Boundaries Vs Limits

When most people think about ways of maintaining healthy relationships, individuals often consider working on boundaries within relationships. Boundaries is a term that refers to the limits and rules that are set within relationships. For example, my boundaries might include establishing that other people need to knock on the door before entering my room, that I will not answer routine text messages after 11PM, and that I do not smoke alone or in social settings. The term boundary is generally helpful, yet dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) scholars and others have recognized that there are ways that the term “boundary” does not fully capture what is taking place within relationships. One of the main limitations of the word “boundary” is that the term implies that rules set in relationships are static, rather than fluid. When, in reality, rules within relationships are constantly changing–other people need to knock on my door unless there is a fire and I am stuck inside, occasionally I stay up past 11PM to message friends, and I am open to smoking a candy cigarette at a Halloween party. That is one core reason why DBT practitioners use the word “limits” instead of “boundaries.” Within DBT, people observe their limits (i.e., are mindful of their limitations), rather than set boundaries.

Sharp spikes on fence

My limits are not the same as your limits. I might be ok with phone calls at night, you might prefer email. I might be ok with a spontaneous hug, you might need people to ask whether you would like a hug. I might need four hours of alone time to recover, you might need one hour of alone time. Our limits are different and, in DBT, we agree not to judge each other’s personal limits. Furthermore, limits will change over time. If I receive a cancer diagnosis, my limits might drastically change–calls and visitors may need to be limited, while recovery time will need to increase. Although other individuals might judge the change in limits due to cancer to be “overly narrow,” one can reasonably understand how circumstances drastically change the reality of individuals’ personal limits. That is why judging another person’s limits as “too narrow” or “too broad” is not helpful. Instead, in relationships, it is important to mindfully recognize one’s limits and work toward increasing understanding of other individuals’ limits. 

As limits evolve over time within relationships, it is important to articulate those limits, while describing the natural consequences of behaviors, rather than intransigent rules. For example, I might say, I would like you to send me a text message, rather than call me late at night because it interferes with my sleep. If you send the text message, I will feel more positive emotions toward you and be able to receive the information that you are sending. I will also be less exhausted, which will allow me to attend more closely to our relationship. Natural consequences (i.e., consequences that are not manufactured) can also be articulated when someone stretches limits in a more severe way. For example, I might say in the context of a parent-teen relationship, if you use the illegal substance, your coach may suspend you from the sports team or you may receive juvenile charges. The parent is recognizing the natural consequences of a behavior, rather than manufactured consequences (e.g., I will take away your phone). 

two women talking smiling sitting on window sillSometimes, in the context of close interpersonal relationships, limits can be extended. By extending limits, a person who does not usually receive calls after 11PM will take the call or a person who does not usually schedule more than two hours of quality time schedules three hours. Deciding when to extend limits is a personal choice that emerges out of a person’s wisdom. Although human emotions can drive an individual toward frequently extending limits or refusing to ever extend limits, there is a balance that people can find over time that works for building effective relationships. There is some trial and error in the process, and individuals can benefit from forgiving each other along the way, recognizing each other’s humanity, and embracing the notion that limits change over time for both parties. 

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

About the Author

Samuel Eshleman Latimer (he/his), Psy.D., is a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow that specializes in effective conflict management and dialectical behavior therapy. Samuel also works to help individuals, couples, and families decrease interpersonal difficulties and manage challenges associated with borderline personality disorder. Samuel believes that people do not need to choose between learning effective techniques that are based on science and developing warm, genuine relationships, as both of these styles complement each other. Click Here to learn more about Samuel’s experience and therapeutic style.