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The Most Misunderstood Concept in Psychology

Recently, I asked a group of adult children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union about attempts to enforce boundaries with their parents. (It’s a group of which I am a member: class of ’89, Leningrad to Texas.) Rarely have I received so many responses from sources so quickly.

One day, Olga B.’s mom came over and replaced her silverware with silverware that she (the mom) thought was “better.” Anna Z. gave her parents a key to her house for emergencies only, but one day, she turned around in her backyard and saw her mom waving hello at her from her own bedroom window. (She and others asked to go by their first name and an initial in order to speak freely about private family matters that, if you ask their parents, should never be shared with strangers.)

Veronica M. told me her father believes that “boundaries are Stalinist.” Nevertheless, she compared boundary setting to the Dutch children’s tale about a boy who sticks his finger in a dam to prevent a flood: “It would be even worse if I didn’t try to protect my boundaries.”

I assume that immigrants of other nationalities are similarly bewildered by boundaries; it’s just that the former U.S.S.R. sits in the razor-thin Venn-diagram slice of cultures that are both collectivistic and in-your-face. Russian famously has no word for “privacy,” the concept at the core of most boundaries. To explain their parents’ boundary trampling, my interviewees had precise psychoanalyses: Our Soviet parents, they’ll remind you, came here with nothing, and then raised their kids in the wild capitalism of suburbia. American schools subjected their children to countless anti-drug and anti-sex workshops about the importance of personal space and autonomy. Still, our folks clung to the hope that as adults we’d behave as though we lived in a stacked kommunalka, deferring to our parents right down the hall. They want us to be better than them but also to be exactly like them. “My parents’ idea,” Veronica says, is “if you loved me, you would do what I say so that I don’t worry.” If Russian parents got a tattoo–which they would never–it would say precisely this.

Former-Soviet parents struggle with boundaries for magnified versions of the reasons everyone struggles with them: They’re an unfamiliar concept, and we all think we know better ways of handling conflict. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned shouting? We don’t like it when boundaries are imposed on us. We don’t like having to impose them. We don’t even totally know how to do it. (Although, through plenty of practice, my Russian American interviewees seem to have figured it out.)

And yet, boundaries seem to, well, abound. Although the exact definition of boundaries seems to vary widely, they are best understood as a set of internal rules that determine what you’re willing to tolerate from other people. Instagram therapy accounts and various websites offer guides to setting boundaries, and gentle-parenting TikTok brims with videos about “holding firm boundaries” with your kids while somehow also never telling them no. In 2022, the best-selling Book of Boundaries assured us that boundaries “will set you free,” and in 2023, another best seller, Drama Free, explained how to set boundaries with difficult people. Many people learn about boundaries in therapy, and the number of people in therapy is on the rise–nearly one in four adults under 45 has sought mental-health treatment in the past year. One therapist speculated to me that perhaps people are talking about boundaries more because Donald Trump has made politics so polarized and sensitive. Why learn to argue better with your conservative uncle when you can simply tell him, “I don’t have the capacity for this conversation right now”? If hell is other people, boundaries seem like a rope ladder back to purgatory.

Yet even as “boundaries” have taken off, the concept has become misunderstood, joining gaslit and narcissist in the pantheon of misused psychology jargon. When you want someone to do something, throwing in the word boundary can lend the request a patina of therapeutic legitimacy. The most public recent example was the texts shared by the surfer Sarah Brady from her ex-boyfriend Jonah Hill, in which the actor appeared to claim that some of his “boundaries” were that Brady not surf with men or post pictures of herself in a bathing suit. “I think people get dribs and drabs of therapeutic concepts or lingo, and then they swing them around like arrows,” Karen Osterle, a therapist in Washington, D.C., told me.

When imposed on us, boundaries can feel upsetting. Because many people view happy relationships as problem free, a request to behave differently can feel like a rejection. Some people–out of trauma or other wounds–interpret a “no” from a loved one as the end of a relationship. But boundaries are supposed to help preserve relationships, not destroy them. “People typically believe that boundaries are to control people, and in actuality, they are safeguards for yourself and for peace and comfort in your relationships,” says the therapist and Drama Free author Nedra Glover Tawwab.

In fact, having well-kept boundaries can be a sign of an especially healthy relationship. Most of the former-Soviet immigrants I interviewed said that their relationship with their parents improved after they started enforcing boundaries, even if the parents didn’t much like the boundaries themselves.

When Anna Z. was 25, she still lived with her parents. One day, she left her phone at home to go train with a parkour instructor, and her mother was briefly unable to reach her. Her mother dug through Anna’s phone bill, found the instructor’s number, and called him herself. When Anna confronted her, her mother justified her actions by saying that she still paid Anna’s phone bill. Anna said that she’d told her mother many times to be more respectful of her privacy, so this time she took action: She put the phone on the table and left the house for a few hours. To Anna’s shock, when she returned, her mother apologized. “If you can set boundaries with people, and they respect it–maybe those are good people to keep around,” says Alex Ly, a therapist in the Bay Area.

But, more important, we frequently misunderstand what it means to be the boundary setter. Boundaries are often thought of as rules for other people, but in reality, they’re rules for ourselves. They’re our own definition of what we’re comfortable with, and our own choice about what we’ll do if someone ignores the boundary. A boundary means “you are responsible for what’s in your yard, which would be your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions, your opinions,” says Dana Skaggs, a therapist in Tennessee. “And your neighbors also have a right to their thoughts, their feelings, their opinions, and their actions.” Other people have their own yard, and you can’t determine what’s planted there. This can also mean you’re not going to try to “rescue” people from their beliefs or make them behave a certain way.

This is an important distinction, because the true test of a boundary is how you’ll respond when people do things you don’t want them to do. “There’s no boundary without internal consequence,” says Laura Vladimirova, a therapist in Brooklyn who is from Ukraine. “Let’s say you’re my sister, and I say to you, ‘Hey, I don’t want you coming over unannounced anymore.’ Then my suspicion–and this as an incorrect suspicion–is that you’re going to listen to me and stop coming over unannounced.”

But your sister–and other people–may not agree to your boundary. At that point, you have to decide what you’ll do. When your sister swings by without warning, will you let her in? Ask her to come back later? Distance yourself for a while? In a way, Jonah Hill’s texts are a good example of boundaries–he’s saying he’s not going to stay in the relationship if his (strange, unreasonable) requests aren’t met. One may wonder why he would enter a relationship with a semi-professional surfer if he is triggered by swimsuit photos, but hey, a boundary’s a boundary.

This same logic applies to setting boundaries with children. Parents may think that a boundary is a rule for their child to follow–for example, “You have to put your shoes on before you go outside.” But in reality, what matters is what the parent will do when the child tests the boundary. (Probably put the shoes on themselves while being assailed with tiny kicks.)

The final incorrect assumption that people often make about boundaries: that a boundary violator should be automatically and permanently ejected from your life. “Sometimes, with boundaries, we think the most severe consequence is what’s always needed,” Tawwab told me. But if we ended relationships every time our boundaries were violated, “we would not have any relationships.” The first time someone violates your boundary, in fact, you might just remind them about your boundary. The next time, you might decide to go a week without talking, for example. Only in extreme cases should you cut off all contact.

Not even professionals, in fact, can make everyone obey their boundaries. Vladimirova, the therapist, told me that she doesn’t like it when her mom asks her how things are going with her partner. “No matter how many times I ask for that to remain personal, it somehow winds its way back into conversation every six months or so,” she said.

And what does she do about it? “It’s a fantastic cycle of me blowing up and then not talking to my parent,” she said, “then having a nice, superficial conversation about other things again.”

Your mother’s just worried about you, that’s all.

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