The real definition of a boundary became a hot-button issue on social media this past weekend when pro surfer Sarah Brady, the ex-girlfriend of actor Jonah Hill, shared a series of screenshots of alleged text messages between her and Hill. In these screenshots, Hill, who filmed a documentary about his therapist for Netflix, is shown claiming his boundaries for a relationship with Brady will require her to avoid surfing with men, hanging out with certain female friends “who are in unstable places,” and posting pictures of herself in swimsuits. But to make such a claim implies that his requests to control her behavior are somehow credible on the grounds of his boundaries, raising alarm bells among many about the dangers of misusing "boundaries" and other therapy terms.
Indeed, when therapy terms are used incorrectly, they can enable and even justify harmful behavior, according to therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. For instance, wielding the word "boundaries" can make it seem like someone has done a good deal of healthy emotional work, but in actuality, using your "boundaries" as the basis for requests that someone else do or avoid certain behaviors is a complete misuse of the term.
“Due to [factors like] social media, Covid, and misogyny, [therapy speak] has been weaponized as a way to manipulate other people.” —Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, therapist
“[Therapy speak] includes language that was intended for and super helpful in discussions between therapists and clients, but now, due to [factors like] social media, Covid, and misogyny, it has been weaponized as a way to manipulate and control other people,” says Thompson. “Whatever the therapy buzzword is at the moment, by using it, you adopt this posture of knowing more than the other person, but that can just as easily be a façade.”
Boundaries are something you impose on yourself—not on others
To understand how Hill has misused the concept of boundaries and why doing so is harmful, it's helpful to remember exactly how boundaries are meant to function. Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD likens boundaries to a fence around your house and yard; they’re tools to protect and enforce your own well-being.
You can make a boundary as rigid or as fluid as you want—but the point is, a boundary is something you draw for yourself, meant to define what you will or won't do in order to stay mentally and physically safe. When you start trying to dictate or control someone else's behaviors in service of your own "boundaries," you're not actually setting or enforcing boundaries at all; that behavior is just manipulation and control.
Case in point: You can say you won't go out on Friday nights because you want more time to rest, and that would be setting a boundary; but telling a friend or significant other that they also can't go out because of your "boundaries" is just controlling behavior masquerading as boundary-setting. Remember: You're free to dictate what does and doesn't move through your proverbial fence—but you can't trespass into someone else's yard and do the same for theirs (not even with the faux justification that you're just protecting yourself).
Boundaries and preferences are not the same thing
The reason why "boundaries" can get so easily misused is because it's easy to forget the difference between your agency over your actions and others' actions: Both can have a significant effect on your well-being, but while you can control the former, you can't control the latter. The ways that you want other people to behave in your presence are just your preferences—and boundaries aren't a way to impose those preferences on others.
In fact, trying to get someone else to act in a certain manner actually has the effect of violating their boundaries because people have the right to behave however they'd like (within legal bounds)—and that includes Brady. “From what I can ascertain, Hill is the one invading Brady's boundaries, not the opposite, by expecting her to adopt his preferences,” says Dr. Manly. While Hill is allowed to communicate his preferences for how he'd like Brady to act, she's certainly not obligated to agree to them (whether on the grounds of boundaries or not).
"We use the word boundary so loosely that [you might] say, 'You crossed my boundary because you didn't do what I want you to do,' but that's not how 'boundary' is used." —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
Shrouding preferences in the therapy-speak language of boundaries is dangerous because it grants those preferences a certain amount of unwarranted credibility. And the resulting confusion (Are you fairly asking me to respect your boundaries, or are you trying to control me?) can contribute to hurt, says Dr. Manly. "It's tricky because we use the word boundary so loosely that all of us can slip into that and say, 'You crossed my boundary because you didn't do what I want you to do,' but that's just not how 'boundary' is used," she says.
Again, setting boundaries is something you do for yourself and share with others; you can choose not to date people who behave in x or y way, but you can't make someone behave in a certain way. You can choose not to work past 6 p.m., but you can't force a coworker not to email you during that time.
That said, to help others help you stick to your own boundaries, it's smart to clearly communicate those boundaries and the reasoning behind them, says Thompson. And if another person is standing in the way of a boundary you've set for yourself, you can share your concerns and work with them to find a solution that suits you both. But the onus is never solely on the other person to change their behavior in service of your preferences.
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