WHY BOUNDARIES ARE MISUNDERSTOOD
Let’s talk boundaries. Again. And then like 10 more times after that. Because boundaries deserve a lot of discussion and also, I’m hearing a lot of things on social media about boundaries, and a lot of it is trash. Hear me out.
Boundaries are a courtesy we extend each other.
You’ve heard me say this before. I’ve had this little sentence in my therapist tool kit for close to 20 years. This outlook on boundaries, which I like to conceptualize as one free from value judgment came to be during my years as a college mental health counselor. Working with kids, both young and old encourages a constant wide focus and reframing of psychological concepts. For some the mental gymnastics of constant reframe can be thorny, but I always liked the task of taking things that many view as fixed and flipping them on their head as more inclusive, temporary, and not so unusual. If there is one thing we all have in common, it's psychology, so let’s start talking about it that way. We are all wonderfully weird. Every single one of us.
Children who present with mental health concerns feel extremely vulnerable. They are kids after all, even older teens. And only being that far into life, for most kids, means they have not had to stare down the multitude of health issues that we have passed through and accumulated as we age. Not feeling right, or normal, or healthy, is relatively new. And sometimes new is scary. In order to enter the work of feeling better and managing their symptoms, kids need a reframe and for their problems to be contextualized as impermanent. I kind of think the same goes for adults too.
One of the reasons I encourage clinicians in training to seek experiences with acute populations or those in inpatient or outpatient services is because it changes the way we think and speak to issues that without scientific reason become tagged as being only challenging or all bad. And this very limited perspective is a huge fucking faslehood. And a tragedy. I’m not sure how we as professionals fall into this mode of thinking. Psychologists are wholehearted believers in change after all, we couldn’t do the work if we didn't deeply believe that people were capable of change. So why does psychology get so exclusive and incongruent when it comes to certain topics? I’m not sure. But my gut tells me it is because we as clinicians have not spent enough time around people deeply struggling with these issues, or we have forgotten the humanity of them and focused on the diagnosis. Both could be true.
Boundaries unfortunately fall into this category as something that has been considered as all good or all bad. You are good if you create boundaries, but bad if you push on them. The same can be said for perfectionism, comparison, envy, codependency, and like a million other pop buzzwords. Ew, get rid of those and hurry up about it. We are shamed and made to feel these traits are only bad. And the truth is there is no only bad or only good. But the possibility of both living side by side often makes us scared. We like to keep complex grey area concepts separate sometimes. Especially during times of stress, trauma, and grief, when our overall capacity for abstract thought is diminished.
Side note and this concern deserves an entire other episode, but here’s a small taste. When we completely toss out a trait as being all bad, that’s called splitting. And splitting causes an impared ability to hold the larger perspective. No behavior or emotion happens in a vacuum. Having a wide focus and broad perspective of behavior and viewing concerns as a continuum is kind of what psychology and mental health is all about. Deciding to stop being something or completely throwing out a behavior or a trait simply doesn’t work. You’ve seen these tidy lists on the gram. What I’m no longer doing in 2022. What I’m quitting in 2022. What I’m stopping in 2022. And yes, saying it is a start, but that does not make it so. Understanding the behavior, seeing how it served you, acknowledging why it no longer does and admitting that the road to improvement also still includes the behavior every now and again is what doing the work actually is. The work is a process. Plus, what happens when we realize we simply cannot stop just because we say so? We lose hope. And that’s not what psychology and mental health is about. Psychology is intrinsically about hope. And that hope is based on the science that we know people can change. And we know what it takes to get there. And it’s a PROCESS. All caps.
When it comes to boundaries we’ve decided unanimously that creating boundaries is good, but it’s bad is to push on boundaries or have leaky boundaries. Only psychologically and emotionally immature people are boundary pushers, right? At least that’s the rhetoric I hear spewed from some of my very famous and well followed expert colleagues.
And this perspective just plain sucks. And also, it’s wrong and scientifically unfounded. This perspective is not inclusive, is totally unfriendly, perpetuates shame and is one of the reasons why the people who so desperately need help and the ones we want to make help the most accessible to, do not want to come forward and receive that same mental health help. If acknowledgement is to heal and people who push on boundaries are shamed and categorized as being bad or lacking emotional maturity, why would boundary concerns and challenges want to be acknowledged?
And this is where so much blame lies on the profession. Psychology is unfriendly precisely because we have made it that way.
The truth about boundaries is quite simple. When it comes to boundaries we all play all the roles. We can all set a boundary, create boundaries and sooner or later in life, we have leaky boundaries or push on someone else's boundary in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, hurried, confused, or stressed.
And side note, let me be clear, I am not saying that all of us are capable of pushing on boundaries that have to do with body autonomy, consent and abuse. Those are crimes. The boundary pushing I’m talking about is when your sister arrives unannounced at your door with her three feral cats expecting you to watch them last minute while she goes to Vegas.
If we are to villainize each other when we push on boundaries or when we have leaky boundaries and over share, how can we expect each other to be open to help. Would you seek help for something that was deemed to only belong to a certain lesser enlightened mind? Probably not. And boundaries have little to do with emotional maturity, insight, or enlightenment. If experts are out there suggesting that people who push on boundaries are less emotionally mature, then where does that leave us? Statements like this conveniently leave out the full picture and that is when it comes to boundaries none of us are immune from playing a role that can present as challenging.
Furthermore, certain diagnoses and mental health concerns come with boundary challenges. Are we to label someone experiencing a psychotic break as being emotionally immature, as having poor boundaries and a bad person because they were pushing on boundaries during a crisis? That’s just plain cruel and short sighted. Crisis is not a fixed state. But those are the kinds of things being communicated by professionals on social media.
And I’m over it.
What I want you to know about boundaries is this. Create them, have them. Stand firm in your boundaries. But also listen. Do not assume just because you are doing the work on boundaries that you are immune from challenging someone else's. Let’s drop the rhetoric of boundary pushers as lacking, being emotionally immature or less than. Stop thinking of boundary work as being fixed. There’s no masters degree in boundaries. If there were trust me psychologists would have it, but we fuck up too. Everyone out there has had a bad day and when we are not at our best, we have the capacity to be super leaky with our boundaries and push on other’s boundaries. It happens no matter how evolved we think we are.
And most importantly, drop the shame. If we are to truly honor a belief that we are capable of change, then the act of acknowledgement has to be welcome. And the act of change goes deeper than just a belief. Psychology is a science and lots of data exists on how treatment helps people change. The fact is, the possibility for change belongs to every single one of us, not a select few. We are all wonderfully weird and we are all capable of change. Even those of us who do not choose it.
And for the clinicians out there, we are asking our patients, clients, and audience to do the work and do better. So let’s do better too. Your words matter. We got into the line of work because we believe in change. We want change, no matter how hard, to be inviting. And most importantly we do not want stigma to get in the way of taking the first step toward change. Remember that. I’ll do the same.
Thank you for being here.
Listen to this episode of JOY IS NOW here.