“Boundaries are everywhere,” according to Jan Black, author of Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life. Think crosswalks, office hours, traffic zones and shoplifting policies, she said. We understand that such parameters are vital for protecting us.
Yet when it comes to setting personal boundaries, myths abound. We mistakenly assume everything from creating limits is selfish to real love is boundary-free.
Below, experts reveal the truths behind the biggest myths about boundaries.
1. Myth: Boundaries push people away.
Fact: Boundaries are actually key for close relationships, according to Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, a relationship expert and author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. “Boundaries help you distinguish yourself from others and ironically, that allows you to choose to be closer to others.”
She cited American psychiatrist Murray Bowen, who noted that individuals with a healthy differentiation of self understand that they’re distinct from those around them. In other words, “they have their own feelings, thoughts, needs and experiences,” Hanks said. And they’re able to remain truly connected to others without losing their sense of self, she said.
2. Myth: Love has no boundaries.
Fact: “In many families and friendship circles, the statement ‘I love you’ is equated with ‘I’ll do anything you ask at any time,’” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif.
He gave the following examples: not exercising because someone wants to grab lunch; divulging your deep secrets to someone who might reveal them; giving money you were saving for something important; letting someone abuse you because they need to let off steam.
“In the name of love, many people end up giving in to demands that cause damage, build resentment, and may eventually destroy the relationship.”
Sometimes the most loving gesture is to say no. For instance, let’s say your teen has been playing videos all day. When you ask him to fold his clothes, he asks if you can do it instead. “It’s better for you, him, and the relationship to say no,” Howes said.
In another example, your friend invites you to a dinner party, but you really don’t want to go. It’s much better to decline and possibly disappoint her then to show up and be a grouch, he said.
Or you may have a more serious problem with a sibling who’s abusing drugs, refuses to go to rehab and wants to live with you while continuing her behavior.
“It’s more loving to keep the boundary, say no, and leave her with the choice of rehab versus living on the street. This is tough love at its toughest, but the healthier choice overall.”
3. Myth: Boundaries are selfish.
Fact: “You’ll help a lot more people when you’re energized than when you’re depleted, resentful, and over-committed,” said Howes, also author of the blog In Therapy.
Saying yes feels good in the moment. But when you’re not able to keep your commitment – maybe you’re stretched too thin – you’ll disappoint others, anyway, he said.
“Saying no might feel disappointing in the moment, but in the long run you’ll help more people more effectively and with a clear conscience.”
Plus, boundaries are actually helpful for others. They provide people with “a clearer understanding of who we are, what matters to us, and how we operate,” Black said.
4. Myth: Setting boundaries requires you to be mean.
Fact: Similarly, people misperceive setting boundaries as a punishment. This myth may originate from people with weak boundaries getting fed up at being taken advantage of or not being heard, and going to the extreme, “setting boundaries out of rage instead of out of a place of emotional centeredness,” said Hanks, who also pens the Psych Central blog Private Practice Toolbox.
However, boundaries don’t require intense reactions, she said. In fact, sometimes the strongest boundaries don’t even require words. Instead, you shift your own behavior, such as leaving a situation or hanging up the phone, she said.
5. Myth: Boundaries require too much time.
Fact: Actually, it’s the opposite. A life without boundaries drains your time, energy and emotions, Black said. “The lines we draw around our bodies, relationships, belongings, feelings, beliefs [and] plans give us the time, safety, resources and focus to build the beautiful and caring lives and world we are here to create.”
As she said, “Do we want to spend our time cleaning up messes or building strong lives?”