What to do when boundaries collide in relationships

In this podcast (episode #454) and blog, I talk about what happens when boundaries collide in relationships, and how to navigate tense situations. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

Boundaries are a hot topic these days. Many people post about the importance of boundaries, how to set them, and how to respect them, all of which are important.

Boundaries help us build stronger relationships with the people in our lives. They help us increase our respect for ourselves as we learn how to recognize our own limits and protect our mental health, while acknowledging that other people also have their limits. Once we start setting our own boundaries and respecting other people’s boundaries, we tend to see a huge improvement in our own mental health and in our relationships. The more we set our own boundaries, the more we learn to understand and respect the boundaries of the people in our lives

It is also important to understand that learning how to set and respect boundaries is a lifelong lesson. There is no one formula that will apply to every situation. Life is not black and white—it is full of nuance. Some boundaries are permanent, some are temporary. Some change, some become bigger, and some become smaller. 

But what do we do when boundaries collide? What happens if we are in a situation where we set a healthy boundary for ourselves, and a friend or loved one also sets a healthy boundary, but those boundaries conflict with one another?  

In the next two podcast episodes, I am going to talk about some ways you can navigate colliding boundaries and avoid the resentment that these situations can cause.  

First, let's look at some areas of the brain that get activated when we do the work of negotiating colliding boundaries. Research on self-reflection and what it does in the mind and brain shows that the parts of the brain that become very active during this process are the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior anterior cingulate cortex. This research also points to a part of the brain called the insula, a region of the brain connected to integrating bodily feelings, which can then help us vicariously feel our emotions. These regions in the brain and mind help us “take a step back” from what we are feeling in the moment and observe these emotions. I call this the Multiple Perspective Advantage (MPA). When this happens, we are better able to look at our emotions critically so we aren’t just feeling, we are also analyzing and evaluating. 

Once we become aware of how we feel through self-reflection, we can then work on using mind management to navigate how we feel and make the situation work for us rather than against us. One great way to do this is using the Neurocycle mind management method, which I discuss in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and my app Neurocycle. The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power that I have developed and researched over the past three decades. It has 5 steps: 

1. Gather awareness of the boundary by naming it. What are your emotional and physical feelings associated with this boundary? Has it changed your behavior or perspective?

2. Reflect: Look inward and evaluate the reasons you set that boundary in the first place. Ask yourself:

  • What need is the boundary meeting in my life?
  • Has the boundary has improved my wellbeing, life, and mental health?

Next, evaluate how your life was before and after you set this boundary.

  • Is this boundary something you want to maintain in the long term? 
  • Is this a boundary you are just setting for the day because you may be having a hard time and need some space? 
  • Are you setting this boundary for the right reasons, such as to improve your wellbeing, or are you setting this boundary because you are mad at the person and want payback? 

3. Write down your reflections to help organize your thinking.

4. Recheck:Think about what your thoughts and feelings are trying to tell you. What are they signaling to in your life? Look for clues in your writing, then start to reconceptualize the way you are thinking.

Am I setting this boundary because I love the person and want to improve my relationship, or am I setting this boundary because I need to start creating space from this person? If it is space you need, it may be that the nature of the relationship has changed, or it may even mean that this person does not need to be in your life anymore. 

It is important to remember that when you reflect on why a boundary may be colliding with a friend or loved one, you are better able to find some kind of a healthy adjustment that still respects your needs but also respects the needs those you love.  

The most important thing about this kind of self-reflection is that all people involved in this collision of boundaries must be willing to reflect on their own boundaries and also look for possible healthy adjustments. Healthy adjustments are ones that don’t affect your mental health—they improve the relationship through healthy compromise.

5. Active reach: this is a thought or action you need to practice daily to help you reconceptualize what you thought about in the previous step. For example, you can say something likeI will discuss with x how I am going to change my boundary, and open up the conversation so that they feel comfortable enough to discuss how they will change as well. We will work on negotiating with kindness and try to not make assumptions that the other person is not respecting us.” 

For more on managing colliding boundaries, listen to my podcast (episode #454). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).  

You can now also join me on Patreon for exclusive, ad-free content! Sign up for a membership level that suits you, and receive access to ad-free exclusive bonus podcasts!      

My latest ad-free podcasts on Patreon include:   

Podcast 451: Debunking the Myth of the Perfect Parent 

Podcast 450: How to Use the Neurocycle to Deal With Regret 

Podcast 449: Addressing Adolescent ADD & ADHD with Child Psychiatrist Dr. Sami Timimi: Part 2 

This podcast is sponsored by: 

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Podcast Highlights

0:45 How important boundaries are 

1:10 What happens when boundaries collide

5:30 Why it is important to reflect on our boundaries & learn how to negotiate boundaries that collide with others 

6:46 What happens in the brain & body when boundaries collide

11:54 How to use mind management to handle colliding boundaries 

15:16, 20:58 Why self-reflection is so important when dealing with colliding boundaries

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

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