Let’s Change How We Talk About Boundaries

According to relational-cultural theory, boundaries don’t have to be a rigid line of separateness — they can be a tool of connection and mutuality

Lincoln Hill, PhD

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Everywhere you look online it seems that people are talking about boundaries. A quick search through the 1 million Instagram posts tagged with the term highlights an assortment of content with the words no, stop, and enforce somewhere in the image or the caption. From my non-scientific research aka three minutes of scrolling through the most recent images and captions, I gather that the majority of these posts typically translate into some variation of “how to say no and mean it” or “how to learn how to prioritize yourself and your needs.”

If boundaries are supposed to make our lives easier, our relationships more reciprocal, and our burdens lighter, why does this perspective on boundaries leave such a sour taste in some of our mouths?

The reality is that setting and maintaining healthy boundaries can be a difficult process and often elicits a variety of complex and mixed emotions — especially when the traditional boundary setting process is associated with negative language viewing separateness as the goal while prioritizing the self.

While I am certainly an advocate for healthy boundaries and communication, my personal connection to boundaries doesn’t include language like stop, no, or don’t. In fact, my approach to boundaries is more about advocating for the types of relationships I want and is bursting with positive language.

Relational-cultural theory, an approach to psychology that highlights the value of social justice, relationships, and connection, takes a different attitude to the traditional view of boundaries. It stresses that boundaries don’t have to be a rigid line of separation meant to keep others out. Conversely, boundaries are an invitation — “a place of meeting and exchange” with others, according to relational-cultural theorist Judith V Jordan, PhD. Boundaries can be an opportunity to say yes on your terms, while honoring your needs and the needs of those you’re in relationships with. Utilizing this perspective offers a framework that highlights mutual empowerment and growth and emphasizes sharing power with others rather than over others.

Rather than view boundaries as solely a practice in saying no or individuating yourself from others, I much prefer the relational-cultural perspective that highlights boundaries as a tool for relational growth and respect. These days, I prefer conceptualizing boundaries as an opportunity to acknowledge my limitations and, from this self-knowledge, articulate where and how I’m able to meet others.

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Lincoln Hill, PhD

Black woman, mental health counselor, researcher, wellness consultant, PhD in counseling psychology, and Beyoncé stan. IG: black_and_woman_IG