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Letters from your Therapist: The Other Side of Boundaries

Dear X,

A few weeks ago, you came into your session with so much pain and anger over the relationship with your sister. You let me know how she had violated your trust, and once again taken advantage of your kindness. In our session I could see how hurt and lost you seemed, wanting this relationship with your sister to be the friendship it once was and also feeling the sting of its toxicity. It seemed you were also upset with who you become in the relationship; I recall you berating yourself for giving into her demands and getting tangled up in fruitless arguments. I found myself wondering why this relationship was so hard to let go of, and how it could survive without destroying you in the process.

Thus, we began to discuss the concept of boundaries, and how creating space between you and your sister might create a healthier relationship, and perhaps a better relationship with yourself as well. As of late “boundaries” seems to have become one of everyone’s favorite buzz words, along with “self-care” and “imposter syndrome”. I often read in pop psychology how setting boundaries between yourself and others is the answer to emotionally draining relationships and taking care of your mental health. I don’t disagree, except, the concept when implementing it is a little heavier than the two-minute read in Psychology Today. This was ever evident in our last session.

You came in this past week frustrated and distraught about your sister’s response to your boundaries. You explained “I let her know that I was uncomfortable loaning her money, and that I didn’t want money to be a part of our relationship”. “She became outraged and accused me of being judgmental and selfish”. You let me know how horrible you felt about yourself and how the words she lashed at you left a lingering pain of self-doubt; it seemed you were second guessing your decision. It was at this point in the session that I realized we had missed a step in your endeavor to create parameters within the relationship, we didn’t discuss tolerating your sister’s response.

The part that gets left out when discussing boundaries is that the person on the other side of the “line” isn’t typically very excited about what is being communicated. There is a tendency for defensiveness or accusations, perhaps even manipulation for you to retreat. This can create guilt or self-doubt: “am I selfish?” or “maybe I’m not being compassionate enough”. When setting boundaries, you must be prepared that the other party may not be very happy about your new position in the relationship and lashing out is a real possibility. That doesn’t mean that you should retreat or concede. Quite the contrary, the reaction is a red flag that boundaries are a real need in the relationship.

I suggested you hold your stance despite your sister’s poor reaction. That while the words she communicated were hurtful, they were not a reflection of your character. The words were simply her own discomfort coming to the surface and she was doing what she does best – overstepping. You need to know that valuing yourself helps to create healthy relationship, and that includes saying “no” when necessary. You need to realize that people that value you will respect your boundaries and find ways to be in a relationship with you that doesn’t involve manipulation or disrespect. I want to assure you that if someone is pushing on your boundaries, they probably need them more than you realize.

My hope for you is that you can take this experience and recognize your value. My hope for you is to realize that people tend to avoid change and will do their best to pull you back into their vortex. My hope is that you see your boundaries as a symbol of your self-worth, and that despite the initial reaction from your sister it is a path to healthier relationships.

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