I don’t know about you, but working in the counselling field, I hear a lot of talk about boundaries. I’m not really sure when the notion of boundaries became as fashionable as it has, but I’ve certainly noticed an influx of boundary-related conversations over the past 5 years or so.
In general, boundary discourse assumes that in order for people to live happy and healthy lives, they need to be really clear with those around them about their preferences and limitations. It’s often closely tied to the notion of assertiveness, which involves clear and direct communication with others.
That’s all fine and good, and there is certainly a place for that kind of communication – but what about in cases where others act in problematic ways against our will and wellbeing? What does it say about us if others “cross our boundaries” repeatedly? What are we (and are we not) responsible for when it comes to things that happen to us in our lives? A lot of folks raise these kinds of questions with me in therapy, so I thought it would be helpful to take a look at 3 common misconceptions about boundaries in this post.
1. It's Always Best to be Assertive
From my perspective, one of the most problematic assumptions about boundaries is that it’s always best to be assertive. This notion goes hand-in-hand with ideas around self-esteem and confidence, assuming that when people don’t say what’s on their minds using clear and direct verbal communication, they don’t care much for themselves. These assumptions fail to acknowledge context in some crucial ways.
Most of the people I see in therapy have had adverse interpersonal experiences that have shown them that the world is not a benign place. In fact, they’ve learned to be particularly careful with how they express themselves around others, based on negative social responses they’ve received though earlier experiences.
People often express themselves in careful and reserved ways when they’re not yet convinced that others can be trusted to respond positively to what they have to say. They might withhold information, moderate their nonverbals and tone of voice, or censor themselves in other ways. These strategies can be likened to acts of resistance against mistreatment or judgment, which fits much better with esteeming oneself highly, versus the more common (but less accurate) assumption of low self-esteem. Careful actions like these show us that there’s more than one way to set a boundary, and sometimes “indirect communication” serves the interests of safety better than assertiveness.
Here’s an example of when a more nuanced response was more fitting than direct assertiveness:
A First Nations man from Penelakut, BC (formerly Kuper Island) told me about how when he was in high school there was a lot of systemic racism against the First Nations students. This discrimination was carried out by members of the student body, faculty, and administration, who were of European descent. If an indigenous student had a concern with how they were being treated by a European-descended peer or person of authority, it was quite unsafe to speak openly with those who might be able to do something about it.
One day he was walking down the hallway alone and two European-descended male peers pushed him into a wall, causing him to drop his books and supplies. He described to me how he was careful to keep his head down, avoided eye contact with the boys, picked his belongings up, and carried on his way without speaking out to them or telling someone from the faculty or administration. Not only did his responses serve as resistance to the racist abuse he was subjected to, and to uphold his dignity, he knew that if he told someone in charge, it was likely that he would be implicated and get in trouble - which would make things far worse for him.
While mainstream boundary discourse would suggest that the optimal response would be to “stand up" to his assailants and seek help from someone with more authority, he exercised situational logic that helped him create safety in a more contextually relevant way than “asserting his boundaries” would have allowed for.
2. We Are Responsible for Other People’s Boundary Violations
You’ve probably heard statements like “She attracts abusive partners”, or “They seek out people who take advantage of them”. Popular psychological folklore suggests that people who experience significant violence, abuse, and other forms of trauma will later seek to reproduce the circumstances in which the adversity initially happened. There are numerous psychological constructs that imply just that. However, because resistance is ever present in the face of violence, abuse, and mistreatment, I believe these assumptions are based on incomplete and inaccurate understandings of how people actually respond to boundary violations.
These ideas imply that when others behave in problematic ways, it’s our fault for not having strong enough boundaries to stop them. Not only are these assumptions based on thin, decontextualized understandings of complex social interactions, they are inherently victim blaming. An increasing number of writers, including Jackson Katz, note how we have a cultural tendency toward pointing the spotlight on victims and people on the receiving end of mistreatment. When we do this, we leave offenders and those who are actually responsible for boundary violations and transgressions out of the conversation.
I think it’s both interesting and unfortunate that we’re more likely to ask, “Why do they keep letting people abuse and mistreat them?” than “Why do those offenders keep acting in such problematic ways?” In the former question, we assume that it’s the victim’s responsibility to make the abuse stop, while the latter question puts the focus on those who are actually responsible for the transgressions. These kinds of boundary violations are usually totally intentional, making statements and interventions focused on increasing victims’ boundaries off base and misinformed.
From my perspective, if we want to erase violence, abuse, and other forms of mistreatment from our societies, we need to get people to stop taking up harmful actions against others. It is the responsibility of offenders to stop offending, and to respect the boundaries of those they offend against.
3. How We Express Our Boundaries Relates to Our Identities - Not The Contexts We Respond TO
While this misconception is applicable to all kinds of other topics, it also relates to boundaries in a big way. In Canada (and Western cultures in general), we have a strong tendency to draw conclusions about people’s identities based on how we observe them behaving. If we see someone doing something kind, we might say, “That’s a nice person”. If we see someone hurt others with little sign that they care for their wellbeing, we might say, “That’s a bad person”. It therefore follows that when we witness someone relate with others in an indirect manner (or like a bull in a china shop), we might say “That person has poor boundaries”.
My issue with these kinds of statements (and I use them too) is that they’re essentializing: they reduce people to an essence that doesn’t make room for the acknowledgement of different kinds of actions they might take in other circumstances. So we might say, “So-and-so has bad boundaries because they don’t express themselves directly with their partner/mother/friend”. But what about in other scenarios? Who do they feel more comfortable being direct with, and around what subjects and topics? What might they be picking up on that has them responding with caution in these situations? Essentializing statements are often hasty conclusions that miss out on all kinds of relevant contextual and historical information.
Rather than concluding that someone has "weak" or "strong" boundaries - period - I think it’s best to be open to context. If we get curious about why someone might be reluctant to assert their desires directly in certain circumstances, we make space for drawing far better informed conclusions. Our statements might then shift to sounding like, “I have a difficult time speaking up in groups because I was humiliated in groups in the past”. A statement like this gives a richer account of the context, framing the speaker’s “lack of assertiveness” as an understandable response and act of resistance against humiliation (which certainly doesn’t fit with the notion that they have low self-esteem).
Direct communication can be a helpful and appropriate way to relate with others, but a “one size fits all” approach to boundaries simply cannot account for all the nuances inherent in our relationships. People exercise situational logic in their interactions with others, and if someone feels uncomfortable with speaking assertively in some circumstances, there’s probably a good reason for that. Shifting our focus away from those on the receiving end of boundary violations, and onto those doing the offences is far more fitting with the objective of creating a more just society. And just because someone might choose not to be assertive in certain circumstances, doesn’t mean that they lack boundaries across all contexts.
If you would like to talk about your experiences with boundaries,