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Why Boundary Setting Can Be Difficult


It’s not surprising that the topic of boundaries surfaces often in therapy—and in life. In one day, three sessions dealt with the subject. The situations varied greatly, illustrating the importance of attending to boundary issues wherever they crop up. This starts with having healthy beliefs about your ability to set and maintain boundaries while understanding that nuanced circumstances dictate nuanced responses.

The first example is a client in her early twenties, a victim of emotional abuse and neglect in her family, who sometimes gets frozen in a victim mentality. We were discussing how she occasionally chooses toxic friends and her difficulty finding mentally healthy ones. At one point, she described people habitually asking her to do things for them, her complying, their never reciprocating and, therefore, not knowing how to respond to requests. I mentioned that she consider whether someone would do the same (or had done it) for her before agreeing to a request. My client was surprised by that suggestion, saying she hadn’t considered assessing the situation that way.

Later that day, after grocery shopping between clients, I was returning my cart to the parking lot cart bin when I heard someone honk their horn—not once but three times. I finally figured out who the honker was and went to her car. A woman older than me (I’m 76) said she was honking because she wanted my cart. I said I’d gladly get her one, went back to the cart bin, and brought a cart over to her car. She immediately started telling me about how she broke her leg and I stopped her mid-sentence with an “I’m so glad I could help you, but I can’t stay and talk,” and walked away. 

I felt badly for the woman and sensed she wanted to tell me her entire story but I had (just being honest here) little interest in hearing it, as I gladly listen to clients’ stories all day long, but my personal time is my own and I needed to get home. Her wanting to keep me, a stranger, there to listen to her felt like a violation of a boundary.

My last example is a middle-aged client whose sister lost her job and got evicted from her apartment. This sister was enabled her whole life and always played the victim card. My client is recently divorced after an unhappy marriage and is struggling to support and care for herself. She knew it wasn’t a good time to have her sister move in but helped her find transitional housing which would possibly lead her into therapy, which she needed badly but had refused her whole life.

So, there you have it: how we struggle with boundaries with less than perfect results. Sometimes taking care of ourselves is the best option, but it doesn’t always feel good.