I didn’t really have good role models for boundaries, and didn’t hear them talked about much as a kid, so when I first heard people talking about them, I tried to fit them into my existing categories. But that didn’t work very well, so they felt like nonsense.
It looked like when people were expressing boundaries, they were drawing on nothing but their own preferences to determine them - so maybe boundaries were a kind of strong preference? But people seemed to use some sort of moralistic language around boundaries. People who “violated boundaries” weren’t just costly to interact with, but behaving wrongly, viewed as dangerous, to be excluded from one’s life. Then maybe boundaries were like absolute standards of right and wrong? But that didn’t work either, since they were determined so subjectively.
Miri of Brute Reason may not be the best writer on social justice, but she is the best of whom I am aware. Part of this is that she covers the basics really, really well. Even when the basics are more basic than social justice - like, basic social skills. She has some excellent posts not meant to explain the concept of boundaries, but using the concept in a particularly clear and precise way, that helped crystallize the concept for me. One passage that I found especially helpful was:
[T]here are two broad cultural messages that many of us learn that make it very difficult not to have strong negative emotions when someone sets a boundary with us:
- The idea that there are Good People and Bad People, and only Bad People hurt people (on purpose or by accident). This idea is wrong and harmful and needs to go away. This idea also drives us to dismiss claims that someone we consider a Good Person has hurt someone. Either they aren’t really a Good Person, or they must not have really hurt anyone. The latter is easier to accept, so that’s what we do. In this case, when faced with incontrovertible evidence that you have hurt someone’s feelings, even by mistake, you may conclude that this means you are a Bad Person. It doesn’t.
- The idea that we must intuitively/magically divine others’ needs and boundaries, and if we can’t do this, then we are Bad At People or Bad At Life or otherwise A Failure. [...] So in this situation, if someone is having to set a boundary with you, you may feel that it means you have Failed at intuiting their boundaries and therefore had to be told. In fact, verbally setting boundaries should be considered the default. It is rare to know what someone’s boundaries around everything are, even if you know them quite well.
Understanding that these cultural messages are not necessarily accurate or useful to you is a good first step in learning how to react less negatively when someone sets a boundary with you.
Divia also has a recent post on boundaries, in which she explores the ways in which boundaries can conflict and have to be negotiated, focusing on the case of parents interacting with their children:
It’s good for us to have boundaries around stuff when there’s a big payoff to our having the final say about them and when cultural, material, and social factors make them practical to defend. It’s pretty easy for me to defend my boundary about not having random strangers come into my house. There are laws backing me up, everyone’s social intuitions agree this is a good rule, and I have a lock on my door. I have pretty strong boundaries around people touching my babies, but they’re harder to defend. I tend to be physically near my babies almost all the time, but collective social intuitions aren’t solidly in agreement with me. I’m not very afraid of conflict, but I do have boundaries about how much I’m willing to rock the boat, and that boundary sometimes comes into conflict with my boundaries about how I want people touching my kids.
Defending a boundary can include asking people not to do something, strongly telling them not to, and leaving situations that make us uncomfortable.
“Having boundaries” with kids is a popular topic, since kids by default tend to do a bunch of stuff that makes regular adult life inconvenient. And it’s also common for parents to lose track of their own preferences to the point where they start to resent taking care of kids.
[L]ittle kids often have really strong, inflexible boundaries around stuff that adults wouldn’t. Lydia still finds it very hard to handle when other people change her physical environment, even when the stuff involved isn’t hers. She doesn’t like it when we move the chairs around for the party. She didn’t like it when a guest of ours took a book off our shelf and moved it. She has a boundary about stuff staying where she thinks it should be unless she’s the one to move it. (Though this is less true than it was just a few months ago!)
As I see it, “good” boundaries strike the right balance between being worthwhile to defend and protecting the things that are important to us. As a parent, I see a few things I can do to help my kids learn to have good boundaries.
I can model having good boundaries myself, respect my kids’ boundaries when possible, help them defend the boundaries they have that they’re too little to defend themselves, and let them grieve and regroup when their boundaries are violated.
It’s tough, though, because the first item can conflict with all the rest.
Maybe as a new parent I have a boundary about being able to take a shower by myself every morning, but my baby has a boundary about not being more than a few inches away from me.
Maybe I have a boundary around not challenging people who are older than I am and seem authoritative, but my friend’s mom is being forceful about hugging my child.
Maybe my kid is screaming and crying about some way that her boundaries have been violated… and I have boundaries around how much emotional expression I can handle and still feel capable of being responsible for caring for my kid in a way that meets the standards I’ve set for myself.
Maybe I realize that I can handle much more of my kid’s emotional expression when I can call a friend afterwards to process, and wish I could have a boundary around my kid only getting very upset when my friends are around to talk to me afterwards… and then try to accept that this boundary is impractical… and decide to make a heroic effort to stay present with my kid’s feelings and then lower my parenting standards for the rest of the day.
There aren’t always easy answers. But if we notice which boundary conflicts keep coming up, at least we know some high leverage areas to work on.
Putting these things together, I think I begin to see what boundaries are, or ought to be.
The nearest concept I already had in my model of the world, is one of local norms, such as the rules of a club or a business. Any person or institution that owns a space is entitled to set rules, and ask people using their space to follow those rules. If you break the rules, you’re breaking a promise - so a thing that originates in the space of personal preferences becomes intertwined with absolute standards of right and wrong.
Boundaries are like that, where you’re the owner of the space, except that instead of a space, it’s the experience of interacting with you. You can remove that from most people whenever you want to, and you can ask them agree to follow certain rules in order to get to be in that space. Like laws or club rules, they can be reasonable or unreasonable, prudent or imprudent, but there is still a strong presumption that it’s wrong to violate them, regardless of how reasonable you think they are.
There are strong prudential reasons to minimize the boundaries you set, since that makes it easier to interact with a broader number of people, and to be open to negotiating boundaries if necessary. However, it is also your responsibility to set boundaries at all. Your responsibility to yourself, but also to those who want to be your friend, who want to be good to you, who want not to harm you. Even if your friends are unusually clever and perceptive and make an active effort to model your preferences, you have unique information about what things are exceptionally harmful to you, there’s no way for them to make reasonable tradeoffs if you’re never willing to firmly push back.
The illusion of transparency creates a symmetrical situation: likewise, even if you tell everyone everything you can about your preferences, your friends will still have to make an active effort to model you, to treat you the way you would most like to be treated. This is how to proceed in the best spirit of Tell culture, integrating the virtues of both Ask and Guess.