25 January, 2014

Not Boundaries

I have been thinking about boundaries a lot and have a bunch of posts stewing.  Some of my posts are about having strong boundaries, but today I was thinking about what is not a boundary.  I guess I should stop using the word boundaries so much because it's kind of vague--I would define boundaries as things that a person has the right to control.

For example, a person should be able to control whether they have conversations with strangers.  If I try to talk to a stranger on the bus and she keeps ignoring me or she tells me she doesn't want to talk to me, then I should stop talking to her.  If I keep trying to talk to her, I'm coming up on violating her boundaries.  If I actually become aggressive or try to punish her for not talking to me, then my behavior is seriously wrong and abusive.

But not every preference is a boundary.  Let's say the same stranger not only doesn't want to have conversations on the bus, but doesn't want anyone to have a conversation on the bus.  She tells everyone on the bus to stop talking to each other.  That's not appropriate, I don't think.

There's some room for interpretation of what is or isn't a boundary.  What if people on the bus are having a very loud conversation that is hateful or sexually explicit?  A lot of people would feel it's within their rights to tell them to stop having that conversation in public.  Even though there are some gray areas, I think there's usually an answer to the question, "Is this a legitimate boundary?"

Yesterday I was at a restaurant with two friends.  I'm not in a really high-quality fake name headspace, let's call them Alice and Sebastian.  After I mentioned how anxious and stressed out I sometimes felt when people would sing loudly in public, the conversation eventually led to Alice and Sebastian both singing loudly in the restaurant.  I felt uncomfortable and wished they would stop.

I don't know what's up with this, because I'm sure I'm totally loud and weird in public sometimes.  But I often get really distressed when I'm with someone who is singing loudly, talking in a certain way (like putting on a fake accent), laughing loudly, or just talking really loudly in public.  I guess part of me feels scared that people will be upset with them and something bad will happen to them, or that I'll get in trouble for allowing this to happen.

Because these situations make me so uncomfortable, there have been many times when I demanded that someone stop singing in public and felt like the person was hurting me when they didn't stop.  Even last night, I thought of putting my money down on the table and saying, "Okay Alice and Sebastian, you're upsetting me and I'm going to leave."  I briefly felt like doing this would just be asserting my boundaries, even though I knew it would upset them too.

When I thought about it, though, I remembered what I've been thinking about lately--that just because you don't like something doesn't mean it's wrong for someone to do it.  There's nothing wrong with being irrationally bothered by stuff, but there is something wrong with expecting other people to always stop things that bother you.  There has to be some kind of limit when it comes to accommodation.

I know that sounds harsh, but things can go really wrong if you don't prioritize logic over emotional reactions.  Like, if someone gets suicidal every time someone criticizes her--that sucks for her and it's not her fault, but if people always prioritize that person's feelings, then that means they can't even tell her if she did something really bad to them.  She could be driving the wrong way on the highway and the other person in the car would be worrying about making her suicidal by telling her they're about to get in an accident.

I've been in situations pretty close to this, and it just is no good.  Sure, people can't help having mental health problems or reacting to stuff a certain way.  That doesn't mean that they should allow those problems to control other people's lives.  I've had really positive and really negative relationships with other mentally ill people, and the most negative things have happened when people have not been mindful and responsible about their mental illness.

I just waited it out with Alice and Sebastian--I was glad that I didn't end up being mean to them for singing, because they should sing if they want.  But I also felt dissatisfied with how things had gone, because I had to sit through something that upset me.  I thought about it more today and came up with a potential solution of leaving for a while, explaining why I'm leaving, but also being very clear that I don't think they're doing anything wrong and I'm glad they're doing something they like.  Obviously this is something that some people would think is just crazy and ridiculous, but I think it could work with a lot of the people I spend time with.


  1. sounds like they were kinda being assholes. you mention how much something bothers you and then they immediately do it. thats them having fun at your expense. its not like they would have done that singing otherwise.

    1. I can see how it sounds like that but I don't think they were, because one of them sings a lot and is generally really loud (we've had conflicts about it a lot and it stresses me out, but it's definitely the way he naturally is not something he's doing because of me).

      That said though I'm trying to make decisions regardless of possible intent. It sucks if they were doing it to bother me but it doesn't give me more of a right to control their behavior.

  2. maybe I'm just judgmental but why would a person sing loudly in a restaurant anyway? that sounds annoying as hell

  3. I kinda agree with Mtt it's not really appropriate public behavior even in, like, Sheetz or Taco Bell....

  4. Just playing catch up on some of your posts. As always, I love the door you open into you thought processes.

    I was reading a novel by Maggie Stiefvater and marveling at how she captures her characters thoughts and thinking how much richer her novels are because of the insights she offers her readers into the reasons for her characters' actions/reactions.

    I don't know if you write fiction, but I think you'd really be amazing at it if you applied the same sort of thinking to your characters that you do to yourself.

    I know this isn't really a post-specific comment, but I've read three or four, and it's the thought that keeps popping into my head as I read you.


    1. thanks Jim! I used to write fiction but I haven't been lately and I actually have been wondering if my view of the world is too black and white right now. like, I have really strict ideas of how people should behave so I feel like it could make me a really boring and uncompassionate writer.

  5. I know this is an older post, but it hits on something I've been musing over for some time.

    I'm a caretaker for a parent with pretty serious mental health issues that are complicated by age-related memory loss. I also have mental health issues of my own. It's very hard for me to balance my needs against her abilities. As an example, she spends a lot of time following me around screaming about things outside my control (literally screaming) with the end result that I feel like my own mental health suffers. How can I balance my need not to be screamed with her inability not to scream? How can I even tell if she is unable to stop herself as opposed to unwilling? At times I feel that if she didn't have mental health issues that would be called an abusive relationship and certainly it hits all of the usual markers for that. Does it stop being abusive if she can't help herself?

    It goes make to what you were saying about intent. How much does it matter and how much weight does it carry? Does it matter if your friend was singing just to bug you? The results are the same in terms of how it makes you feel. But I do think knowing a person is *choosing* to do something upsetting may change your response to it. Friends shouldn't be doing things to hurt each other just for laughs, at least not good friends. You're not controlling their behavior...you're not saying "never sing in public". Just "please don't sing when we're together' and that's a totally reasonable request. A friend who can't respect that isn't being a good friend, even if they don't grasp the reason behind the request.

    As far at the situation with my mother, I don't think there's any easy answers. But when she's following me around screaming, I do feel that her intent matters and if she's doing it purposely or not matters...even if in the end, the consequences are the same.

    1. Gosh, that sounds terrible. I spend too much time thinking about the abusive relationship I got out of 9 months ago, largely because I won't ever know for sure if my ex was abusing me on purpose and hiding it behind mental health and disability excuses, or if she genuinely couldn't help those things...I feel she was abusive either way but it's kind of a difference between intentionally setting out to abuse me, and just being really selfish and dumb about the way her disabilities affected me. I was lucky to be in a relationship I could end.

      You didn't mention whether there is anyone who helps you take care of your mom or whether that's a possibility? If you guys live together and you spend most of your time together it sounds unlivable and not a situation that anyone should have to be in.