I am so proud of us — ALL of us, but especially us women — who are learning how to stop people-pleasing and start setting healthy boundaries. Our culture perpetuates the idea that women in particular should be vessels for everyone else’s needs, carrying them around as though it is our sacred duty to take care of them. There isn’t much incentive to having boundaries, as it usually results in us being called selfish or graceless. So, the fact that we are finally stepping into our power and setting boundaries, speaking our needs, and focusing on our own well-being is huge.
But there is something I need all of us to vigilant about — and now I’m speaking to the women and the men. There is a toxic side of boundary culture that is leading all of us into what I fear is unhealthy and unsatisfying relationships with others. This type of boundary mentality preaches, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, that our needs come first and there is really no room for compromise. It promotes a “me first, me always” mindset that, in my opinion, doesn’t work for those of us who want to thrive in a society that is rooted in relationships.
Before I get started, let me make one thing clear — this is not what the experts on relationships and boundary setting teach. Therapists and counselors aren’t the ones peddling these ideas. It is mainly online influencers with no training or credentials who are responsible for this type of messaging. And that matters. I need us all to understand that this is not that is intended when we talk about boundaries. So, let’s first talk about what these online “boundary gurus” tell us, and then counter those ideas with what true, responsible, healthy boundary-setting looks like.
Unhealthy, “me first” boundary-setting looks like:
I am not responsible for your feelings: Denying responsibility for your actions by implying that others just aren’t handling their emotions well.
I’m just being honest: Using this phrase to justify hurtful or blunt comments that lack empathy or tact.
I don’t owe you an explanation: Using this statement to avoid accountability or open communication in a relationship.
You’re too sensitive: Dismissing someone’s feelings or emotions as invalid or overreacting.
I need my space: Using this as an excuse to withdraw or avoid responsibilities in relationships without communicating the need for space effectively.
That’s not my problem: Avoiding responsibility and failing to offer assistance or empathy when needed.
Now, listen. There might be a time and a place for these kind of boundaries. In cases when you’ve stated your boundaries clearly and someone continues to deny or disrespect them, it might be necessary to employ to these types of boundaries. These are your last resort boundaries — the ones you use with people who you’ve already decided are too intrusive, manipulative, or toxic to have a place in your life.
But if you try these tactics with the people you care about, the people you want to stay in relationship with, they are going to perceive you as an ass hole. And people don’t like being in relationships with ass holes.
Being in relationships with others requires two things: (1) a firm commitment to protecting our peace and taking care of our needs, and (2) an equally firm commitment to maintaining respect, dignity, and mutual regard for the relationship. This means that we must learn to balance what is good for ourselves with what is good for the relationship — if and only if we are interested in maintaining that relationship. This is the only way for our relationships to remain healthy, secure, and satisfying. If we can’t commit to these two things, our relationships will be riddled with strife. And, eventually, we will find ourselves all alone.
So, how do we set healthy boundaries that protect our peace and also the quality of the relationship?
Instead of “I am not responsible for your feelings,” say:
“I understand that you are feeling upset, and I want to support you as best I can. However, I need to prioritize my emotional well-being too. Let’s talk about how we can navigate this together and find a solution that works for both of us.” This signals that you are willing to take accountability for what you may have done to hurt the other person, while still asserting that your feelings and needs matter, too.
Instead of “I’m just being honest,” say:
“I believe in open and honest communication, and I want to share my thoughts with you. Please know that my intention is not to hurt you, but rather to be transparent and genuine in our interactions.” Don’t say this unless you mean it. When you say this to someone, you are committing to being honest without being cruel or disrespectful.
Instead of “I don’t owe you an explanation,” say:
“I understand that you want more details, but I value my privacy. I will always be open and transparent with you, but I’m happy with my choices and I’m not looking for feedback at this time.” This demonstrates that you are not being intentionally closed off, but rather, don’t wish to have your decisions put under a microscope.
Instead of “you’re too sensitive,” say:
“I can see that certain situations impact you deeply, and I want to be mindful of that. Let’s work together to find ways to support each other’s emotions.” By acknowledging the other person’s feelings, you show them that you care. Remember that every person’s feelings are real and valid, even if you disagree with how they arrived at those feelings. It is important to show them that.
Instead of “I need my space,” say:
“I am not in a good place emotionally to have this conversation right now. Our relationship matters to me, and I’d like to talk about this when I’m in a more regulated state of mind.” Communicating this way establishes your need for space without making others feel unvalued or discarded.
Instead of “that’s not my problem,” say:
“I wish I could help, but this is not something I’m able to assist you with right now. Is there any other way I can support you or be there for you?” This demonstrates that you care about the person’s needs and that you are committed to offering support, but that you can’t help with the specific problem at hand.
Learning to communicate our boundaries in ways that nurture healthy and secure relationships will completely transform our lives. We enable ourselves to communicate our needs and expectations without harming our relationships with others. Furthermore, we signal to others that we are safe people to be in relationship with. Most importantly, we don’t come across as ass holes.
Toxic boundary culture might have its time and place, but it is not a reflection of what the professionals mean when they walk about setting boundaries. So, for the sake of your peace and your relationships, keep that in mind when consuming content from online ‘boundary gurus.” Setting healthy boundaries with the people we want to stay in relationship with means prioritizing ourselves and the relationship. This is how we protect our peace and promote harmony with the people who matter to us.
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.