I don’t think there is a topic I cover more in therapy than boundaries. I don’t always address it as a boundary issue, and clients don’t always bring it up as a boundary issue, but so many other topics that come up in therapy are, at their core, about boundaries. Work-life balance? That’s boundaries. Communication within a relationship? Boundaries. Struggling with self-care? Boundaries again! So, how did we all get so bad at setting (and keeping!) boundaries? And why is it so hard to have healthy boundaries? Let’s go there now!
Those of you who think ‘Jeremy looks like a hippie’ will love this one: society doesn’t want you to have good boundaries. That’s right, The Man is keeping you down! I promise I’m not actually a drug-addled hippie or a conspiracy theorist, stick with me here. We live in a capitalist society that requires your time to be a commodity. You work for your pay, but also, for someone else’s profit. Shareholders, CEOs, other capitalist communities that need your product all require you to not have solid boundaries so they can maximize their own profit. This can be as simple as you not clocking out right as your shift ends, or just staying “a few extra minutes” to wrap something up after work hours. The entire school system would collapse if teachers stopped going in early or staying late, and honestly that’s true for nurses and the healthcare industry, too. For-profit society needs people to have bad boundaries. Why did shareholders and CEOs make absolute bank throughout the pandemic? How do certain major companies turn record profits while regular people deal with a recession? The people who contribute in zero meaningful ways are maximizing profits while regular joes are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s systemic bad boundaries, and it’s (unfortunately) baked into our society as a feature, not a flaw. When the excesses and the unfairness of it all tip too far we see strikes and concessions made, but the whole game is rigged so that most of the bad boundaries are dispersed widely enough over the entire population that no one is harmed so badly that they’ll fight the system. This is why big companies like Amazon and Starbucks are against unions. Now, this is not the space to weigh in on all of those societal issues, there’s much smarter people than me to comment on it in more profound ways. But the reality is healthy boundaries don’t align with late stage capitalism, or really capitalism at all. Womp womp. And it isn’t just economical systems, most of our major institutions are predicated on control. Education, healthcare, religion, all have wonky boundaries that are about keeping people in line as opposed to supporting people being healthy.
So, society at large doesn’t want us sticking up for ourselves, but our friends, family, and social contacts don’t often want us to, either. Now, that sounds worse than it actually is. While capitalism is meant to manipulate for profit and power, poor boundaries in our social circles are usually much more about mindlessness and less about malice (barring abusive relationships, which are all about power imbalances). For example, mommy and daddy didn’t want you to be a cake maker. They wanted you to be a doctor or lawyer or astronaut. Maybe they pushed hard enough for that goal that you had to push back and do some boundary work already, but for a lot of us it wasn’t butting heads and arguing, there was just a lot of low-key pressure exerted on us for a specific outcome. A lot of parents probably couldn’t even articulate what it was they were pushing for, they just wanted the best for you, and when you dyed your hair green or brought home that significant other they didn’t approve of they acted surprised. Maybe a little disappointed because “that’s not what they wanted for you.” And yeah, I think even these tiny pressures, that may have been well-meaning at the time, do damage. But outside of the damage done, they also set a terrible example. Not only is it not teaching good boundaries, it’s actively teaching sub-optimal boundaries. Our social circles as adults do this, too. Oh, Shelby invited you to a costume party but, like, didn’t expect you to put so little effort into your costume. Your friends wanted to go out on a Friday and thought it was lame you left before you even got a good buzz going. Sometimes it isn’t even nefarious or conflictual, sometimes it’s just that your healthy boundaries don’t magically align with someone else’s healthy boundaries. Your biking group wants to change days to accommodate two other riders, but that doesn’t work for your schedule at all. These are small things that ultimately contribute to chipping away or undermining having healthy boundaries.
Man, what a bummer this all is. Society failed and we’re all doomed, amirite? Not so fast. Having healthy boundaries is indeed very hard. But, it is possible, and pretty sweet once you have your boundaries in place. It is work, but it is very worthwhile work. Having a life that you feel is meaningful, congruent with your values, and is full of awesome people who love and support you? Yeah, that’s rad. So, get on it! And if you’re garbage like most of us for the above mentioned reasons, get help. It’s a really positive thing to get help with difficult tasks. Look at you, asking for help is already a great step towards having better boundaries.