Vivian feels frustrated that her friend, Sue, constantly offers unsolicited advice about how she parents her children. However, she’s afraid of making Sue mad, so she doesn’t say anything. She tells herself it’s better to keep the peace in the relationship than risk offending her friend.
John is fearful about trusting anyone and refuses to open up about his past hurts to his friends or family. Though he feels isolated, he tells himself, “Better to be alone than risk being vulnerable.”
Jackie feels hurt that her family seems critical of her life choices. She cancels on the upcoming holiday dinner without giving a reason. “That’ll teach them!” she says to herself.
What do each of these stories have in common? They each illustrate a type of unhealthy boundary.
Typically, I see unhealthy boundaries show up in three different ways:
1. Boundaries are too flexible.
You might think of someone as having unhealthy boundaries if they let people walk all over them or struggle with saying “No.” When your boundaries are too flexible, you might:
- Struggle to speak up honestly about your perspective.
- Deny or hide legitimate needs or preferences.
- Over-extend yourself for other people in a way that harms your own physical or emotional health.
This category is the most common understanding of what is meant by “unhealthy boundaries.”
2. Boundaries are too rigid.
Boundaries can also be unhealthy at the other extreme—they can be too rigid. Someone can stay so closed off from other people that they never risk the “good messy” of letting other people in. They build a brick wall around their emotions, their spirituality, or even their priorities in such a way that no one can really get in. In this case, the person might be using boundaries in an unhealthy way to:
- Avoid hard but necessary conversations.
- Share vulnerabilities in a healthy way with another person.
- Engage in the “good messy” of two-way relationships.
This type of unhealthy boundary isn’t talked about as much, but it can be just as harmful as boundaries that are too flexible.
3. Boundaries are weaponized.
There is a third way that boundaries become unhealthy. This is when they are used as a weapon. For example, someone might use a “boundary” in an attempt to:
- Control your behavior.
- Punish you.
- Manipulate you.
Instead of communicating directly about the issue or taking action to protect themselves, this person tries to get you to change. They might withhold something or they might give you the “silent treatment.” No matter what strategy they use, their goal is to get something from you. Notice the difference between the following two examples:
Healthy Boundary: “I am removing myself from this unhealthy situation.”
Weaponized Boundary: “I’ll leave you if you don’t do exactly what I ask.”
Healthy boundaries aren’t about changing someone else’s behavior. They are about protecting your own emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
Questions to Ask Yourself
We all feel frustrated or hurt by other people’s behaviors from time to time. Relationships are messy. And there is no “one-size-fits-all” for how to go about addressing these tricky situations. We are all a work in progress when it comes to learning how to set healthy boundaries.
If you feel hurt or angry, acknowledge it honestly to yourself and to God first. Get curious about the pain that you feel; don’t shove it aside. Then determine the brave next step to take. Here are some questions to ask yourself when it comes to implementing boundaries.
1. If your boundaries are too flexible:
- What emotions do you notice that keep you from speaking up about what you need or desire? (e.g. fear, guilt, confusion, or self-doubt?)
- What messages do you tell yourself about expressing your voice?
- What past hurts may have contributed to those messages?
- Do you fear retaliation? If so, that’s a good cue to seek help from someone outside of the situation.
2. If your boundaries are too rigid:
- Are are you hiding behind “boundaries” to avoid a potentially painful conversation?
- What messages do you tell yourself to keep you from letting people in?
- What past hurts may have contributed to these messages?
- Who is one safe person you might practice opening up with?
3. If you are tempted to weaponize a boundary:
- Are you mostly interested in trying to change their behavior?
- Are you secretly hoping they’ll “see the error of their ways” as a result of your actions?
- Do you notice bitterness, anger, or spite?
- Do you notice grief or genuine sadness about the boundary you must set? Grief is often an indicator that the boundaries you need to set are coming from a healthy place. You’re not trying to hurt or change someone else. Instead, you grieve that the relationship has to change.
You can’t control how other people respond to you. Some people might distance from you, but resist the urge to control their response. If they attempt to punish or pressure you, pay attention. These responses reveal warning signs about future interactions. Remember, you can’t know for sure the motives or pain they are facing.
When it comes to healthy boundaries, do your part as responsibly as you can and leave what you can’t control in the hands of God.
From Unhealthy to Healthy Boundaries
Let’s go back to each of the examples from the beginning of this post and imagine that each person was working toward healthier boundaries. Here is what that might look like:
Vivian feels frustrated that her friend, Sue, constantly offers unsolicited advice about how she parents her children. She prays about it and decides that she needs to have a conversation with Sue. She’s fearful about offending her friend, but she also believes that in order to stay healthy, she’ll need to speak up. She says to Sue, “I appreciate that you’re trying to help. But, I’m not looking for parenting advice from you. If I do want advice, I’ll ask for it. Otherwise, I’d love to keep talking about our other shared interests.”
Vivian’s honored herself. She’s been clear with Sue in a kind way. And, now it’s up to Sue to decide how she’ll respond. Vivian feels vulnerable, but she’s also proud of herself.
John is fearful about trusting anyone. As he observes his family members seeming to enjoy sharing about their lives, he wonders what it might be like to open up just a bit. He decides to take a small brave step and tells his wife, “I’m not sure how to open up, but I’d like to try. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but I wanted you to know.” He feels a tiny bit closer to his wife. Together, they learn to negotiate new ways of communicating in their relationship.
Jackie feels hurt that her family has been critical of her life choices. She reflects on what she feels, and talks to her counselor about it. She doesn’t think that they’ll change, but she decides to communicate about it. The next time she sees them she says, “Sometimes I’m not sure you are proud of the decisions I have made.” Her parents don’t say much, but they seem to take it in. She feels awkward and vulnerable, but also relieved.
The truth is, the other person may not respond well. Maybe Jackie’s parents are too self-absorbed to really make a change. In that case, Jackie may need to forge relationships with people who truly care about her, leading her to change how she spends his holidays. The difference is that she will be taking this step to protect her emotional and spiritual health. She’s creating the support system that she needs vs. punishing someone else.
When someone else’s behavior stirs up turmoil inside of you, you can learn to address it wisely. You can seize the opportunity to lean into the best of who you are, with God’s help. As you do, you’re taking charge of your life. You’ll feel confident that you’ve done your best by yourself, and by the people in your life.
For Further Reading:
The Secret to Setting Boundaries
Will Setting Boundaries Make Me Seem Cruel?
1. Boundaries with my family are too flexible.
I consider myself a recovering “people-pleaser” and for many years I have not spoken about my needs to friends and family. This has resulted in bitterness and lack of communication with my spouse. My fear is that if I ask for help, I will be put-down (by my mom or sisters) or considered to be weak or incapable of doing all the things I feel I should be doing…being a good wife and mother. I know that my true identity comes from Christ (and who he says I am) but I need to identify and change old-behaviors and thought patterns (negative thoughts about me, fears of letting my spouse down) and establish healthy boundaries with my family. I moved half way across the country to get some space, but sometimes it seems like they still take up the same mental space as they did when we lived close.
Thanks for this post Alison!
Alison Cook says
Hi Joy, you raise such an insightful point. Much of the healing work must happen inside of us once we create healthier boundaries — healing old messages we’ve learned to believe and feelings of guilt or shame that we carry. Sending prayers to you on this brave journey.
I appreciate your article! How do you suggest responding to boundaries that seem to be weaponized? e.g. if you set a boundary that you believe to be healthy, and the person responds with a stricter boundary or “consequence”?
Alison Cook says
If someone is retaliating, you typically need to let your actions speak for you and turn toward the work of healing. This might mean removing yourself physically, or neutralizing the situation by disengaging from further dialogue. Leslie Vernick has excellent resources on this dynamic when it’s happening within a marriage.
Stick to the boundaries you’ve set. A weaponized boundary response to a boundary is a way of trying to punish someone into dropping their boundaries. If it’s a pattern then deciding if you’d be safer and happier withdrawing from that person is worth considering. It doesn’t have to be a no contact situation, although it could be, but it may mean decreasing time and quantity of interactions with that person and be cautious and intentional about what is shared with them so that they can’t use it against you. That’s the short answer. I’m sure Allison has some other good posts that address that issue; look for ones about emotional manipulation/guilt tripping and emotionally immature parents/adults.
Maureen W says
What if we are parents experiencing weaponized boundaries from our adult children? Son 1 set a boundary on son 2 expecting him to turn from his immaturity and grow up. Son 1 thinks we are allowing bad behavior with son 2 and expects us to set the same boundaries-i.e. not allowing son 2 to come to family events (or have anything to do with him) until he changes. Conversations with both sons have been unsuccessful in achieving any kind of reconciliation. How do we as parents navigate this?
Alison Cook says
It is painful to see 2 people we love not getting along with each other. However, when any 2 people involved in a conflict attempt to pull in a third party, it’s called triangulating. It’s not your job to police the way that they relate to each other. What you can do is remove yourself from their disagreement and determine the boundaries you need to set in order to maintain healthy relationships with each individual.
Alicia M says
This is a wonderful article! Very helpful points about setting the right types of boundaries that are not too flexible or too rigid.
One perspective on the last example: I think part of that “good messy” that we often should not retreat from is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable situation that two people in a relationship can have different values, perspectives, and opinions. For Jackie, it is a good idea for her to communicate with her parents that she feels hurt that they have been critical of her life choices. However, the outcome they described – that her parents don’t say much but seem to take it in – sounds like a positive one to me. If the situation is that choices Jackie made do not align with what her parents value or think are right for her – Jackie should pay attention to how she feels and pull herself out of toxic situations, but she should also be careful not to project criticism onto her parents (for example, do they openly and constantly berate her or is it that she senses they do not approve but they do not speak about it?). We all want other to approve and validate us, but it is not necessarily fair for her to expect her parents to change their values and openly approve of her choices, just as Jackie should not change her values and choices only to please them. Every situation is different, of course. Some are toxic and there should be rigid boundaries. But for many, there may very well be a “messy good” space where her parents love her despite their differences in values and Jackie loves them back despite her differences in values back, even if both of them don’t respond precisely as the other might ideally want. The fact alone that her parents disagree with some of her decisions does not mean at all that they do not love her. How each of them responds to those differences and if they do so in a healthy way is, I think, what matters.