As a therapist, I hear stories all the time about people intending to develop protective and supportive boundaries, but instead ending up with counterproductive walls. To keep that situation from taking shape, it’s important to start off by understanding what boundaries really are and, just as crucially, what they are not.
When we take our boundaries too far, they can become unhealthy excuses to keep people away and avoid conflict that naturally happens in relationships.
Boundaries are limits and expectations that we set in our relationships to communicate our needs and desires. And they can help support those relationships by creating strong and stable foundations. However, when we take our boundaries too far, they can become unhealthy excuses to keep people away and avoid conflict that naturally happens in relationships.
Here are 3 scenarios that reflect overly rigid boundaries at play
1. Totally cutting yourself off
You find that you’re isolating yourself from others when you could use support, instead of communicating what’s wrong.
2. Avoiding all conflict
When an interpersonal issue arises, you express that you are not ready to talk under the guise of respecting your personal boundaries, but you also rarely make an attempt to address the conflict through healthy communication. This could also be a strategy for deflecting your own missteps by expressing boundaries to certain problems instead of owning up to your actions.
3. Creating strict rules for relationships
Perhaps you feel lonely, but at the same time, you’ve set boundaries that make it arguably impossible for people to cultivate connections with you. If you’ve created rules around when others can call, text, or even schedule time to hang out with you, or have enacted other inflexible demands that effectively box out the other person, you’re not using boundaries to protect yourself. For instance, expecting a partner to pay for certain items that they’ve expressed they cannot afford—instead of meeting them where they are and agreeing to something that is beneficial to the both of you—isn’t a protective boundary but a limiting one.
When we create rigid boundaries, we are ultimately hurting our relationships and disconnecting ourselves from our communities. All relationships are nuanced, but when we choose to see things through the simplistic lens of good versus bad, we fail to create space for that nuance in our lives.
How to set and protect supportive—but still flexible—boundaries
Learning to be less rigid with your boundaries may require you to reframe your thinking, as well as your approach to conflict-resolution strategy. Start by challenging your cognitive distortions, or the negative frameworks you may choose to live by. Instead of seeking out someone to blame or credit in every situation, make space for nuance by being willing to engage in healthy conversation to hear another person’s perspective. Then, use that feedback as a way to guide the relationship.
Specifically, healthy communication for boundary-setting that isn’t too rigid requires you to take these four steps:
1. Avoid taking things personally
Remember that people’s actions are almost always about them, not you.
2. Listen in order to understand and not just to respond
That means not trying to win arguments or have the last word, but instead, aiming to see another person’s perspective and even asking questions to gain more clarity and understanding.
3. Manage your own discomfort
Sometimes, you will be in the wrong. Be open to correcting your wrongs, and remember that the resulting discomfort will be temporary.
Ask yourself whether this boundary that you’re setting is allowing room for connection or furthering disconnection. Then consider whether you really want to be fully disconnected from the person in question, or just more effectively connected.
The good thing about flexible, healthy boundaries is that they are allowed to shift and transform. And when things aren’t working for us, we always have the permission to do exactly that.
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