Thursday, December 8, 2022

When Personal Boundaries Fail - Part 1 and Part 2

Ongoing work in progress exploring and critiquing the concept of "healthy boundaries" as a wellness advice and conflict management tool.

Part 1

Came across this blog post on social media tonight...


And most of the advice came down to "your rules, your way, your needs". Others can either respect it or you just walk away from them. And I have mixed and complex feelings about that.

It's pretty telling that modern society's answer to dysfunction is "abandon and jettison the hurt ones who hurt others".

It's horrible to bring this up when the target audience here is often people dealing with codependent relationships. In the short term it can be a very needed answer. But half the time attempts to set boundaries just end up with worse fighting than ever. Sometimes they don't! For sure. But often they do.

And so we then say "well, if they don't accept you you're better off without them". Which only feels half true. Feels like a lose-lose moreso than the win-lose as its often framed as.

It's also just so odd to me. There's zero accountability for actual resolution and we start to almost normalize it as a society functioning well. The message of "abandon those who don't serve you on your terms" is a weird standard of advice that modern wisdom seems to be addicted to. And by saying that, I'm also not saying "stay in one-sided harmful relationships" either.

So much mental health advice boils down to...

"if they don't accept you you're better off without them"

Which only works if you have others that will accept you. If you don't, this advice essentially says "go be an isolated hermit with no friends, assistance, or interaction of any kind". Which is basically a death sentence. So that's a horrible thing to tell someone. 

The core of stand up for yourself has something to it, don't want to lose sight of that. But it's completely lost in the reality of the other half of this - walking away only works if you have somewhere to walk to - which many people don't.

And it still doesn't address the lingering injustice of the conflict happening in the first place and potential need for justice (another thing we're mostly told to not need and get shamed for not "moving past"). 

The self-help narrative has retraumatized and gaslit me for years. It's taken years to start to recover from these prevalent narratives and I'm still not out of the woods with it. This is my effort to break free of what everyone else says is good for my health, and it's been an awful, unsupported, and fight-filled journey against a lot of the help-that-doesn't-actually-help community.

But, am slowly getting there.

Part 2

While doing research on the topic of personal boundaries, one of the top web search results I found was this one-pager FAQ sheet. It was developed in 2006 by and is hosted on a UC Berkeley website.

The second sentence about personal boundaries says this...

"A person with healthy boundaries can say “no” to others when they want to"

Note the heavily lifting done by the word can. If you can, you're healthy. If you can't, you're unhealthy. As I've pointed out numerous times over the years*, the barriers preventing a person from being able to say "no" effectively might originate from any or all of factors including..

- Issues with self

- Issues with community 

- Issues with broader society  

 People in positions of low power are disempowered from saying no effectively. They don't have the luxury of privilege. They are at high risk. Saying "no" sometimes isn't just ineffective - it can be downright dangerous. More dangerous than the already existing harm from the "no" being ignored. It could risk physical or emotional abuse. It could result in getting fired from a job. It could risk smaller but still impactful microaggressions. And these are often people who do not have the privilege to just go somewhere else when these things happen (which is a topic deserving it's own article).

Do we call these people "unhealthy"? Are the poor "unhealthy"? Are marginalized people of any or all kinds "unhealthy"?

I hope it feels uneasy thinking about that. We may identity these people as "in distress". But I don't think "unhealthy" is the correct term. Maybe, on some technical level, health does not imply cause. Mental health professionals I've interacted with rely on this technicality a lot. Technically, they say, they know and account for social factors. In practice though...

The term health, in contexts like this, is often solely linked to and heavily implying that the issue is an issue with self. That you are unhealthy and that the tools of psychotherapy and relationship advice are all that is needed to fix you and solve the problem - in this case the problem of boundary violation.

Instead of calling boundary violation "unhealthy", call it what it is - boundary violation. 

Begin with a much more explicit separation of experience from cause, which is often not currently done. Put another way, I argue that, in practice, when professionals say "you are unhealthy" what they are also saying is "you are the problem". 

Much like medical disease, we center the problems within the self. And we focus solutions at the level of self. Not the environment. Not the community. That, in my estimation, is one of the key aspects (not the sole one, but a major one) of what it means to discuss the medical model of mental health and why it's problematic.

All the tools of emotional and relationship aid are aimed at what the individual is not currently doing and what they could/should be doing differently. Which, put another way, is telling them that they are doing it wrong and that we need to correct and fix them until they do it right. Being corrected and fixed is sold as the key to freedom from distress.

I am not opposed to the notion that individual-focused self-change strategies sometimes help. But when it becomes the only thing we talk about, it's a massive problem. Because no, individuals are not the sole and only source of their own problems and distress. Period.

*A tool I developed for helping map out causes between self, community, and society is The Accountability Triangle, available here

No comments:

Post a Comment