Boundaries are a Hot Topic. But What are Boundaries, Really?
In the times before 2020, mental health topics were starting to gain traction with the rise of social media. After 2020, with so many people researching things online, and developing videos during covid, several mental health terms started trending. The concept of putting up and maintaining boundaries quickly became popular. As therapists, we are so grateful and happy to see that mental health concepts are becoming more accepted! However, there is also a downside when topics are being misinterpreted or used in conflict management in a way that is not so healthy.
A common issue we see in therapy with the rise of enforcing boundaries, is that boundaries are often confused with ultimatums. Oftentimes also, “boundary setting” can be done improperly and excessively, leading people to cut off connections that could have been repaired with proper communication attempts.
For the purpose of clarity, we will review more about what boundaries are, and what they can look like in a conversation. Boundaries are essentially limitations that are placed around OUR OWN life. Examples of healthy boundaries can look like this:
“It is okay for me to say NO”
“It is okay if others are upset”
“I am only looking for serious relationships at this stage of my life”
“This is not a priority for me right now.”
“This is my current availability. I cannot provide what you need outside those hours”
Sometimes boundaries are confused for and used interchangeably for ultimatums. Ultimatums are more about exerting control over someone else’s behaviors. Ultimatums can sound like:
“If you keep drinking alcohol, then I am done with this marriage.”
“If you don’t drop that friend, then you can forget about our plans.”
“If you don’t step up, then I am out of here.”
Do you notice and feel the difference between these concepts? Boundaries are meant to protect ourselves. If we see that we are in situations where there is little flexibility or room for change, then we can enforce a boundary. We can make a choice as to how far we will allow a situation to go. Boundaries are about genuinely protecting our physical, mental, and emotional space. Others may not like it when we place boundaries, but the boundary is not meant to coerce or control anyone else. It is simply a way of communicating a request for respect on the limits we are placing.
Ultimatums are meant to control someone else’s actions. They are easy to mistake for boundaries because part of the message during an ultimatum discussion is a communication of standards and expectations. Ultimatums absolutely have a proper time and place in a conversation. Especially when standards need to be explicitly stated so that the other person knows what to expect from us. However, ultimatums can also be tricky because they can easily become attempts to control others with no follow through. You might ask, when is it appropriate to use an ultimatum? Ultimatums are best used when describing situations that are dangerous, disrespectful, or when the standards and the stakes are high. They are not to be used lightly. You will also be taken more seriously and respected more if you use ultimatums when appropriate rather than using them loosely.
However, if you do feel the need to protect yourself and place some limits, without wanting to enforce standards on someone else, then boundaries are the way to go! It is not always easy to maintain boundaries, however it can make a world of difference when you live an authentic life, while not worrying about how others view your decisions and placement of limits.