The natural boundaries between people

Link post

Rough thoughts. Will write a better version some day.

I first learned about the concept of psychological boundaries a little over a year ago. But something didn’t seem quite right about it. People explained to me how they understood psychological boundaries, and but the explanations didn’t seem logically consistent. Sometimes, boundaries meant ~“the unavoidable separateness of individuals”, and sometimes, boundaries meant ~“things you are physically capable of doing but other people might not *want* you to do”.

Since then, I’ve spent hundreds of hours and spoken to more than a hundred people thinking about this.

How I understand boundaries

Notice your arm. Notice that you have more access to your arm than anyone else: You have a far greater ability to control and feel it than anyone else. I can’t control or feel your arm nearly as well as you can, and you can’t control or feel my arm nearly as well as I can.

More generally, I can’t (directly) control your actions, and you can’t (directly) control my actions.

Similarly, I can’t know what you are thinking or feeling, unless you somehow communicate this to me, and you can’t know what I am thinking or feeling, unless I somehow communicate this to you.

These are the natural boundaries that always exist between people: I can basically only control and feel parts of the universe that are me, and you can basically only control and feel parts of the universe that are you.

I think many social conflicts are just misunderstandings of these boundaries. A few examples:

You try to get someone else to do something that you want, and you expect to be able to control them, but then they don’t do what you want and you get frustrated.

The boundary is that you can’t unilaterally control others. They can always just not do the thing you want them to do. If you understood this fact fully and unconsciously, I think this situation wouldn’t feel triggering for you.

You get mad at someone for “making” you sad and “controlling” your emotions.

The boundary is that others can’t control your emotions— they haven’t reached into your brain and controlled you. No, you’re perceiving the world, you’re (unconsciously) interpreting it somehow, and then you’re getting your emotions. But that interpretation could be anything. If you understood this fact fully and unconsciously, I think this situation wouldn’t feel triggering for you.

Someone else tries to tell you how you’re feeling, and you fail to filter it out as obviously impossible and BS that someone else could know your internal state, and you get triggered at them.

If you deeply and unconsciously understood the fact that other people can’t unilaterally know what you’re feeling, I think this situation wouldn’t feel triggering for you.

Now I’ll generalize. I see four types of boundary misunderstandings between you and another person:

You expect that you can control someone else. (E.g., their thinking, their actions, their emotions, whether they like you.)

You expect that someone else can control you.

You expect that you can know what someone else is thinking, feeling, or wanting, without them having told you.

You expect that someone else can know your internal state, without you having told them.

These are all failures to acknowledge the natural boundaries that exist between individuals.

But if instead you didn’t feel compelled to control the other person, or believe that they might possibly be able to control you, etcetera, then I think you wouldn’t see the situation as a conflict or something to feel any bit anxious about.

…That’s it. That’s boundaries. I can’t think of anything significant to add to that explanation.

Popular conceptions of “boundaries” seem wrong to me

I developed my model of boundaries because I was frustrated that no one seemed to be talking about the topic in a logically consistent way. For example, someone might say, “I’m setting a boundary here: Don’t call me that name!”

But, what? This is actually an attempt to control someone else’s behavior. How could that be a boundary? I thought boundaries were about the *autonomy* of individuals! So this isn’t a boundary… it’s one person’s preference about *someone else* that the first person is attempting to launder as a “personal boundary”!

Now, it would be fine if instead you were to say, “If you call me that name, then I’m going to leave the room.” In this case, it would be just about what you are going to do. You wouldn’t be expecting to control the other person, you’d just be offering a trade which they can choose to take or not take. And you can offer this trade because you have a boundary, because no one else can unilaterally control what you do.

Also, I dislike the language of “setting” boundaries. I think there’s no such thing. The boundaries are already there, and you just have to acknowledge them. And, on an individual level, there’s no “setting” of boundaries. That said, you can still communicate your preferences over what other people do, but you can’t expect to fully determine how they’ll act.

NVC but simpler

(Skip this section if you’re unfamiliar with a thing called “Nonviolent Communication”.)

If you’re familiar with Nonviolent Communication (NVC), notice that communication is “violent” when it fails to acknowledge the natural boundaries between people.

For example: if you attempt to control someone else and expect it to work, that will seem violent to them. Or if you attempt to tell someone else how they’re feeling and expect to be right, that will seem violent to them.

Similarly, communication from others to you will only seem violent if on some (probably unconscious) level you believe that the boundaries don’t exist. For example, if someone speaks to you as if they could unilaterally control you or know your internal state, you might feel triggered. However, if you had no doubt (consciously or unconsciously) that this was actually impossible, then I think that their communication wouldn’t feel violent to you at all.

I think much of what NVC is trying to do is explain the boundaries that exist between people, albeit in an awfully overcomplicated way. That said, I dislike NVC because I think it fails to get at the mechanism that actually makes someone good at avoiding conflict: not being too insecure.

Being good at boundaries has little to do with consciously understanding boundaries

I spent six months and hundreds of hours last year trying to teach people boundaries in the way that I thought was right.

I thought that if I could teach people boundaries correctly, then they would be able to do boundaries and have a lot less social conflict in their life.

This did not work.

In one case, my then-girlfriend had a conflict of this type with her parents. She had visited her parents, got into a conflict with them, and then was suddenly really anxious that they were “controlling” her.

I thought to myself, You are **letting them** control you! Don’t do that! This is just boundaries! …

But I noticed my confusion. She had worked with me writing about boundaries for a hundred hours, and she obviously understood the concept on a conscious level. But as soon as she got into a real conflict, she failed to understand the concept. Huh?

Finally, I realized: She was probably (temporarily) physically insecure. Because when she is physically with her parents, they control aspects of her life. If they got mad at her, they could take action against her in the physical world and do things like prevent her from going out.

This physical dependency could make it not worth the tradeoff for her to do anything that might have her parents dislike her and possibly act against her. In which case, it could be advantageous for her not to acknowledge the boundaries that existed between her and her parents.

The boundaries were still there of course— she could choose to resist her parents “control” at any time— but if she did, it might result in a worse world for her. (Or at least, this is what I imagine she feared, consciously or unconsciously.)

Of course, I can’t know what actually was going on in her mind, but this would make a lot of sense to me if so. That said, when I shared these thoughts with her, she did agree and she said it helped her understand her current situation better.

So that’s physical insecurity. I think something similar also happens for many people with emotional insecurity. For example, if you feel emotionally attached to whether other people like you, you’re going to have a very hard time “respecting” others’ boundaries because you’re going to feel the need to control other people into liking you (for example).

Also, if you feel emotionally dependent on other people not disliking you, you’re going to have a very hard time “setting” boundaries because some fraction of the time when you “set” boundaries, people get mad at you!

You will have a very hard time acknowledging boundaries if you’re insecure!

Okay. So if that’s true, I think what causes someone to understand the concept of boundaries actually has very little to do with consciously understanding the concept of boundaries. Frankly, I think the concept is almost trivial. (Like, Of course you can’t control other people! And of course they can’t control you! Etcetera.) Yet many people make mistakes of this nature everyday.

Instead, what I think allows people to understand the concept of boundaries is *not feeling the need to control other people* and *not fearing what others might do to you if you don’t do what they want and you don’t allow them to control you*.

In which case, the real way to understand boundaries and minimize the social conflict in your life is to become less insecure.

Then, once you’re no longer excessively insecure, I think you could learn about and understand boundaries in two minutes, and then execute them basically perfectly forever. You would feel no need to try to control other people, or let them control you, or expect to know what they’re thinking, etcetera.

Emotional insecurity

I’ll focus on social-emotional insecurity. There are other types of insecurity, like physical insecurity, but I think matters of physical insecurity is pretty obvious and not worth talking about.

What are emotional insecurities?

I define social-emotional insecurities as unconscious predictions that roughly match the form “in order for me to feel the way I want to feel (loved, accepted, etc.), I need others to do certain things or be certain ways.”

For example, if you’ve noticed that whenever someone gets mad at you, that you start to feel very anxious, then you probably have an unconscious prediction running in your mind like the one above. This is common. And if you were to do some kind of somatic therapy with a skilled practitioner, I anticipate that you would eventually be able to verbalize an unconscious prediction that kinda sounds like, “in order for me to feel okay, I need others to not be mad at me.”

Another example: in romantic contexts, I think a common emotional insecurity unconscious prediction is one that kinda sounds like, “the only way I can feel loved is if the particular person I like loves me”.

I had something like this once.

Looking back, I think what happened was I was trying to get another particular person (a girl I liked) to love me, and I was anxious about this not happening. And I was anxious about it seemingly because I was denying myself self-love. Because once I addressed that, I no longer felt so needy about trying to get this one particular person to love me.

Also, I should clarify: emotional insecurities aren’t bad per se. If anything, you probably owe your life to them. For example, it can be pretty useful for a young child who depends on their parents to learn to be afraid of their parents disliking them. Because if their parents dislike them, they could starve or kill the child. This was the case in many societies and still is in some. And the child doesn’t know what society they’re in, right?

In this way, feeling emotionally insecure about other people can help predict and prevent *physical insecurity* that can come from other people.

In which case, the first step to un-learning emotional insecurity for many people will be becoming more physically, financially, etc., independent, if you aren’t already. This way, even if one particular person or group dislikes you, you’ll still be physically okay. This isn’t possible for everyone of course, but I think it’s possible for most people reading this.

So then, once you’re no longer too physically insecure and overly dependent on others, you will probably have some emotional insecurities to sort out.

In various ways you’ve probably learned to unconsciously predict that “in order for me to feel the way I want to feel, I need others to do certain things or be certain ways”.

The question, then, is how to un-learn these unconscious predictions.

I’m still figuring that out. I think I’ve made a lot of progress on this, but I’ll just give some keywords that feel important for now: Coherence Therapy, memory reconsolidation, somatic therapy, Gendlin’s Focusing. Ultimately, I want to figure out how to make unlearning all emotional insecurities quick and easy.

(NB: I may not post the next part on LessWrong, but I definitely will post it on my blog.)

Thanks to Kaj Sotala, Anna Salamon, Alex Zhu, Damon Sasi, Şefika Öztürk, Stag Lynn, Epistea Residency, CFAR, and many many others.