Boundaries are how we communicate our expectations for a relationship, letting others know the kind of behaviour we deem acceptable or not. We do this in small ways all the time, like asking a partner not to yell during an argument, or even just saying, “I’d rather not talk about this” to a friend. But setting these boundaries online can sometimes be tricky.
In November, feminist wellness educator Melissa Fabello tweeted a screen shot of a friend’s text asking whether she was up for a heavy conversation. Shortly after, she shared her response about being “at capacity,” which she suggested others could use as a template for gently explaining when they just don’t have the bandwidth for a conversation.
PS: Someone reached out and asked for an example of how you can respond to someone if you don’t have the space to support them.
I offered this template: pic.twitter.com/lCzDl60Igy
— Melissa A. Fabello, PhD (@fyeahmfabello) November 19, 2019
A little over a week later, a user going by the name Yana shared a similar post with an image of a text they had sent a friend asking, “Are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?”
I just want to say, a lot of y’all dump information on your friends at the wrong time without their consent. If you know it’s something that could hurt them, ask permission before you decide to be messy. Please. pic.twitter.com/L3jWGni1FW
— yana (@YanaBirt) November 29, 2019
The general consensus (as much as there can be such a thing on Twitter) in the responses to both tweets was that they were ridiculous, or dramatic, or even abusive. A lot of the replies focused on the idea of using a template, calling it “creepy” or “robotic” to talk to a friend that way. But as a person with nearly a decade of therapy under my belt, I recognised something else in these tweets: attempts to set healthy boundaries.
To those who experience anxiety, depression, burnout, stress, and other kinds of physical and mental distress that can sometimes be overwhelming—and to those who have had people in their lives who regularly violate boundaries—this kind of rule-setting and water-testing can be vital.
One major complaint on Twitter about the suggested boundary-setting templates was that they would preclude people from having difficult conversations. But experts say boundaries are important for any relationship in part because they help create a better environment for just those kinds of conversations. The trick is to find a healthy balance of respecting others’ limits and communicating your own, without sacrificing intimacy.
How boundaries work, and why they’re important
The concept of boundaries might not ever come up for you explicitly, in which case, you’re likely already communicating when you’re available, and for what. But people have varying needs in this regard, and our increasingly digital world isn’t set up for that kind of variety.
“Many of us now have devices strapped to our wrists that alert us of new calls, emails, and texts every waking moment,” said Katie Lear, a licensed professional counsellor. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling beholden to answer messages 24 hours a day.”
Erica Wiles, another licensed professional counsellor, says the first step is to figure out what your boundaries are. She recommends thinking explicitly about how much personal information you want to share and receive on social media or with individual friends, how emotionally invested you want to/can be, and with how many people. Figure out if you’re comfortable sharing advice or are more of a shoulder-to-cry-on person, she says, and find a way to let your friends know.
Lear counsels people who feel overwhelmed to set firm time restrictions around their availability to respond.
“At the very least, if you have to write the email at 10pm, schedule the send for the following day so you aren’t inadvertently communicating that you’re always available late at night,” she suggested.
The same could go for a personal text message. On particularly anxious nights, I’ve been known to make a note to myself to respond to a friend’s text in the morning so I don’t forget. I also use a Gmail plugin called Inbox When Ready that lets people know I have my inbox hidden unless I’m actively checking email, so I might take more than a few minutes to respond. Recently, when I emailed a friend to ask for a favour, she responded asking if I could text her about the request on a specific day when she would have more bandwidth, and I was happy to oblige—the boundary benefited us both.
How to rein in your availability
Obviously, part of the point of having relationships is being available to the people you love, and hoping they do the same in return. But 24-hour-a-day availability isn’t healthy for most relationships, so experts recommend setting some clear boundaries once you figure out your own limits.
Maybe that looks like one of those Twitter templates, and maybe it looks totally different. But either way is likely better than the alternative of being too burned out to show up as a friend.
“Back in the day, if the landline phone rang and it was inconvenient, we didn’t pick up. Simple,” said psychotherapist and sociologist Kathrine McAleese. “You can still do that … Choose when you are available and honour your right to make that choice.”
One mistake many people make, according to Wiles, is to ignore their feelings of frustration when a person is taking advantage of them.
“Acknowledge those emotions; do not ignore or stuff them down,” she said. “You will become drained and experience empathy burnout. Be [able to] recognise when enough is enough, and re-establish your boundaries by communicating them to your friends.”
Sometimes the problem isn’t one friend or one topic—it’s the constant onslaught of emotional expression (and expectation) from social media. The easiest way to address this is to simply turn it off, but as Lear noted, we often feel beholden to answer when someone texts, emails, tweets, or otherwise tries to get our attention. Other options include muting (when a friend or family member shares a lot of things that upset you, but you don’t want to outright block or unfollow), curating (unfollowing or blocking the people whose posts and messages upset you and with whom you don’t think a conversation about it would be productive), and, again, setting availability boundaries (i.e., only checking social media accounts at a certain time of day).
Addressing crossed boundaries
A crossed boundary can look like many different things: broaching a subject that’s been deemed off-limits, ignoring requests not to text during certain times, or leaning on a friend or acquaintance for constant venting. Sometimes all it takes is telling the other person you’re uncomfortable, but the situation and comfort level can vary from relationship to relationship. In some cases, crossed boundaries can lead to an unhealthy lack of balance.
“When conversations with a friend morph from two-sided venting exchanges to one friend constantly being the one needing to share, it’s a sign that you may be veering into ‘therapist mode,’” said Lear. “It can be helpful to gently redirect this kind of conversation by re-balancing the scales.”
Again, you want to be there for your friends. But if you feel like someone is taking advantage of your empathy and availability, or like they might be in serious need of a professional, it can be helpful to try shifting the conversation more toward a shared experience or interest or addressing the issue head-on, depending on your relationship. In the long run, Lear said this helps both parties because it reduces feelings of burnout and resentment.
Sometimes, extreme situations call for extreme measures. McAleese suggests that when someone is crossing boundaries and not getting the message, “turn off your phone, redirect them to someone else who can help them better, or set boundaries and, crucially, stick to them.”
Ultimately, we can only be responsible for ourselves. We can’t expect other people to know what our limits are if we don’t tell them, and we can’t be expected to fully take on the trauma or emotional struggles of others. But if we’re better equipped to express our needs and capabilities, as well as what we can offer our friends, we won’t need a template.