When I first became a therapist, my parents were very proud of me and would tell anyone who would listen about their daughter’s career. By some type of coincidence, my dad was at an event where a therapist spoke about something counseling related. My dad was very excited to talk to this therapist afterwards and share that his daughter is also a therapist. That evening, when my dad called to tell me this story, he said: “This therapist sounded like you, I could tell that you were both in the same field.” When I asked what he meant by this, he replied with: “You both use therapy words like ‘boundaries’”.
If you are a client of mine, you have probably heard this story before. I often tell this story not only for the fact that it makes me laugh, but also because it is true that therapists and people who have been in therapy often use certain vernacular. Words that I can think of that I did not use often prior to becoming a therapist include: validation, projection, affirmation, and of course, boundaries.
So why is “boundaries” such a popular therapy word? Why are boundaries important? When do you set boundaries? How do boundaries work? Does setting boundaries mean that you’re mean or cruel? These are questions that I get asked often, and I think they are all very legitimate. Let’s go through them:
1) Why are boundaries important?
“Self care” is such a buzz phrase these days and it is a very important skill to have. However, when self care is discussed, it is most often discussed in terms of doing yoga, taking time for oneself, or going to the spa. The internal methods of self care are often overlooked. Believe it or not, setting boundaries is an important form of self care. Have you ever said “yes” to going out with a friend when all you really wanted to do is stay at home in pajamas? Have you ever said “yes” to doing something for someone else when you really did not have the time or energy to help? Saying “yes”, when you feel like you should say “no”, can lead to stress, burnout, and other negative feelings. Taking care of yourself and learning to set boundaries when appropriate can help us to be happy and healthy!
Boundaries are also important because they keep relationships healthy. Always saying “yes” to friends, significant others, or family members, can sometimes result in resentment or people taking advantage. When both parties in a relationship are able to say “no” when needed and know when to say “yes”, it can help both people feel comfortable in that relationship.
2) When do you set boundaries?
Boundaries are very personal and vary from person to person. Just as everyone has a different “personal bubble” of how close they like to physically be with others, everyone has different “emotional bubbles”. A good rule of knowing when to set a boundary for yourself (now this will take some self reflection) is when you’re feeling any type of discomfort. If someone asked me to help bury a body, I would immediately recognize discomfort, say no and call the police. It gets trickier to recognize that discomfort when it’s smaller things such as: a boss asking me to do extra work that is not in my scope of practice, or a friend asking me to rearrange my schedule to meet their needs. I encourage you to think about what your emotional boundary limit is to help recognize scenarios in your life where establishing boundaries might be necessary.
3) How do you set boundaries?
Setting boundaries is very difficult for mostly everyone. As a society, we have been taught that saying no is rude, and that we need to be a people pleaser. A lot of us (including myself) are also perfectionists and want to do everything well. This can lead us to take on more than we can handle and ignore emotional boundaries, so as not to disappoint those around us. Even though setting boundaries can be difficult, there is an easy way to do it. All you have to do is say “No”. It’s amazing when we start to do this how hard saying no actually is! I am not sure who initially said this, but it is so important to remember that “No. Is a full sentence.”
4) Does setting boundaries mean that you are rude?
With the discomfort of boundaries, people often feel like they are being rude or mean if they say “no” to something that they have said “yes” to in the past. When setting boundaries it is of course important to keep our manners and be respectful to others, but as humans, we have a right to say no. We have a right to say when something is making us uncomfortable. It is necessary for our self care to be mindful of our personal and emotional space through boundary setting.
I want to challenge you to try setting a boundary to see how it feels! It may be uncomfortable at first, but it will result in some positive changes in your life!
Maryellen Dance, LMHC is a modern therapist who holds a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling from Medaille College. She provides support for those experiencing anxiety, depression, life role transitions and self-esteem conflicts. She focuses on providing practical skills using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and often uses mindfulness techniques in sessions.