Peer Support: Boundaries and Limits

From Wellness Recovery Action Plan and Peer Support: Personal, Group and Program Development by Mary Ellen Copeland and Shery Mead

What do you think of when you think about boundaries? Personally, I think of stone walls: something firm and not changing. In mental health, clinicians are taught that boundaries keep people in “appropriate” roles: the patient is the patient and the clinician is not. In Peer Support we don’t have fixed roles with each other. Sometimes we are the listener, sometimes the listened to, and sometimes that even changes in one conversation! This gets confusing sometimes.

The language of limits has different implications than the language of boundaries. We set limits with people based on what both of our needs are at a given time. For some things we even come up with permanent limits. For example, I go to bed really early, so I ask people never to call me after 9 PM. This sets up a very different dynamic than saying that people can never call me at home. It also leaves room to change the limit based on a specific experience. If someone has called me every night for a week, I might say that I need them to call someone else for a while – that it’s not working for me. On some weeks I might ask people not to call me at all.

  • What are some of your limits or boundaries?
  • What is your experience with setting limits with people? How did you learn to do it?
  • Is it sometimes hard to keep others from violating your boundaries? Why do you think that is?

Sometimes traditional mental health boundary policies become pretty tempting because they allow us to set an arbitrary line and not have to set individual, situational limits. For example we start telling people that workers don’t ever give out their home number or we say that workers can’t be recipients or guests. We start using boundaries to separate ourselves and then fall into the same power dynamics as a traditional helping relationship.

Here is an example:

Michael and John were co-workers in a respite program. They were mutually supportive and were able to use their relationship to help each other work through tough times. One weekend, John was having an exceptionally difficult time and asked if he could come into the respite program. He was relieved when he found out that Michael was working that weekend. John’s respite stay was really helpful and he returned to work the following week. As always he went to Michael at the end of the day to compare notes and to get some Peer Support. It hadn’t been an easy transition. Michael was quite cold and said rather bluntly, “workers can’t be friends with guests.” John was crushed. When had this policy been set? How did that fit with Peer Support? At the community meeting, John asked if this new policy had been implemented during his respite stay. He was told that there was no such policy. When confronted, Michael told John that he had been afraid to do Peer Support with him now because he worried he might say the wrong thing.

Sometimes we may find ourselves in some pretty confusing situations. Some of them may even require policies for clarity. But most of the time it is best if we figure out what our limits are in a given situation, and then make our limits really clear to the people around us. This will not only be good modeling for people who’ve not learned to set limits, but also helps build trust.

Think about a situation where you set a limit with someone and it really helped the relationship in the long run.

  • How did you negotiate it?
  • How did that create greater safety for both of you?

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