Protecting Your Peace

Is Therapy-Speak Making Us Selfish?

Boundaries are important. But our relationships require a touch more compassion than some online blueprints offer.

Originally Published: 
Experts offer tips for how to set boundaries in healthy relationships.
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Shutterstock

Last summer, Anna, 24, was dumped by a longtime friend over text. While making plans to meet up, the friend pivoted and told Anna she wanted to end their five-year friendship. When Anna asked if it was something she did, her friend told her she wasn’t comfortable answering, and that there was no more room for discussion.

“I’m in a place where I’m trying to honor my needs and act in alignment with what feels right within the scope of my life, and I’m afraid our friendship doesn’t seem to fit in that framework,” the friend wrote. “I can no longer hold the emotional space you’ve wanted me to, and think the support you need is beyond the scope of what I can offer.”

Anna was hurt, and frustrated. “It felt like she was ending the friendship with an HR memo,” she said. “Like, I would have hoped that you’d respect me enough to give me something more straightforward, or at the very least more kind.”

Even if the friendship couldn’t be saved, Anna says, she would have at least liked to have had the opportunity to respond. “Let it be more of a discussion. Let me say, ‘OK, this is what I need; this is how I’m feeling; this is how you’re feeling; let’s actually talk about this,’” she says. “It felt super one-sided.”

In recent years, therapy concepts like self-care and boundary-setting have shown up everywhere online, with Instagram accounts and other social media communities sharing mantras and advice advocating for self-actualization. TikTok therapists like Nadia Addesi and TherapyJeff offer tips for struggling with anxiety, self-esteem, and people-pleasing. “Therapy speak” — prescriptive language describing certain psychological concepts and behaviors — can be found everywhere from group chats to dating apps. Now, we have more language to advocate for ourselves and our needs, whether it be canceling plans when we feel overwhelmed or ending relationships that no longer serve us.

It’s important to be able to set boundaries and advocate for yourself. Occasionally, though, the emphasis on protecting one’s individual needs can overlook the fact that someone else is on the other side of that boundary-setting. In 2019, for instance, a relationship coach’s Twitter thread offering a template for telling friends in need of support that you’re “at capacity” at the moment drew criticism for equating friendship to emotional labor. Earlier this year, a clinical psychologist’s TikTok video outlining how to break up with a friend went viral after viewers pointed out that it sounded like a missive from HR. Critics have noted that personal relationships require a touch more compassion than some of these therapeutic blueprints offer.

And when you’re on the other side of someone’s perhaps overzealous self-care, the experience can range from annoying, to frustrating, to downright hurtful.

“Trying to reschedule events would be met with ‘The plan has changed. We’re going to do [alternative activity]. I’m setting a boundary.’”

Lucy*, 29 and from Kentucky, had a friend who repeatedly insisted on dictating meetups in the name of self-care. “When we would make plans, they would change them the day before,” she says. “Trying to reschedule and rearrange events would be met with ‘The plan has changed. We’re going to do [alternative activity]. I’m setting a boundary.’”

If Lucy tried to protest, she says, her friend would accuse her of being pushy, which ultimately made her reluctant to make plans out of fear of coming off as “demanding” or “toxic.”

“It did make me doubt myself and think that I was being needlessly demanding, or making people uncomfortable, by expecting plans to be upheld,” she says. “I still get that knee-jerk reaction of not wanting to be a bother when plans are canceled.”

Kate Hakala, 34 and from New York, once invited four of her friends to an intimate dinner at a pizza restaurant to celebrate her birthday. One friend showed up 25 minutes late. “It was a little rude, a little annoying, but not the end of the world,” Hakala says. “I felt like I was still super polite to her and warm.” After dinner and a low-key bar visit, the night wrapped early and Hakala went home. Close to midnight, the late friend called Hakala.

“She says, ‘I need to address this. You made me feel unsafe and unloved tonight,’” Hakala says. “I went, ‘Excuse me?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, your demeanor was a little off and this has been building for a while and you made me feel really left out.’”

Hakala had no idea what prompted this outburst — and on her birthday, no less. “I’m wracking my brain to think, what did I do other than to invite you to a really intimate dinner with my closest friends and hug you and have drinks with you?” she says. “Of course, I got off the phone and immediately cried and felt like sh*t.”

“She says, ‘I need to address this. You made me feel unsafe and unloved tonight,’” Hakala says. “I went, ‘Excuse me?’”

This kind of self-care and boundary-setting isn’t limited to friendships. Carrie*, who asked to withhold her age for privacy reasons, says her brother spent months ghosting their parents without explanation. Carrie’s parents were devastated, and when she tried to mediate, or at least get some answers, he resisted, telling her that if she defended their parents he wouldn’t feel safe.

“He created this whole thing about his safety, his boundaries, his rules,” she says. “Obviously that’s important, but it’s like he came into it with the framework like he’s the only real person in the world and everybody else has to do exactly what he says to make him safe.”

There are reasons a person might be tempted to overindulge in some of this self-care behavior. Conflict can be difficult, and people might think they can avoid it by asserting their needs in a way that prevents the other person from responding — by using HR language to end a friendship, for instance, or via straight-up ghosting. And by couching the behavior in therapy language, the hard “boundary” can feel more legitimate, or even virtuous.

But Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist, professor, and the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends, says that encouraging people to set boundaries in a way where you’re only considering your needs and not someone else’s can hinder creating healthy relationships.

“It’s antithetical to this assumption we all have in our relationships, which is that when we’re in need, someone will show up for us,” she says. “That’s what makes us feel secure with someone, that we can trust them to show up for us in times of need.”

She recommends practicing something called mutuality, which involves thinking about the other person’s needs and your needs at the same time, and deciding which are more urgent to prioritize at the moment. There may be instances when it’s necessary to bail on plans, ignore a text, speak up when you feel slighted, or take space from a trying friendship, but there are people on the other side of these interactions with their own sense of interiority. If your friends are frequently choosing their own needs over yours, Franco says, it’s worth asserting yourself.

“I think the assumption is that we should always be flexible according to people’s boundaries,” Franco says, “but when someone’s boundaries inflict on you feeling loved and supported and cared for in a relationship, you don’t just have to put up with it in the name of [someone else’s] self-care.”

“When someone’s boundaries inflict on you feeling loved and supported and cared for ... you don’t just have to put up with it in the name of [someone else’s] self-care.”

Beyond boundary-setting and inflexibility, the proliferation of therapy speak has also inspired some people to assign labels like “toxic” and “narcissistic” to certain relationships or behaviors. Though toxic people and narcissists do exist, these armchair diagnoses don’t always accurately capture every dynamic, and being on the receiving end of this language can be destabilizing when it’s misplaced.

Kaitlyn, 30, and her wife, Camille, 32, from Chicago, found themselves in a difficult situation when a couple they were close with began pulling away without explanation. When Kaitlyn confronted them about why they were ghosting, they essentially proceeded to do an intervention, accusing her of mistreating and abusing Camille and claiming her relationship dynamic made them uncomfortable.

“The husband of the couple told me that it was clear I was incapable of being self-reflective and all this stuff of, basically, using therapy speak to say ‘You’re a sh*tty person, and you don’t care about other people, and you’re a narcissist,’” Kaitlyn says.

Camille assured her there was nothing wrong, but the conversation still devastated Kaitlyn. She reached out to everyone she knew to see if they could corroborate the toxic picture the couple had painted. “I called my mom, I called my sister, I called my best friend, everybody, to be like, ‘Is there something that I’m not seeing here that they’re seeing that I need to change?’” she says. “I had a complete breakdown.”

Months later, the couple reached out, admitted they were projecting their own relationship troubles onto Kaitlyn and Camille, and eventually split up. But the ordeal had taken its toll.

“It became something that I thought about anytime we had the slightest argument, the slightest disagreement,” Camille says. “I was always on alert, like, ‘Oh no, is there something in my relationship that I’m not seeing?’”

Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, says that some of the therapy speak can add more weight to what’s ultimately a one-sided observation.

“It feels more official, more legitimized, more of a final-sounding judgment when you give somebody a diagnostic label or you label a friendship in a particular way,” she says. But people and relationships are fluid, she says, and having fixed ways to describe particular relationships or individuals “cheats us of some of that flexibility.”

Some of the my-way-or-the-highway, I’m-setting-a-boundary-that-you-can’t-cross-or-else advice out there, she notes, can ultimately backfire. “There’s an extent to which defining a lot of boundaries and being very quick to abandon relationships that aren’t optimal actually sets people up to be a lot more isolated and lonely,” she says.

Saxbe notes that it’s essential “to be mindful of other people’s interiority, and the fact that everybody deserves to be in healthy relationships.” After all, Saxbe says, “Really good relationships are a two-way street.”


Marisa G. Franco, psychologist, professor, and the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends

Darby Saxbe, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Southern California

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