If you’re confused about what boundaries are and how to implement them in your life, this episode is for you!
I get a lot of listener questions about boundaries, so today, I wanted to share some boundary basics so that you can learn to set your own boundaries.
Savvy Psychologist is hosted by Dr. Monica Johnson. A transcript is available at Simplecast.
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I receive many questions about boundaries in relationships. There is a lot that can be said about this topic, but we first need to lay down some basic facts about what boundaries are so that we can build on this knowledge in the future. If you’re confused about what boundaries are and how to implement them in your life, this episode is for you!
Welcome back to Savvy Psychologist, I'm your host, Dr. Monica Johnson. Every week on this show, I'll help you face life's challenges with evidence-based approaches, a sympathetic ear, and zero judgment.
The first thing I want to discuss is the general concept of passive, aggressive, and assertive boundaries. These are likely terms that you’ve heard before in other contexts, but they can also apply to boundaries.
A person with aggressive boundaries can push on others and lead them to feel that the aggressor is controlling, intimidating, or acting superior to them. Broadly speaking, aggressive boundaries can lead to isolation for the aggressor, which is likely not the outcome that they want because it makes others wary of interaction.
A person with passive boundaries will feel like they are being controlled by others. If you’ve ever been told you are or felt like a doormat, you likely have passive boundaries. This is problematic as well because it means your needs aren’t being met. In fact, interactions can start to become intolerable because you can begin to feel violated by other people. This can sometimes lead to what we call passive-aggressive behaviors or even aggressive behavior in a faulty attempt to rebalance the scales.
As you’ve probably already guessed, what we want are assertive boundaries. The wonderful thing about assertive boundaries is that they are mutual—they honor both you and the other person, which means that everyone maintains their dignity. When you’re assertive, whether we are speaking specifically about boundaries or not, you advocate for yourself while being fair to the other person.
A common question I get from listeners is “what can I have a boundary about?” The most obvious ones are physical boundaries. You can have boundaries about who can touch your body or enter your physical spaces, like your room. You can also have boundaries that relate to your mental and emotional wellbeing. These can include things like your personal feelings, preferences, values, morals, personal time, etc. For instance, if you were vegan and going to a wedding, it is okay for you to state that you would need to have a vegan option. If you want to spend your Saturday at home alone reading and doing household chores, you can let your friends know that you’re busy and that simply because you’re engaging in solo activities doesn’t mean you’re doing “nothing.”
A common concern that I hear from patients and listeners of this podcast are the potential risks of boundaries. In most situations, people have avoided healthy boundaries for a reason. You may have grown up in an environment where you learned that others will punish you for having healthy boundaries, and the concept that you could say no to another person never really enters your mind. If you’re a people-pleaser, then the idea that someone could be angry at you for saying no or setting a boundary can feel unbearable.
I also hear two very common fears.
The first is the fear of losing the relationship. I hear this all the time. There are two broad ways of approaching this that I would suggest. The first is to check the facts. Sometimes, we have a fear of losing a relationship, but it’s literally all in our heads. There is nothing in the environment that would suggest this person would leave us if we set a boundary. You won’t believe the number of times this fear has been expressed to me, and when I ask, “well, are they open to communication, are they typically willing to compromise, do they normally seem to prioritize your needs as well as your own, etc.?” And the person looks and me and says yes, they are great, and then lists all the ways this person displays that they will likely be open to boundary setting.
Anxiety is a tricky beast. It’s like Loki—it’ll sometimes make you see things that aren’t there. So, it’s always important to check the facts and then proceed in a way that makes sense.
If you do have this fear and you check the facts and the truth is that you may end up losing the relationship by setting boundaries, then your tactics need to be a bit different. I would strongly encourage you to do an inventory of your relationships with your therapist and see if these relationships actually benefit your life. There are times where the removal of a relationship—or at least creating more distance in a relationship—makes the most sense.
The second most common fear I hear is the fear of guilt. I hear all the time from patients about how guilty they will feel by setting a boundary. It is true that until you get used to setting boundaries and advocating for yourself, you will feel some guilt. However, sometimes our initial reaction to something is the wrong one and we shouldn’t act on it. For instance, if you were to be set on fire, your initial reaction might be to run around screaming, but that’s the exact wrong thing to do. This is why we all learned stop/drop/roll in school.
Guilt makes sense when you’ve done something wrong. If I came up to you and asked you for $100 and you don’t have it to give or don’t want to give it to me, you telling me “no” isn’t you doing something wrong. Unless you owe me money for a service I provided, I have no claim over your bank account. You’re allowed to have this limit. The main reason you’re feeling guilt in these types of scenarios is because of your perception. There is likely a “should” that arose in your mind. If you’re a people-pleaser, these shoulds present an idea that you should always sacrifice your needs for the service of others. Anytime you think the word should or always or never—that’s a cue to check the facts. Over time, when you’re implementing healthy boundaries and seeing the positive consequences in your life, this feeling of guilt will either disappear or reduce because your perception will change as you engage in healthier behaviors.
When I return, I’ll review some practical rules for boundaries and go more in-depth about boundaries and relationships.
What is a boundary that you want to start setting with others? Let me know on Instagram @kindmindpsych. You can also reach out to me via my email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191.