As a counselor, I have more than my fair share of conversations about boundaries. When folks talk about boundaries, they’re often referring to the notion that in order for people to live happy and healthy lives, they need to assert their preferences and limitations to others in clear and direct ways. Depending on your cultural background, you’d probably agree that there is definitely a place for that kind of communication.
But what about when others cross our boundaries? If it happens over and over again, what does that say about us? What are we responsible for when it comes to upholding our own boundaries? Many clients have raised these kinds of questions with me in the counselling room, so I thought it could be useful to take an up-close look at boundaries in this post.
Different Situations Require Different Kinds of Boundaries
A lot of counselors and helping professionals favor the idea that it’s always best to be assertive. We could dissect, analyze, and critique this assumption in many different ways, but one thing I will say is this: it’s easy for helping professionals to make these kinds of statements without considering their own privilege first. As a middle class, heterosexual, cisgender man of European descent, being assertive is far easier for me than for folks whose voices are less validated in society.
The notion that assertiveness reigns supreme is closely tied to ideas around self-esteem and confidence. You’re probably familiar with the assumption that when people don’t say what’s on their minds using clear and direct language, it means they have low self-esteem. Assumptions like these fail to account for context in some really important ways.
Many folks I see in the counselling room have had adverse interpersonal experiences that have shown them that the world is not a safe and trustworthy place. They’ve learned to be especially wary of how they express their thoughts and feelings to others after receiving significant and/or abundant negative social responses though earlier experiences. In the interest of creating safety, they might withhold information, moderate their nonverbal cues and tone of voice, or censor themselves in other ways. The bottom line is that these kinds of actions are protective, and therefore very important. Careful actions like these show us that there are multiple ways to set a boundary, and sometimes “indirect communication” serves the interests of safety better than assertiveness.
We Are Not Responsible for Other People’s Boundary Violations
Statements like, “She attracts abusive partners,” or, “They seek out people who take advantage of them,” are so common that you may not even think twice when you hear them (I know there was a time when I didn’t). Popular psychological theories suggest that people who repeatedly receive significant violent or abusive treatment from others will later seek to reproduce the circumstances in which those experiences initially happened. There are many psychological constructs that imply just that. These ideas don’t account for the fact that resistance is ever present in the face of adversity and mistreatment. These assumptions are therefore based on incomplete and inaccurate understandings of how people actually respond to boundary violations.
These kinds of ideas assume that it’s our fault when we’re unable to stop people from behaving in problematic ways toward us because our boundaries “aren’t strong enough”. These assumptions fail to take the whole contextual picture into consideration, and are inherently victim blaming. More and more people, including writers, activists, and social justice advocates are acknowledging how our culture has a tendency toward pointing the spotlight on those on the receiving end of boundary violations, rather than those who are actually responsible for them.
I believe that if we want to work toward creating a safer and more inclusive world, we need to get people to stop doing harm to others. It is the responsibility of offenders to stop offending, and to respect the boundaries of those they transgress against.
This point is applicable to many other topics, and it relates to boundaries in a big way. In Canada, we’re pretty keen on drawing conclusions about people’s identities based on how we observe them behaving. When we see someone doing something kind, we’re likely to conclude that they’re “a nice person”. If we see someone hurt other people in a purposeful way, we’ll probably see them as “a bad person”. Based on this tendency, when we witness someone relate with others using indirect communication, or like a bull in a china shop, we’d probably say, “That person has poor boundaries”.
These are examples of essentializing statements: they reduce people to an essence that doesn’t account for the diverse kinds of actions they might take in other circumstances. So we might say, “She has bad boundaries because she doesn’t express herself directly with her partner/mother/friend.” But what about in other contexts? Who does she feel more comfortable being direct with? What subjects and topics is she more comfortable addressing? What might she be aware of that has her responding with caution in these situations? Essentializing statements are often hasty conclusions that miss out on all kinds of relevant contextual and historical variables.
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 a lot in the past.” A statement like this gives a richer account of the context, framing the speaker’s “lack of boundaries” as an understandable response and act of resistance against humiliation.
Direct communication can be a helpful and fitting way to relate with others, but a “one size fits all” approach to interaction 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.
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.