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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Boundary Setting

On his 2021 mixtape Hate is Dead, rapper Trippie Redd featured a song entitled “R3D LiN3” (red line) in which he warned, “Bro, don’t cross that red line!” The advisement relates to a clearly defined boundary.

In this regard, a boundary is a line—real or imagined—that marks the limits of an area. Presumably, the entertainer’s admonition to his opponents relates to a popularized warning from former President Barack Obama.

The career politician once admonished Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad not to use or move chemical weapons, because doing so would constitute a violation of Obama’s “red line” boundary.

What utility is there in boundary setting when one doesn’t reinforce a suggestion or threat? What happens when others cross that red line?

Per the United States (U.S.) Department of State, in 2013—following Obama’s warning—al-Assad’s “regime launched rockets carrying the deadly nerve agent sarin into the Ghouta district of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people.”

Following al-Assad’s reported actions, one source states that “Obama quietly backed down from his threat and punted the solution to the Russians, who were all-too-willing to flex their power-brokering influence in the Middle East.”

When warned not to cross that red line, there was no follow-through from the U.S. As such, other nations may have concluded that future admonishment from Obama would receive similar inactive measures.

In “R3D LiN3,” Trippie Redd states, “You don’t cross the motherfuckin’ red line,” “Tote a whole hunnid rounds, get yo head bust,” and, “I ain’t playin’ ‘round, walkin’ ‘round with that blammer. Yeah, walkin’ ‘round with that hammer.”

One is uncertain as to whether or not the rapper would bring to conclusion the effects of accountability when others violate his boundary, unlike Obama who simply recoiled when al-Assad called his bluff.

Nonetheless, I consider the establishment of red lines from a psychotherapeutic perspective. Particularly, I’m thinking of healthy boundaries—clearly expressed limits for one’s autonomy in relation to an individual’s interests and goals.

According to one source, “A person with healthy boundaries understands that making their expectations clear helps in two ways: it establishes what behavior you will accept from other people, and it establishes what behavior other people can expect from you.”

Often, people who fail to effectively communicate healthy boundaries unnecessarily disturb themselves when their personal policies are violated. In Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), this is known as “shoulding” on oneself, others, and the world.

When we use demanding statements which involve should, must, or ought-type narratives, we are in essence declaring that not only would it be displeasing if others crossed a red line, we’re communicating that doing so would lead to disastrous consequences.

When practicing REBT, I invite clients to consider personal responsibility and accountability. In this way, responsibility relates to what is or isn’t to be done and accountability involves actions taken when the subject of responsibility is disregarded.

I encourage clients to consider that while we may prefer for other individuals to honor set boundaries, they aren’t obligated to do so. What happens when other people ignore your admonition, as al-Assad did with Obama?

It is your responsibility to establish boundaries, because people aren’t mind readers and can’t always intuit what you’d like them to do. Still, you are the individual held accountable for your reaction to disregarded boundaries.

Just because you say, “You don’t cross the motherfuckin’ red line,” doesn’t mean that when someone calls your bluff you are then at liberty to hold them accountable through unjust, illegal, or other questionable means. What then may be an appropriate response to violated boundaries?

Personally, if someone crosses a clearly identified red line, I find it helpful to use open, honest, and vulnerable communication. This doesn’t mean I say, “You crossed my red line and that made me feel like you don’t respect me.”

Namely, this is because there is no such feeling as disrespect. What I’m more likely to express is, “Were you aware of the boundary that’s been crossed?”

This close-ended question may generally lead to one of two outcomes, though not always. For outcome one, the person could plead ignorance of my set boundary and this would provide an opportunity to reestablish a healthy boundary.

With outcome two, the individual may confirm that the boundary was violated—whether purposely or not. Here, I’m provided with an opportunity to reinforce the boundary by implementing the consequences of the infringed limit.

Let’s say that when initially establishing a boundary regarding someone yelling at me rather than communicating in a less confrontational way, I communicated the repercussion of a timeout. It would be useful to have outlined the duration of a healthy intermission in the first place.

Suppose I initially set the boundary by stating, “You tend to yell when upset, so moving forward I think it would be appropriate to take a 15-minute timeout—after which we can resume the conversation when emotions have tapered off a bit.”

For the sake of this scenario, let’s imagine that the other person agreed to this healthy boundary. This is a fundamental component of boundary setting, because it’s irrational to think I can simply go through life setting red lines to which others don’t agree and to which I hold them accountable nevertheless.

When the agreed upon boundary is violated, I question the other person about awareness of the event—not asking an implied judgement question regarding why the red line was crossed. Maybe the person says, “You’re damn right, I crossed the red line!”

I then communicate the need for reinforcement of the healthy boundary by saying something like, “At this time, I think we both need a 15-minute timeout. If you’re willing, I’d like to resume the conversation once emotions have subsided a bit. May we do that?”

The individual may agree with the proposal. Still, it isn’t always that others who are emotionally charged by their irrational beliefs about a situation will behave in a helpful manner.

Whether rockets containing chemical agents are launched, people are shot with blammers, or the continuation of an unproductive argument results, fallible human beings don’t always respond in ways we’d prefer them to.

Even still, I don’t have to (i.e., must) allow my beliefs about the behavior of others to result in unpleasant emotions and unhealthy behavior. If a person disregards my attempt at healthy boundary reinforcement, I have options.

Option one; I could continue trying to reinforce the set boundary. Option two; I could discontinue the conversation, because the dialogue isn’t likely to lead anywhere meaningful.

Option three; I could simply abandon my set boundary altogether. Option four; I could continue the conflict in hopes that emotions will run their course and yield the least likely detrimental effects of this choice.

While there are other alternatives, I would choose option two. This is because my clearly expressed limit is intended to support autonomy in relation to my interests and goals.

In this case, I’m not interested in arguing with someone who continues yelling at me. Likewise, it isn’t my goal to communicate with a person whose unproductive behavior violates my healthy boundary.

For me, and unless it relates to extremely limited circumstances, it isn’t acceptable for other people to yell at me, or for me to yell at them. Because I cannot control others, I’m personally responsible and accountable for how I react to their behavior.

Dear reader, what do you think of boundary setting and reinforcement of healthy limits? Would you like to know more about how to take ownership of your response during situations in which people cross your red line?

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As the world’s foremost old school hip hop REBT psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


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