Cutting People Out Of Your Life Is Not Actually Setting Boundaries

Ask the internet what you should do about your relationship with a needy friend, an offensive relative, or a “toxic” co-worker, and they’d probably reply, “Cut them out.” This solution isn’t just taking the easy way out of things – it’s quote-unquote self-care.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
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Shutterstock/Kryvenok Anastasiia

It goes without saying that anyone in your life who may be manipulating you or in some way exacting emotional, physical, or verbal abuse should be shut out of your life as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Your safety and peace of mind do matter. In instances where there can’t possibly be any communication, growth, or understanding between the two of you, there’s probably not a future, or at least one that isn’t at your expense.

But these kinds of extreme circumstances usually don’t apply to the relationships this advice is most often given to. Cutting people off is usually reserved for the college roommate you’ve grown envious of via social media, or your MAGA hat-wearing uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving, not the people who actually deserve it. Individuals who engage in this kind of behavior nearly always broadcast it for the approval of others, even though this behavior isn’t actually about setting boundaries. 

Pop Psychology Strikes Again

If the preeminent thinkers, philosophers, and psychologists of yesteryear could see the “mental health” advice most of us are given by the internet on a constant, daily basis, they’d willingly return to their graves. Badges like “self-care” and “toxic” are thrown around haphazardly with little forethought, and well-intentioned individuals counseled by these sources are prescribed misleading, detrimental forms of encouragement. 

Cutting someone out of your life is the boundary to end all boundaries. This tactic was popularized around the 2016 election when it became admirable and even moral to cut out family members and friends deemed offensive. A piece NPR did three years ago explored people who unashamedly cut off relationships in their life due to the 2020 election, including cousins and 30-year friendships. It’s been on the uptick ever since then, especially as pop psychology grows within younger audiences like Gen Z.

But politics or really any other reason that isn’t abuse or abhorrent manipulation isn’t a good reason to cut someone out of your life. This example is illustrative of the glaring commonalities within pop psychology. Nearly every piece of life-changing advice focuses on the self, with no thought whatsoever for the feelings of others or any potential harm that could come of it. In 1969, the president of the American Psychological Association, George Miller, instructed his peers and the psychologists of the future to “give psychology away,” or find out how to best make the field marketable, accessible, and understandable to a mainstream audience. You could argue that pop psychology, or the tidbits of watered-down, hackneyed yet catchy aphorisms we’re inundated with on TikTok, isn’t what Dr. Miller intended, but it is the inevitable result of such an effort.

Pop psychology is appealing to us because it primarily operates in a vacuum. It feels unique to our situation, but it’s meant to apply to everyone, and because of this, it’s dangerous. Unlike an actual counselor, therapist, or other trusted authority, the influencer giving us self-help advice will never meet us in real life or deal with the consequences of their guidance. They don’t have to answer for the trouble they cause and are in a protected class by virtue of having thousands of followers or subscribers. They won’t have to answer for their advice, however thoughtless and harmful, but we have to live with the consequences of our choices for as long as we live.

Human Relationships Are Complicated

Cutting someone or even multiple people out of your life completely is seen as the cornerstone of enforcing “boundaries,” or at least, pop psychology’s conceptualization of boundaries. Tools like communication and empathy are usually never mentioned. It’s straight to excommunicating someone from your social media, your photo albums, and your contacts, and pretending they never existed or were a fixture in some way at one point in your life. 

This approach sounds effective to us because it’s so extreme. We’ve all been hurt in a way that leads us to wish we could exorcize someone from our life and even from our memory. If they’d never existed, we wouldn’t have been hurt, and so on. It would be so much better for us if they had never been in our lives.

But many of us know from our experiences with heartbreak that oftentimes, even when you’ve had the last word and that individual is completely removed from your life, you don’t feel healed or whole. You might even feel worse. It goes without saying that human relationships are complicated. We’re all imperfect people, and even our plans to set the ultimate boundary with someone might lead to even more pain than we anticipated.

Cutting someone out of your life is seen as the ideal way to put yourself first. You deserve to have relationships with people who have the same morals and not feel like a pushover, according to one online voice who admittedly keeps cutting people out of her life. This is true to some extent – it’s not healthy to be a pushover – but this acknowledgment doesn’t mean that everyone in your life is automatically required to cater to your needs, wants, and views at the expense of their own. A person’s place in your life shouldn’t be dependent on how comfortable they make you. 

This isn’t an accurate reflection of reality or relationships. It’s an immature and self-obsessed approach to life. If we go about forming relationships on the condition that everyone has to adore, agree with, or affirm us, we’ll be unhappy, or worse, surrounded by people who can’t be honest with us. We can love people close to us who make us angry and who we don’t agree with. Not to mention that if we make cutting everyone we disagree with out of our life a pattern that evolves into a habit, we’re liable to wind up very alone.

Growth Is More Important

If we don’t cut someone out of our life, what’s the alternative? We wind up unhappy? Not exactly. We gain perspective, learn the ability to forgive, and are given an opportunity for profound emotional growth. It isn’t easy, but it’s more rewarding than living with regrets.

A person’s place in your life shouldn’t be dependent on how comfortable they make you. 

All of our relationships shouldn’t be dependent on someone else’s validation of all our morals, perspectives, choices, and attitudes. If variety is the spice of life, our friend group would be as bland as dry toast if we made this a part of our behavior. Furthermore, treating relationships as if our loved ones are privileged to be in our lives is operating from a place of self-delusion. We might be in our “main character” era, but humility goes a long way, especially when you need to grow emotionally.

If a maxim of today’s society is having the courage to “speak our truth,” how is this action conducive to that? We’re not speaking anything at all if we’re opting to cut people out. Anyone who’s been ghosted has probably thought of the person who ghosted them as a coward. Eliminating someone from your life as if they also don’t have perspectives, feelings, and opinions on you isn’t an act of confidence. It’s an act of cowardice. This isn’t about winning arguments, gaining points, or having the last word. It’s about possessing the courage and strength to love someone who hurts you or angers you.

Emotional growth is much more important than being alone and unhappy with rash choices. As cringey as it sounds, addressing your issues and even “speaking your truth” with the individual you find problematic is the most confident, strongest thing you can do. Cutting someone out is a cold, cruel, and exceedingly callous way to operate. Again, if we make this practice a standard of behavior, we won’t have to worry about any relationships at all. We’ll be alone, and while we’ll still have our opinions, values, and perspectives, those things won’t be able to add the joy to our lives that people do.

Closing Thoughts

It’s natural to disagree on things with the people you love. It’s even natural to perhaps argue from time to time on issues you feel passionate about or feel resentful for how they’ve hurt you. It’s not natural to be completely cut off from family members or even friends, and cutting people off isn’t the admirable thing to do. It isn’t natural to live with many regrets or to act as if we’re meant to be alone. The people in our life, especially the ones who have the courage to tell us hard, difficult things which they share from a place of love, are what make our life experience special and valuable. 

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