S2E15 Boundaries

Do you know the difference between boundaries and walls? How about the relationship between boundaries and connection? In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete discuss what boundaries are, how they are an essential part of healthy relationships, and why setting  and maintaining them is often so hard to do. Tune in to learn more about importance of boundaries.




Nikki: I'm excited about this episode because I think this is something that I end up talking about with patients a lot, which is boundaries. Hey, Pete,

Pete: Hey,

Nikki: Want to talk about boundaries here.

Pete: I love boundaries and actually,

Nikki: I do too,

Pete: I use one of your definitions.

Nikki: Oh, you do?

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: Which one?

Pete: I forget.

Nikki: You just knew it came from me. You're just, in somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you're like…

Pete: It’s not… You’re going to probably say it’s… You're going to say today, but it's like compassion with boundaries or,

Nikki: Oh, yes.

Pete: Empathy is…

Nikki: No, I say compassion... So empathy is without boundaries. So when we experience empathy, we feel other people's emotions as if that they're happening to us. And compassion is…

Pete: That’s what it is,

Nikki: Is boundaries. So that's…

Pete: Well, so compassion is empathy with boundaries.

Nikki: Yes, sure. So but, I mean, I love that Pete starting with that example, because boundaries are really important for a lot of reasons, they're important for our own mental well-being, they're important for healthy relationships. They're important for, I guess this goes to mental well-being, but being able to keep enough gas in our tanks, like as how I say it. But boundaries can be really hard to set, they're part of the service, people can sometimes feel that they're not worthy of setting boundaries. Or they can be confused as to like, honestly, what their rights are, like, ‘what am I allowed to say?’ Or if it's the other way, ‘what am I allowed to ask for?’ ‘Am I pushing someone's boundaries?’

Pete: So I just had a birthday. And a friend of mine brought me a beautiful stone. And this blue agate stone, I think it's called, A-G-A-T. And the description was that it helps people find their voice, assertiveness and boundaries. And we were all laughing because they were like, “Well, we know, you don’t need that”. And not in like a pompous way. Really, I think I often do that with humility. So I think that's… and that's what I was sort of reflecting as you were saying that, because I think people would be like, “Well, what do you mean, ‘you don't deserve that’? Everyone deserves that”. And it's like, it takes skill, though.

Nikki: It does,

Pete: And practice.

Nikki: It does.

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: Well, because I think that, I mean, because like, there's two sides of it. So I would say if we start with the side that Pete's getting out, which is when people don't believe that they deserve to have boundaries. And it might not be that conscious, I shouldn't say, it's not that, I don't think that there's a lot of people necessarily that walk around and say, ‘I don't deserve boundaries’, but they might unintentionally be sort of living that way, because they're over focused on other people's needs before their own. They think that their needs are, like should always come second or not at all, frankly. So when you ask somebody that struggles in that way to think about like, “Well, what about your needs? What do you need first?” That can be really uncomfortable. Does that something you come across a lot with, I would say probably like in clinical work?

Pete: Yeah. It's very... And I think that's why like, say in dialectical behavioral therapy, we have a lot, we have a whole interpersonal effectiveness, we have a whole module teaching people how to do this. And why do you think that is? Is that because maybe part of pathology or part of our kind of challenges with mood might be because people are taking advantage of us?

Nikki: Yeah, that's a good question. I actually think it goes back to what you started with regards to empathy. I think that people that are wired, more empathically. And so dialectical behavior therapy, as we've talked about was originally designed for borderline personality disorder, which is just like an emotion dysregulation disorder. It's used for all kinds of intense emotional disorders at this point in time. But the reason I bring that up is because it's talking about people that are biologically pre disposition to experience emotions more intensely. And that goes into empathy, like a lot of when I used to do DBT that was often a common sort of thread that these folks that struggled with that diagnosis would really feel other people's emotions very intensely. And so the benefit of that is that they're very caring, people that are [inaudible 4:47] they're very caring, very easily able to access like how that's going to impact somebody, but it can get so loud that it then gets in the way of, ‘Okay, and what about you?’ ‘What do you need?’

Pete: And that will link to our values, potentially, because boundaries also, I'm not going to set boundaries for the sake of boundaries, I'm setting boundaries for the sake of my values. Because I have to know where I'm going for that boundary. So I'm not just going to set a boundary with my boss, because I'm going to set a boundary my boss. I need to do it, because they're taking advantage of me. Because I want, I was passed up on a promotion, something like that. So I think it's important, and I think it's part of what we do clinically is help people untangle some confusion that they might have around how they're feeling or why they're even struggling to set boundaries with somebody.

Nikki: Absolutely, and something you just said, is also important to like, tease apart a little bit, which is the other side of it, which is when people sort of, and I've heard this actually quite a few times, where someone says the word boundaries, they'll say, “these are my boundaries”. And that's just it, that that person's violating my boundaries, they'll sort of use on the surface, the appropriate language, but in reality, they're actually just practicing rigidity. That they'll say, like I told this person, I don't know, let's say, I'm making up this example. Let's say I'm working with a patient who tells me that a friend asked them if they could pick up their mail while they're on vacation. And my patient says to me, “I said, No way, am I ever doing that. Those are my boundaries. I don't drive to that part of town on the weekends, because the traffic is terrible. Those are just my boundaries”. And I would say like, “I don't know, if that's your boundaries, that to me sounds like a rigidity, and not practicing maybe compassion, or flexibility or acting in line with the value of maybe supporting a friend”.

Pete: Yeah. And, I don't know, like I saw, I gave the example of the stone because we could all benefit from it. So I'm not, even though I'm pretty skilled at it. And I can still benefit by having a stone in my room that might help bring me some clarity, as I'm setting boundaries, or as I'm trying to, and many different, because all the different hats that I wear, I can see it coming up. I think sometimes in the world that we live in, there's just different expectations, and so I think sometimes, you know what I mean? Like, I'm thinking of like, I don't know, like companies like it's no longer like ‘customers always right’. Like, I've had so many experiences lately, where there's like…

Nikki: Well I was going to say, well boundaries can change. Like, they're not set in stone that I think that's like, with everything Pete and I talked about in this podcast that we want to practice flexibility. And what that means is becoming curious about what works in this moment. And so, I don't know, like, maybe to kind of use a business example, I have a boundary where I don't email with patients. However I have, in the electronic health record that I use, I can do a secure messaging feature, which functions like email. So back in the day, I didn't do that. And now I do. So it's like, I still have boundaries, and I've changed about, like, what works for me.

Pete: Because you're flexible.

Nikki: Because I practice flexibility. That's right. So it's like, I think that's where people can get confused of, like ‘what am I allowed to say?’ Like, ‘what am I, like what's the line?’ And I'll say sometimes, like “sometimes you don't know, you've got to try it out”.

Pete: You got to practice.

Nikki: Yeah, you got to practice. I've mentioned, Pete, before that a yoga teacher once said in a class, I don't remember how this came up around boundaries, but she said, “We teach other people how to treat us”.

Pete: Isn’t that beautiful?

Nikki: I don’t know, it just like, so deeply resonated with me.

Nikki: So boundaries are teaching other people how to treat us…

Nikki: Treat us. Because we set the boundaries. And when I talk about that in therapy with people, I again, use myself as an example. And I'll say, “look, even people that are well meaning can sometimes end up crossing a line unintentionally”, I'll say like, “I don't share my cell phone number, my personal cell phone with patients”, and I'll say, “what do you think would happen if I did?” And I said, “Well, there are some clinicians that do, I'm not judging them, but for me, that doesn't work”. And they'll say, “Well, people would call you on or they text you”. And I said, “Yeah”, and I'm like, “and it's not it, that's not their fault, because I'm saying, ‘Here have access to me’.” So I say you don't… you have to call my work number. And I'm like, “what does that teach you?” They say to me, “Well, it teaches me that you're only available during certain times”. I said, “That's right”.  

Pete: Yeah. Which is a really healthy boundary. And so listeners, like, that's part of what you want to do while you're thinking and considering what your boundaries are. Because, and I have the image of like a forest, because like trees are often the perimeter of the boundary. And I think that that's a lot of what I'm asking people to do, is to think about where their boundaries are. So think about where your forest is, how far out is it, how dense is it?

Nikki: Are you cutting it back, are you growing further? I love that. That's beautiful. Pete, I have a question for you, because one thing that I'm always…

Pete: Oh oh.

Nikki: I know, I think you'll like it. Because I think this is something that I also comes up a lot is that, sometimes when I'm doing boundaries work with patients, and we're talking about how to set boundaries, and even framing it as aligned with values that are part of self-respect. A lot of times people will tell me that they're afraid of other people's reactions to their boundaries, because sometimes people can be mad. Mad at them when they say no. What do you tell people when that comes up?

Pete: I channel my inner Albert Ellis.

Nikki: Let folks know who Albert Ellis is.

Pete: Well, tell me, was he dysfunction or rational?

Nikki: He's REBT. He's rational thinking.

Pete: Rational, yeah, yes. That's right. Yeah. So Alberto Ellis, Rational Emotive Behavioral therapy. So he would just be like, that's irrational. It's like you can't predict. And secondly,

Nikki: But we'd say, but what if it is somebody that you know gets mad when you say no to them?

Pete: Then they'll be mad when you say no to them.

Nikki: That's it. Yeah. And when people say like, “Oh, no, but they're going to be mad”.

Pete: And you'll breathe and take another breath. And you'll step into the next moment. It's a lot of, because it makes sense for you in that moment and in Buddhism, as you as you studied and kind of advances the five precepts. And I think that might be important just to kind of, because I haven't talked much about that here.

Nikki: Yeah, talk. Yeah, I don't know what they are at all.

Pete: Well they are the boundaries within living, essentially. So we've talked about the four noble truths about how suffering is the Eightfold Path is ways of behaviors that you could do to get there. And then the precepts are like boundaries for what is meant to kind of bring, and like a virtuous life. So you refrain from killing anybody, you refrain from taking what's not given to you. You refrain from the misuse of the senses, including, and that's mostly like sexual misconduct. Refrain from wrong speech. So like, again, the rumors. And then this last one is for refraining from intoxicants that cloud the mind, because you're really trying to get clarity. So I think, the five precepts present a little bit of these boundaries within your own existence, as you're thinking about sort of the Buddhist meditative way. What do you think about that?

Nikki: Oh, I love that. And the word that was showing up in my mind, I know I said it a moment ago, with regards to the self, it was respect that it sounds like about respect for oneself, like respect for the body respect for others that boundaries are really about communicating respect.

Pete: Yeah. It absolutely. Yeah. Because you can probably substitute refrain with respect.

Nikki: Yeah, it's about…

Pete: In those precepts.

Nikki: Yeah, I love that. One other thing I think a lot about with regards to boundaries is how, because I think this is also confusing for people, especially those that maybe struggle with interpersonal boundaries, is that boundaries actually create space. And, of course, I'm going to use a yoga metaphor. So hopefully, for those listeners who have practiced yoga before, there's a pose called side angle, where basically you're kind of bending into your front knee and you your hand can reach the inside, like inside of your leg and touch the floor. And so there's a way to bind in that position where basically you reach your arm underneath the bent leg, and then you take your top arm, reach behind your back, and you can hook your hands over your leg if you have the flexibility to do that. And what I find really interesting about that pose is that, what they'll talk about is that boundary, so actually reaching around and hooking your arms together over your leg cracks, open the heart, it creates space. And I always use that with patients to say, that's how boundaries function, that actually like the boundaries in therapy, that by actually maintaining certain boundaries of treatment, it creates space for connection to occur. Because without the boundary, you actually, like people that are too much in each other's business or something. It's like, they're sharing every single thought that's in their mind at all times. It's like, it's actually like mucky, kind of clouds things. But I don't know, does that resonate with you at all?

Pete: Well it's important, I think, for listeners to understand that. So as a psychologist, we don't share a ton about ourselves in session. And it's not because we don't want to… Well, I know, it's part of the process. I think the way you just described is exactly it. Is that because it gets muddy then, if there's like a mutual share, rather than us working with what you as a client or what our clients are going through, because otherwise then like, I like that, it gets murky.

Nikki: It gets murky. And so it's like, obviously…

Pete: So it create space with those bound having those boundaries.

Nikki: Yeah. And it's like that crosses over into other relationships. It's like if you have a friend where the other person is always doing all the talking or sharing all their problems and there's, it's like, there's no room for you. It's like, there needs to be limits in order for space to occur.

Pete: Well yeah, and also one of the thing, because oftentimes people will just go to therapy, is their closest relationships, because of how…

Nikki: The intimacy,

Pete: Right, because how intimate the processes and I think that also, that's models that even with boundaries, you can have the closest connection possible.

Nikki: That's right. Yeah, thank you for saying that. Because connection needs air. I don't know. It needs air, it needs space, which of course, just speaks to what we always talk about with mindfulness. So hopefully this is got the wheels turning for people about the importance of boundaries, why we set them and maybe you can walk away from this episode really thinking about how boundaries are a way to create space and respect for ourselves and others.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.