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3 Mistakes You Could Be Making When Setting Boundaries

By Brooke Sprowl, L.C.S.W.
November 23, 2021

In recent years, people have been throwing the word “boundaries” around like it’s their job. But, as often is the case when pop culture co-opts terminology from clinical psychology, complex ideas are taken out of context and distorted to the point that they can cause more harm than good.

Here are three surprising mistakes you can make when setting boundaries that can actually sabotage your relationships and emotional well‑being instead of boosting them.

Forgetting Boundaries Are Actions Not Words

There’s a big difference between setting boundaries and enforcing them. Setting a boundary is a verbal expression of where the line is; whereas, enforcing a boundary is taking an action to protect ourselves when our verbal expression is not honored.

Often, we expect others to enforce boundaries we are unwilling to enforce ourselves. We tell them not to cross a certain line; then, if they cross it anyway, we take no action to back up that line. When we fail to enforce our own boundaries, we give up the power we sought. These pseudo-boundaries allow everyone else to decide how far they can push our limits, and puts them in the driver's seat, rather than allowing us to determine what feels safe and healthy for us.

By contrast, “true boundaries” are actions we take to protect ourselves, regardless of how the other person behaves. This empowers us to take control of the situation fully and to not leave ourselves at the mercy of others’ compliance. Words can only take us so far, if not backed by will and deed. If, for example, you’re arguing with someone and you tell them you no longer wish to continue the conversation, yet they won’t stop, you have a choice. You can roll your eyes, grit your teeth, and say nothing; or, you can leave—or tell them to do so. Actions are more effective, empowering, and meaningful than words.

Believing Boundaries Are Entitlements

There’s an increasing trend for people to weaponize the word “boundary,” believing that any time they express a want, need, or request, they are entitled to automatic compliance from the other person. And if the person does not unquestioningly do as they ask, they then accuse the other person of violating their boundaries.

Expressing what we want or need doesn’t obligate anyone to act accordingly. When we make requests, we must honor the other person’s autonomy to make their own decisions about what is right for them. Otherwise, we are abusing the idea of boundaries and using it as a proxy to control others.

Our needs and feelings don’t get to trump those of others. If we confuse requests with boundaries and believe others are violating our boundaries when they say no to us, we can become entitled and tyrannical with our needs not assertive and fair. When our needs conflict with the needs of those close to us, it’s important to learn to negotiate boundaries and find a compromise that feels healthy for both of you.

If your needs and values are so disparate or inflexible that this isn’t possible, it may be necessary to end the relationship, or to create space with the person until such time that both of you can find a middle ground that satisfies your needs.

Confusing Ultimatums with Boundaries

Ultimatums are often mistaken for boundaries, but they aren’t the same at all—ultimatums are threats. They entail the kind of unilateral decision-making designed to force someone’s hand, which is anathema to the collaborative communication required of a healthy partnership characterized by equality, autonomy, and mutual respect.

Rather than threaten someone with ultimatums, it’s important to simply express your needs and boundaries directly and assertively. Letting someone know how their behavior is affecting you is important. Telling someone they have to behave differently—“or else”—is a power play.

You can certainly let someone know if a certain course of action is causing you to need to pull back from a relationship, and request that they behave differently. But in healthy relationships, you should never threaten someone. If you feel the need to resort to ultimatums, that’s a red flag. It’s a symptom of deeper incompatibilities, codependency issues, and communication problems that need attention and healing. If this is you, therapy is a really good place to explore and heal these relational patterns.

It’s important to understand what true boundaries are. When we mistake them for pseudo-boundaries, requests, and ultimatums, we end up believing we are advocating for ourselves when we're actually behaving in ways that are passive, entitled, manipulative, or controlling. When we understand boundaries are actions—not words, entitlements, or threats—we can begin to feel completely empowered and no longer have to rely on other people to change their behavior in order for our needs to be met.

We change the game not by changing other people, but by creating the safety and strength within to let go of power struggles and to take empowered action.

Brooke Sprowl, L.C.S.W., is the author of the book, Why You SHOULD Date Emotionally Unavailable Men: Use Your Relationships to Transform Your Love Life and the founder and clinical director of My LA Therapy, a concierge wellness and therapy center devoted to healing anxiety, trauma, relationships, and depression.

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