One of the most frequent things clients talk about, in my experience, are their relationships – with families, partners, employers, friends, themselves… And when they do talk about this, one word that keeps coming up in conversation is the word ‘boundaries’.
Learning about boundaries
They usually say that they want to learn to have better boundaries, that other people never respect their boundaries, and so on, and they often refer back to an article or a video they encountered that talked about this. This may of course be true, and it can become the focal point of therapy to dig and discover how this came to be, and what we can do about it. Still, we always spend some time there, trying to figure out what the construct means to the person I’m working with specifically, how it helps them, how it doesn’t, how their partners and other loved ones use it, etc. More and more, people are learning to be comfortable with standing up for themselves and protecting their needs and their time.
However, sometimes I fear that we might be going towards the opposite extreme and into the territory of complete separateness and of relating to one another as purely ‘you do you, and I do me’, while I don’t think things are always as simple as that. A lengthy article I came across offers some thought-provoking ideas on this topic precisely.
Why do we need boundaries?
Namely, it is believed that setting and enforcing boundaries is the key to emotional maturity, ethical integrity, and better relationships. The popularity of the concept has led to numerous books, podcasts, articles, and social media posts on the topic, making it a trending subject. We often see wellness influencers and many therapists suggesting that defining these boundaries will lead to positive changes in various aspects of life, such as career, relationships, and overall well-being. Within these circles, the idea of boundaries is often used to communicate instances of hurt or violation, allowing individuals to protect themselves without having to openly express their pain and discuss it with others.
What are boundaries exactly?
However, the concept of boundaries can be an ambiguous and subjective one and can slip into conversations in which it may not be entirely relevant. Different experts have varying interpretations of what constitutes boundaries – they can encompass behavioural guidelines, emotional limitations, or compartmentalization of different areas of life. In some cases, the notion of boundaries is stretched to explain all kinds of problems and emotions, simplifying complex psychological issues by attributing them to boundary-related challenges.
By putting excessive emphasis on the issue of boundaries, we risk oversimplifying the complexities of human emotions and relationships alike. The concept itself threatens to become a one-size-fits-all type solution for human relationships, while we all know there is no such thing when it comes to our inner and interpersonal lives – we need a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics.
The Boundary Manifesto
This is in no way meant to be an anti-boundary manifesto. Boundaries are an absolutely important concept, but they are only one of the most important concepts that shape and define human relationships and experiences. Lately, it seems that they’ve become a powerful narrative that’s shaping our understanding of human interactions. Boundaries discourse teaches us to view relationships as property ownership, a concept influenced by neoliberal values. Defined that way, it may encourage us to focus on independence and self-protection, but it may hinder our understanding of what healthy independence and intimacy (and not codependence and possessiveness) entail. The language of boundaries can foster alienation and a sense of giving up on each other, instead of encouraging mutual care and collective responsibility.
Balancing of Boundaries
The desire for connection and separateness often coexists in individuals, and the truth is that it’s a constant dance that we’re doing between the two, always asking ourselves what feels good right now. While boundaries can offer guidelines for managing separateness, they can also become an escape from the inherent discomfort and complexity of human relationships. I hope this short text inspires you to reconsider the dominant narrative of boundaries and explore alternative ways of understanding and relating to one another, and if you want a slightly deeper dive into the topic, you can check out the article below.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counselling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.