The concept of “setting limits” has become part of the popular vocabulary, along with stress and anxiety, but it is often applied incorrectly, to the point that what should be a tool to protect ourselves becomes a weapon of manipulation to try to control the behaviors of others. How to recognize a healthy boundary from attempted manipulation?
What does setting limits really mean?
The concept of limits was popularized in the 1990s by some self-help books focused on helping people establish healthy patterns in their interpersonal relationships, although it is currently experiencing a new golden age thanks to gurus of positive thinking and social networks.
In psychological terms, boundaries are guidelines we establish to maintain healthy habits and relationships, so we can protect our mental balance. In fact, boundaries not only serve to protect us from toxic relationships and defend our assertive rights, setting limits to yourself can also be beneficial as an act of love and respect.
At work, for example, we can establish certain limits that allow us to protect our rest to recharge our batteries and relax, such as avoiding responding to work emails or calls outside of working hours. We can also protect ourselves from a toxic work environment by setting a clear boundary: don’t speak ill of coworkers.
In the area of personal relationships we can set limits to make it clear how we want to be treated. For example, if a person asks us insistently about our love life to the point of making us feel uncomfortable, we can tell them: “I prefer not to talk about my love life” or “It is a private matter that I prefer not to talk about.” In a romantic relationship, a healthy boundary may be asking our partner not to yell during an argument.
We all have the right to communicate what makes us feel bad, convey our expectations and establish certain barriers that protect us from what makes us uncomfortable or harms us, but in this process we must ensure that we do not violate the rights of others because our limits end precisely where the limits of others begin.
When limits become a control attempt
Although the dissemination of some therapeutic concepts is providing more tools to people to take care of their mental health, it is no less true that misinterpretation, inappropriate use or loss of the nuances of these terms can lead to rationalization processes in which some shield themselves to try to control those around them, falling into manipulative or even abusive behavior.
A boundary becomes manipulation when it infringes on the other person’s autonomy or attacks their identity. For example, if a jealous person tells the partner that “His limit in the relationship is that he should not have friendships with other men/women,” he is actually trying to impose a dynamic of submission and control. In those cases, boundaries are used to justify deeply selfish behavior.
In fact, it is not unusual for boundaries to be confused with personal preferences, so that they are used to justify narcissistic motivations that one does not want to recognize. For example, a person who does not go out on Sunday nights because he wants to rest and asks his partner not to do so either, is trying to establish a controlling limit based on his preferences.
Many people try to impose their desires by camouflaging them as limits and may even present them as demands in a way that eliminates all possibility of choice, putting us against a rock and a hard place.
The trap that camouflaged demands for limits set for us
The problem is that it is relatively easy to fall into these manipulative and abusive dynamics, especially if we want to respect the others and there is an emotional bond that prevents us from realizing the manipulation.
In fact, almost all of us have been taught not to cross the boundaries of others, so we can feel guilty when someone tells us that we are not respecting their boundaries. The problem is that in many cases that person could actually be saying that we crossed a line when in reality we just haven’t done what he wanted us to do.
Many of these people hide their preferences and attempts at manipulation behind the therapeutic language of boundaries, which gives them some credibility. As a result, it’s no wonder we feel confused and wonder: is he asking for something fair and reasonable from me or is he trying to control me? Thus we can end up submitting ourselves to what is actually a tool of control and manipulation.
How to set healthy boundaries without vulnerating the rights of others?
Boundaries are often misused because it is so easy to forget the difference between the control we have over our actions and those of others. Of course, both can influence our well-being, but we can only control our decisions.
It must be clarified that healthy limits are a way to protect ourselves. However, setting limits is not about imposing a pattern of behavior or our way of seeing the world, but rather it has more to do with expressing our expectations about the way we would like others to relate to us. Limits are not a tool of control but of protection.
In a couple relationship, for example, we can explain to our partner that the type of relationship he/she has with a particular person makes us feel uncomfortable, but we cannot expect him/her to change his/her way of relating to everyone just to satisfy us. We can ask someone not to post photos of us on social media, but we can’t stop them from posting photos of themselves.
In relationships, boundaries do not take the form of demands or ultimatums, but rather are a back-and-forth dialogue. If the other person is not receptive to this dialogue, we have to make a move: we can decide if we want to continue with the relationship or whether it is better to end it.
Boundaries are not, under any circumstances, a tool to change the behavior of others, restrict their freedom of choice outside of their relationship with us or impose our preferences, but only a way to communicate our expectations that entails a clear action plan to protect ourselves in case our red lines are violated.