trouble. But if you are interested in boundaries, I would ask myself a few questions:

  1. Am I having relational problems in my life to begin with?
  2. Are they rooted in my own relationship to boundaries or something else?
  3. Am I likely to have too loose or too rigid a boundary? How do I know that?
  4. How can I experiment with doing things differently?

The first two questions are designed to interrogate the question: does this really matter? You can have a completely satisfying and fulfilling relational life in work and school and play and intimacy and family without ever talking and thinking about boundaries. You just don’t need to do every little thing that therapists are interested in to make your life go well. And in fact, there are downsides in over-emphasizing parts of life that one person says are important, but might not actually matter in your world.

It’s better to focus on what does matter, not what we think is supposed to matter. My wife and I live our entire relationship without ever invoking the language of boundaries. We talk about needs and desires and space and connection and all kinds of good things about being an adult person in a loving family, and we can do all that without invoking the language of boundaries. I think this is worth pointing out, because boundary-talk is hard to do for lots of people—and really hard to do without coming across as harsh.

But let’s say you are having some relational problems, and it seems that it’s boundary related. What next? It’s very important to reflect on your own relational experiences to ask yourself if there really have been strong patterns across lots of relationships. I say strong patterns, because it’s to be expected for all of us to have memories and experiences, where we have had very soft boundaries here and very firm boundaries there. This is a sign of good, liquid, flexible boundaries—boundaries that respond to the needs of any situation or relationship. What might be a warning sign is if you notice that across a great many situations you tend to respond the same way. And it may differ from that prototypical story we told at the beginning! So you have to make sure you don’t overfit a constellation to your own starry sky.

So far, these have all been questions of self-reflection, questions that should be addressed before you try to solve the problem. One of my most important phrases in therapy is the following: you have to enter the room before you can leave it. Too often we leap to conclusions, we jump to strategies, and we lurch for tools and techniques. But if we haven’t taken the time to name properly the problem, there’s no telling if the tool we grab will be the right one. If your car has a flat tire, it won’t help to get an oil change! I am thinking about both therapists and potential clients when writing this, though, because too often I hear stories of therapists who haven’t investigated in this way. Counsellors can also jump to conclusions, and perhaps see a client who’s experiencing some relational problem or another and immediately advises strict and rigid boundary setting without first fully entering the room.

You have to enter the room before you can leave it.

Experimenting with Doing Things Differently

ExperimentThis is my favourite way to think about change, not just with boundaries. Think about the lightness and curiosity that is amplified by “experimentation.” There’s no knowing in advance if this is the key to the kingdom. There’s also no failure in experimentation: all experiments produce data. There’s only discovery and play. I would encourage much of your personal work to be in this spirit.

With boundaries, play is often pretty simple. It might be vulnerable, scary, and hard, but it’s also pretty simple. Boundaries are often set through small behavioural or linguistic cues that you can simply try out.

I’m going to make a couple of suggestions, but before I do I want to make a general point. In beginner boundary work, I often hear therapists advising clients to say something like “I am setting a boundary here” to some other person, like their partner. I get it. This doesn’t require much nuance, and if we are really struggling to change our boundaries, this might be the thing we have to do. But I want you to ask yourself first: how would you feel if you heard this language? I like to think of myself as emotionally mature and relationally sophisticated, and I absolutely respect people’s boundary work (heck, I’m writing a boundary article!). But even for me, there is a feeling of mild antagonism in that sentence, that by its very firmness there is a suggestion that I have been pressing on this person with too much force. Again, I can respond appropriately, but to do this, I have to calm those parts that might feel defensive or apologetic or sheepish or might desire to withdraw too far. My point here is that the phrase “I am setting a boundary here” is, on the scale of relational subtlety… not all that subtle, and not all that easy to receive. So experimentation will be harder in most cases.

(I’m sure some readers will disagree with this and declare that there is a responsibility by the listener to handle their own reactions to these boundaries and so on and so forth. And those critiques would all be appropriate. But as people who are changing, we can also elect to aim for pathways that have less friction, and even as we decide to make changes that might overall reduce, say, our emotional labour in a relationship, we needn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Taking on some emotional labour of helping another experience your new reduction in emotional labour might be a worthwhile expense.)

Some Tips for New Boundaries

  1. Be specific. Global changes in boundaries are hard: “I need to be more rigid”. Try being really specific about the change that might be helpful to you. “I need to hold my ground more firmly about the workload that my colleague hands to me on Fridays”.
  2. Be bidirectional. Be aware that boundaries go both ways, and that you may sometimes need to explore firmer boundaries and in other specific times and places, you may benefit from looser boundaries.
  3. Be gentle. If you are challenging well-established boundaries in a long-term relationship that you value, such as with a partner, parents, siblings, or old friends, be gentle with it. Be kind to yourself and the other in how they experience you. Having a hard time understanding and responding to a major change in relationships is hard!
  4. Be forgiving. Be forgiving first to yourself. Setting boundaries is not as easy as talking about boundaries or reading about them. It’s a hard skill, like dribbling a basketball. You get better over time. Your first experiences with trying something different might flop a little and that might just be because you’re not all that smooth with it. Give it some time.
  5. Watch what happens. Experimentation without observation doesn’t yield much. Notice what happens. See if you like it. See if it helps. See what it tells you about what directions to move in next.

The High Dream of Boundaries

The High DreamGood boundaries are all about emotional and relational mastery. The person with good boundaries can “surf” the minute-by-minute and day-by-day undulations of relational life with a sense of agency. Their actions and behaviours are not explained by patterns and compulsions and familiar narratives, but they are a reflection of values and choices made every day—to let people in, to honour the self. If we could see the boundary that they set, our metaphor would show us an undulating, imperfect, spontaneous layer of skin outside our skin which artfully expresses who we are amongst the people of our world.