Misconceptions and Facts About Healthy Boundaries

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Scott Brassart

In my previous post to this site, I introduced the concept of healthy interpersonal boundaries and why they are so important, citing two primary reasons:

  1. They protect us from other people.
  2. They protect other people from us.

That may seem simplistic as you read it here. In fact, I hope it does. But this does not mean there are not countless misconceptions about what healthy boundaries look like, how to implement healthy boundaries, and what healthy boundaries achieve. Presenting facts about healthy boundaries while also addressing the misconceptions people have about healthy boundaries is the focus of this week’s post. Next week we will focus on the types of interpersonal boundaries that exist, and areas of life in which we need to set such boundaries.

  • Misconception: Healthy boundaries are how we control the behavior of other people.
  • Fact: Healthy boundaries are about controlling our own behavior. So, rather than telling another person to behave in a certain way (or to stop behaving in a certain way), we simply let them know that a behavior of theirs upsets us and, in the future, if/when they engage in that behavior, we will respond to that in a self-protective way. “When you yell at me and blame me for your choices, it causes me to feel ashamed, as if I am causing your behavior – even though I know intellectually that your choices are your own, not mine. So, in the future when this happens, I will disengage from the conversation and ask you to leave the premises for at least an hour so I can seek the emotional support I need.”
  • Misconception: Healthy boundaries are about keeping unsafe people out of our lives.
  • Fact: Healthy boundaries are not about keeping people out, they’re about letting people in safely. If other people behave in ways that are safe for me, I can choose to let them in. If other people behave in ways that are not safe for me, I can choose to keep them out. The behavior of others belongs to them. My choice to interact with them (or not) belongs to me. “I feel unsafe when you are active in your addiction. If I think that you have been drinking or using, I will not let you in my house. When you are sober, however, I enjoy your company and am happy to see you.”
  • Misconception: Boundaries limit our thinking and behavior.
  • Fact: Healthy boundaries are meant to protect each person’s sense of reality, each person’s physical self, each person’s thinking and reasoning (how each person gives meaning to incoming data), each person’s feelings and emotions, each person’s choice of actions and reactions. With healthy boundaries, each person is free to think, feel, believe, and act as he or she chooses. There is full freedom of choice. That said, one of the choices I might make is to step away, either temporarily or permanently, from a person who behaves in ways that violate my boundaries. “I understand and respect your desire to vote for that person. I hope you can understand and respect my desire to vote differently. In the meantime, I find your politically-oriented posts on Facebook offensive, so I’m going to block our interaction on that venue.

At the end of the day, healthy boundaries facilitate relationship trust. As Brené Brown states, “I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you are clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.” If we fail to set and uphold healthy boundaries at our end, or we fail to respect the healthy boundaries set by those around us, we (and they) end up feeling used and mistreated, and relationship trust and vulnerability disappear. And with that, emotional connection and intimacy also disappear.

To truly connect with others, especially partners and loved ones, in an emotionally intimate way, we must have healthy interpersonal boundaries. Without such boundaries, we will find ourselves pushing others away even as we want to pull them closer.

As you have likely discerned from last week’s and this week’s posts, boundaries are a huge topic that merits extensive discussion. In next week’s post I will present information about various types of interpersonal boundaries and the areas of life in which we need to have them. For more information about boundaries, check out this excellent webinar on boundaries featuring therapist Matt Wheeler.