How Boundaries Can Be Harmful (if you’re doing it wrong)

The word “boundaries” can be kind of dangerous because people hear the advice that they should implement boundaries so they try it with great intentions, but since they don’t fully understand the concept as a whole, it can sometimes backfire and be counterproductive.

It’s a lot like when folks try to start eating healthy and they buy things that say “healthy” on the label. Most health/nutrition experts will tell you to steer clear of something that says “healthy” on it. (Zero calorie soda or gluten free pretzels probably aren’t doing you any health favors.)

So let’s take a look at boundaries so that you’re not trying to improve things but accidentally creating a counter-pressure.

Starting at the heart of the word, a boundary simply means a line between two different things… a delineation… the availability of contrast.

What does this mean for human functioning?

The truest, purest definition of boundaries for our purposes is the line where one person ends and another person begins. So if there’s Person A and Person B, a boundary is what separates the one person from the other. Let’s call this an “I / Thou” boundary. The boundary is the “/”.

Think of it like territory. If you’re driving and someone cuts over into your lane, your boundary has been violated. If you’re at home and someone (uninvitedly) comes onto your property, your boundary has been violated.

Psychologically, boundaries also imply territory. Your territory is your “I.” If someone crosses into your “I,” your boundary has been violated.

Therefore, in this sense, a boundary violation is psychological violence. Not good!

So here’s how people get tripped up:

Sometimes people think of a boundary as a “yes / no” boundary rather than a “Person A / Person B” or “I / Thou” boundary. They think of it as a line between yes and no instead of a line between person and person. If you do this, you’re running the risk of actually violating boundaries and being violent while thinking you’re implementing good boundaries. Aahh!

For example, “yes, I will allow you to do something,” or “no, I will not allow you to do something,” is grossly incorrect. That’s not boundaries. That’s violence and tyranny. That will hurt all of your relationships.

It could still work to think of a boundary as a “yes / no” boundary as long as you’re holding true to the more general and pure definition of “I / thou.” For example, “yes, I will do this.” Or, “no, I will not do that.” Even though it’s a yes / no boundary, it’s still healthy (and effective) because you’ve stayed on your side of the I / thou boundary. You are moving your own “I.”

I hope that’s helpful. It’s a bummer when people try and do healthy things but it accidentally moves things backwards and creates a counter-pressure only because the understanding isn’t complete.

About Kip Watkins, MSEd, NCC, LPC

Kip is a Nationally Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He earned his Bachelor's Degree from Saint Vincent College and his Master's Degree from Duquesne University. Passionate about existential and systemic modes of therapy, he completed the post-graduate program at the Gestalt Institute of Pittsburgh. He deeply enjoys his work with his clients and he also loves helping other clinicians have more meaning and joy in their work.