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Here’s What A Psychologist Has to Say about “Boundaries” (And Other Mental Health Terms We’re All Misusing)

Dr Jessica Yu

Written by Jessica Yu, Ph.D.

Published 08/02/2023

If you stay up to date with pop culture, you’ve probably noticed a debate swirling around the word “boundaries.” The debate has sparked a lively conversation about the words we use to describe what we want and need in our relationships – what it means to have boundaries in them, what makes our relationships “healthy” or “toxic,” and even what it means to have “relationship OCD” (a type of OCD connected to relationships). 

It has also stimulated a broader conversation about “therapy speak,” how we have come to misuse certain mental health terms, and why it’s important to be mindful of the way we use such terminology in everyday conversation.

What Is a Boundary?

According to Merriam-Webster, a boundary is “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” In other words, a boundary is a clear line that indicates where one thing ends and another begins. Physical boundaries serve specific functions, the most common of which are comfort and safety. Doors, for example, help keep natural and unwanted elements out of our homes and ensure our privacy and security.

Relationship Boundaries

Relationship boundaries are similar. They are observable expectations and limits we set for ourselves and others. They are meant to establish a feeling of mutual dignity, respect, and safety in our relationships, such that our relationships deepen and grow. 

And therein lies the key to relationship boundaries. They are not selfish. They come from a place of self-discovery and help us understand what is important to us, what we are comfortable with, and how we would like to be treated—and they help create a sense of equality and partnership as we intersect our boundaries with our partners’ boundaries. In other words, relationship boundaries can help us foster healthy relationships.

Relationship boundaries are not meant to be demands we place on others to control them. They should not make our partners feel ashamed, insecure, or unsafe. If we are setting expectations and limits that make our partners feel this way—or, if we are expected to behave in such a way that makes us feel this way—then we’ve entered into a toxic relationship.

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Setting Relationship Boundaries

There is no “right” way to set boundaries, but there are some principles to keep in mind. First, it’s important to understand what we want and need in our relationships. We can ask ourselves questions such as, What do I want communication to look and feel like? How much time do I want to spend with my partner, and what do I want to spend that time doing? What do I want in terms of physical intimacy?

Once we understand our wants and needs, we can start to communicate them with our partners. Because talking about boundaries can be a sensitive subject, it may be useful to practice this particular communication before it happens.

As previously stated, boundaries are meant to foster a sense of equality and partnership. Communicating our boundaries is an opportunity to understand our partners’ boundaries. As we share our boundaries with our partners, we should strive to ask about theirs.

And finally, it’s important to remember that as our relationships evolve, our boundaries can change. Therefore, we should check in on our boundaries—and our partners’—every so often.

Other Mental Health Terminology

Although “boundaries” is a hot topic, many other mental health terms are overused and misinterpreted.

Here are some words and phrases I often hear people use incorrectly and what they actually mean.

Trauma

“Trauma” seems to be everywhere. In popular culture, in casual conversations with friends and acquaintances, and with patients I see in my clinic, I have found that many people use the word “trauma” to uniformly describe almost any kind of distressing experience.

Clinically speaking, trauma is the emotional response we have to a terrible event. And according to the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), trauma requires exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” And trauma is quite common: approximately 70% of adults worldwide report having been exposed to at least one traumatic event at some point in their lives.

PTSD

Similar to trauma, PTSD has entered our everyday vernacular as a means of describing the anxiety they experience when being reminded of a stressful event or experience.

However, PTSD is a diagnosable mental health disorder that affects approximately 6% of the U.S. adult population. It occurs after a person has experienced a traumatic event, and is characterized by repeatedly “re-living” the event, avoidance of things that remind the person of the event, increased negative thoughts and feelings after the event, and increased agitation and arousal due to the event.

OCD

Have you ever heard someone utter the phrase, “OMG, you’re so OCD”? If so, they’re likely pointing out someone’s desire for cleanliness or orderliness.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) isn’t just a personality quirk, though. It is a chronic mental health condition characterized by uncontrollable, distressing thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that are meant to address the thoughts. People with OCD are typically distressed by their own behavior and find that their condition impacts their daily life.

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Panic Attack

Every so often, I’ll hear someone say, “I think I’m having a panic attack.” What they mean is they’re feeling rather anxious, agitated, or uncomfortable about something. 

True panic attacks occur out of the blue. They’re characterized by intense fear, a sense of doom, a feeling of loss of control, and a host of physical symptoms like a pounding heart, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness. Approximately 11% of U.S. adults experience panic attacks each year, and between 2% and 3% have them frequently enough to be diagnosed with panic disorder.

Gaslighting

“Gaslighting” was Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year in 2022, when searches for the term shot up by 1,740%. People seem to associate the term with deception and manipulation.

Unlike trauma, PTSD, OCD, and panic attacks, gaslighting doesn’t have a clear clinical definition. The term originates from a 1944 film titled “Gas Light.” That being said, it is nowadays defined as a form of psychological abuse in which a person’s experience is repeatedly undermined such that they begin to question their own reality.

It’s not that those who engage in therapy speak are ill-intended. Rather, it’s that the terms above—and many others—have become so ubiquitous in our everyday language that we seem to have forgotten that they have significant clinical meaning. Using such terms lightly can misrepresent what and how we’re actually feeling, be invalidating to those with diagnosable disorders, increase shame and stigma, or cause those who need help to minimize their distress and/or symptoms and inadvertently discourage them from seeking the care they need.

So, the next time you hear yourself or someone you know use mental health terminology a little too lightly, pause. Think about what you or they really mean to say, and encourage yourselves to use different, more accurate language.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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