Without Borders: On Boundaries and Communication

Q. So I have a friend that is significantly younger than me. He’s a nice kid, but very socially awkward. I try to give social pointers as much as I can, but I don’t think he really takes any of the advice I give him. That’s not really my issue though — the problem is he over shares terribly to me. He’s PMing me everyday on Facebook to tell me all sorts of things that I really don’t need to know. How do I politely yet firmly make it clear to him that it seems to me like he’s trying to force our friendship to a more intimate level and I’m not really comfortable with that at all? I don’t over share back and am really a pretty private person, even with close friends. Knowing this amount of information about him makes me uncomfortable, and also concerned for him since who else is he sharing this really vulnerable info with? 

A. Have you ever seen that group, Médecins Sans Frontières? You may know them more as Doctors without Borders, the secular, humane aide organization that outposts doctors, nurses, medical administrators, logistical experts, and water and sanitation engineers in one of two scenarios: 1. In at risk nations where, while there is “low grade” crisis, the culture and climate as it stands is not helping the growth of its own people; or 2. “High grade” crisis, meaning anywhere that has suffered a recent crisis or disaster, whether civil war, ethnic conflict, or natural disaster. It might seem strange to measure conflict on some sort of grade scale, alternating between highs and lows, but it only is supposed to shed light on what type of crisis is happening, how it can be helped, and whether or not this crisis is something that will continue and eventually threaten the lives of everyone, or if it is threatening the lives of everyone now. Both are situations that need serious help, just in different ways.

The point of those doctors? To intervene in crisis without an agenda. Given the weight of history, it is a relatively popular phenomenon that those of the wealthier, “more civilized” Western world went trolloping along into countries of need, often times being the direct cause of putting those countries into said need. They would take God, Western values, projections, compromises, and all sorts of baggage with them, creating an environment that offered services, but with a slight catch. Need help? Then before we get you the life-saving water or medical aid for your family, let’s talk about what will really save you: Jesus! It’s a tacky racket, to say the very least, but it is also a two-fold compromise, a blackmailing of desperate individuals into God for the sake of exchange for relief. For all intents and purposes, it’s selfish.

Nonetheless, Doctors without Borders was opposed to that, offering only help that most often means the difference between life and death, not just for those who came to its doors, but for those who volunteered. “Aside from injuries and death associated with stray bullets, mines and epidemic disease, MSF volunteers are sometimes attacked or kidnapped for political reasons. In some countries afflicted by civil war, humanitarian aid organizations are viewed as helping the enemy, if an aid mission has been set up exclusively for victims on one side of the conflict, and attacked for that reason.” By default, it seems that living without any sort of boundary is something that comes only with crisis.

Which is what is happening with your young friend: He’s living without boundaries. There is a crisis of some sorts, and there he is, responding to the situation at large by reaching out to you, and perhaps not only you. Maybe it’s a low-grade crisis, a situation of environmental stress that, while minor, wears on him day in and day out, tearing away bit by bit, a problem without a specific name, a situation of “what is this, what is this, what is this” that one says over and over in one’s head and that one never finds clarity on. Perhaps it is a high-grade crisis, a situation of direct threat, a threat you should seem to know about but don’t, even given his tendency to over share. But the funny thing about direct crisis? We tend not to react to what’s standing straight in front of our faces, screaming at us until we absolutely have to. That’s the blatant normalcy of even the worst crises.

I don’t want defend your friend’s behavior, because as women, we tend to not have the privilege of taking our boundaries lightly. Our boundaries are our golden gates, swords of protection that are only learned after far too many times of living without, gathered experiences of wanting to please and realizing that pleasing does not actually get one anywhere, transformed with age and awareness, into our shining talons of self-care. Boundaries are what give us healthy perspectives, protect us from those who intend us harm, even if not purposely. Boundaries allow us space to be without the pressure of doing. Boundaries are our personal lines, drawn thick around the space of us and what else in the world, the ones that allow for personal responsibility, renewal, and protection for our vulnerable hearts. But, I do want to shed light on what it can mean to live without boundaries, as your friend seems to be. Without boundaries, crisis informs your life and the way you interact with the world around you. They aren’t useful, given that with each step you take, something inside you screams out with all its might, even if that something is not completely understood, but it is something that everyone else needs to feel, to suffer. Boundaries do not solve anything anyways and boundaries are useless when you are wandering around, yelling for everything but the actual help you need.

Just because we understand the situation, does not mean that somehow boundaries have no need to be enacted. But it does perhaps shed light on what can seem like strange and troubling behavior.

I’ve been on both sides of this coin, my dear reader. I’ve trembled in the territory in which a boundary has been crossed and been the boundary crosser who has gone into unwelcome territory. I have been a person of unwanted attention, the kind that borders on manic, all-encompassing, seemingly oblivious to social conduct or codes, and I have been a person who has witnessed people spiral down into a troubling sense of drowning, desperate to grab hold of anything they can. This is why they tell you to never try to save drowning people if you aren’t properly trained: it’s often the drowning person’s panic that drags you down as well.

I once longed so badly for the contact of another person who I was certain understand would understand my problems, that the idea of not letting my heart overflow for a few brief minutes was enough to be torturous. I craved an eternal and fixed attention from anyone who showed a glimmer of giving it to me, taking those few minutes of normal conversation to unleash the darker stuff I had been carrying around since god knows when. That backpack would get so heavy and something had to be let out and with that little glimpse of attention, poof! There would go all the stuff I had shoved down deep into my pack, that crap I had carried around in a silent attempt to “get over it” or “move on” or achieve some dedicated attempt of “that’s life.” These confessions of course, would feel like an exorcism, allowing those demons to flee out and off into the world, where someone else would have to carry them. For a split second, I would just not feel so goddamn alone. Of course, when the person I had transfixed into that which I could let forth all those issues would understandably withdraw at some point, I would try to seduce them back with even more knowledge, the subtext being, “Hey, look how open about my life I can be with the general public!” The less I knew them, the better. Of course, that’s troubling, stalker like behavior, and when the lines of communication would trickle to a fault, I would feel rejected, ashamed, and angry. But instead of thinking about how I might have frightened the other person, the one who clearly had a sense of boundaries, I could only think of how they hurt me and how childish or stupid they must have thought of me. I could only think about myself and my pain.

Of course, I’m a believer in spoonfuls of your own medicine, so when the tables were eventually turned on me, it was only then I realized the chaotic warpath that comes from living without boundaries. Everything is crisis mode, everything is the most urgent thing ever. Everything is worth airing to those who barely know you, as if the more distance between you and a person might offer some sort of protection from judgment or actually dealing with crisis. Of course, it doesn’t protect you, in fact, it’s usually the opposite. It instead creates a person who is so focused on their own mishandled pain that everyone else around them becomes part of the crisis, whether willing or not. It is assuming that we can become close with someone by what we project onto them, hoping that they will be able to bear witness, but to never come any closer than that.

This is where you stand, willing or not, and your letter strikes me more as a not type of gal. The question is, how do you say “not”? Well, you just do. That’s the wonderful thing about boundaries. While they constantly change and reroute due to the terra firma at large, we always have the ability to define where they are and relearn them. It sounds like your friend needs to learn or even relearn boundaries, but that is difficult, given the crisis. So what can you do? You start by drawing those lines in the sand. You do this for your friend. You take him to the very edge of where your territory lies, you make him stand there and you say, “This point you cannot pass. This point you can. This point makes me uncomfortable and has me worried about you. This point makes me feel as if you should seek professional help. This point is the exact point up to where I can help you.” You have the boundaries, my love, I know you do. But boundaries are nothing more than sweet talking points in adult conversations unless you enforce them. How this may or may not be received, is unfortunately unknown. You may see a person who recognizes that inherent danger of wandering around a ground level crisis, without a border, hunting and searching for anyone who will neutralize that pain. You may encounter a person who is drowning and is so panicked, they attempt to take you down with them. Either way, the only way to know is to clearly set those boundaries down now. It may be easier, more tempting to just axe the situation at large, to ignore the chaotic, borderless life force that is your friend. I don’t advocate for last-ditch efforts unless the situation qualifies, but I do advocate for being clear. Sincere clarity is a gift that always gives back. Be clear. Lay down your law. You might not have the ending you want, but you might also show a person that the only one who is going to save themselves from the constant crisis of a borderless life, if them.

 

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