Boundaries Are Not a Form of Control

There are an alarming number of “mental health gurus” out there today who seem not to know or understand much about mental health. In general, I find these gurus to be harmless. You can tell their intentions are good; they genuinely want to help people. Sometimes, they just happen to get it wrong. And when they do, they generally respond well, taking the opportunity to learn and grow.

But there is a type of self-proclaimed mental health guru out there who I think is genuinely dangerous. They have acquired just enough therapy lingo to sound confident and knowledgeable. And if you’re not very knowledgeable about the topics they cover, you might find them credible and trustworthy. However, to those who are even the slightest bit acquainted with mental health and therapy topics, it is clear that these “gurus” don’t know much at all about the things they are talking about. At best, they are confidently wrong. At worst, they are deliberately so.

One of the fastest ways to identify these types of gurus is to pay attention to how they talk about boundaries.

Boundaries are how we establish trust, respect, and safety in relationships. At their core, boundaries are a tool for keeping our relationships safe. When we set boundaries with others, we are telling them what we need to feel safe and happy in our relationships, and inviting them to provide those things for us. Usually, boundaries are accompanied by if/then statements that let people know how we will respond if our boundaries are not respected.

I am only interested in dating if we will be exclusive. If you decide to date other people, I will have to end our relationship.

I am seeking sobriety and can’t be around alcohol. If you invite me over and there is drinking there, I won’t be able to come.

Importantly, setting boundaries is never about controlling other people. It’s about letting them know where you stand, giving them an opportunity to make their own decisions, and informing them of how you will respond based on the decisions they make. They are not a means of control.

But there is a concerning number of “gurus” out there who portray boundaries exactly that way. To some extent, I understand there being some confusion on this point. “Treat me this way or there will be xyz consequences” does sound like a bit of an ultimatum when you think about it. The difference, though, between boundaries and ultimatums, is that boundaries preserve the other person’s autonomy and ultimatums do not.

Ultimatums are rooted in control. Boundaries are rooted in freedom.

Mental health “gurus” who present boundaries as a means for controlling other people are setting their audience up for frustrating and disappointing relationships. Most likely, they have difficult interpersonal relationships themselves. They demonstrate through their discourse about boundaries that they perceive them as a way to strong-arm other people into doing what they want. They aim to give the illusion of choice, while actively working to take that choice away. We as individuals have a hard time standing up for what we want or need when we are under duress. When a boundary is presented as a threat of consequences rather than an invitation to safety in the relationship, many people will acquiesce to the threat. And that is not how boundaries are supposed to work.

Stay away from folks who depict boundaries this way.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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