Recognise the difference between establishing and communicating clear boundaries, and closing yourself off from others

These days, the media is abuzz with conversation around boundaries, but as the ‘Queen of Boundaries’, more and more often I am noticing a misuse of the term. The problem is that if we use the word ‘boundaries’, or any terminology that originates from psychology jargon, without education and understanding, it can result in people weaponising therapy terms in a way that is not only unhelpful, but means that our conversations become less productive.

Recently, I have heard people say that ‘ghosting’ is a boundary, or ‘swearing at someone to get lost’ is a boundary. What’s important to reinforce is that these are not actual boundaries, because boundaries must come with good communication, so in these examples the absence of communication, or poor communication that involves swearing, is not healthy boundary setting. In fact, it’s a lot closer to putting up walls and pushing people away out of fear of having a difficult conversation.

I’ve even heard people say that they have conveyed their boundary by telling someone to ‘not hurt their feelings’. Again, this is not a boundary. You cannot set a boundary around how you feel. This is subjective and changes from moment to moment. Other people are not mind readers, and so they cannot know what hurts your feelings and what does not. Rather, you need to recognise what your feelings are telling you about what you need, and communicate that.

So, if we’ve ascertained all of these things that aren’t boundaries, you might be wondering what exactly is a good, healthy boundary? The important differentiation is that boundaries are how we teach other people to treat us – what is and isn’t acceptable. It is the line between you and other people, and it is the difference between who you are and who the world wants you to be.

Boundaries between you and others are like a house: inside the house is your life, and the four walls that create the house are your protection from the outside world. There can be a lot of confusion between boundaries and walls, but, using this analogy, a boundary is more like a house because this includes a door and windows that you can open when you’ve decided to let someone in, figuratively and literally. It represents and reflects the fact that you aren’t completely closed off, because you can open the door to let people in – but when you open that door is your choice. You get to decide who comes in, and who has to leave at any moment. It is your house, and you get to decide what behaviour you tolerate inside it. Some people might allow others to wear shoes inside the house, while others don’t like it. It’s your house, they are your boundaries, and you get to decide.

Walls, on the other hand, close you off from the world and prevent intimacy. The purpose of boundaries is to allow for healthier relationships, and enable people to feel vulnerable while also staying safe. Putting walls up can lead to mistrust in a relationship, but boundaries lead to healthier communication.

So, why do we put up walls? Well, for most people, it’s because they’re scared. They are afraid of vulnerability, fearful of having a hard conversation, or scared that setting a boundary will be perceived as being mean, and so think it’ll be easier to cut a relationship off.

It also might stem from misconceptions, where people believe that setting boundaries is mean. It’s important to understand that healthy boundaries in themselves are not mean, but how you communicate them might be. In actuality, people aren’t setting boundaries to hurt you, they are doing it to protect themselves, and more often than not, it is an attempt to save and improve the relationship rather than end it.

If you’re getting to a stage where you feel it is time to end a relationship, ask yourself if the person knows that you are upset. Consider whether you have set a boundary, reinforced it clearly, and given the person an opportunity to change any behaviour that crosses this. If this is the case, and they have continued to ignore your boundary, you would be within your rights to choose to end the relationship. However, it’s vital to give some grace. If your first boundary is your final boundary, you are not allowing room for human error.

Humans make mistakes, and in any interaction or exchange between two humans there can be a risk of being hurt or offended. Instead of having a one strike policy, and judging the people in your life on whether they hurt you, judge them on what they do when you tell them about the hurt created and what their next steps are. How do they amend their behaviour moving forwards? Do they make efforts to respect your boundaries in future?

That’s the key difference between a wall and a boundary. We do not want to be cutting people out of our lives entirely or ending relationships for good when someone makes a mistake, or on their first error, because it also means when you mess up (which is inevitable because you are human!) you will judge yourself more harshly, too!

Love Michelle x

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