Against Setting Boundaries In Relationships

Quite often we hear that it’s good to “set up boundaries” between ourselves and others. More recently, boundary-setting has been regarded as a kind of “self-care.” This idiom–to wit, boundary-setting–comes from a therapeutic setting and has since spread into facilitation talk, coaching talk, and has, more generally, become a fairly standard piece of relationship advice. But is it wise advice?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s a pretty bad idea.

For starters, setting up a boundary implies professionalism, and professionalism is itself a bad approach to life. To set a boundary that another cannot cross, or can only cross under certain conditions, is tantamount to making oneself into a nation-state or into a classical liberal. Here, you say, there shall be no encroachment. The utterance is cold, distant, “tolerant,” and unnecessary.

Moreover, the very desire to announce to others that you’re setting up a boundary is a precious piece of self-importance, a form of self-importance that has yet to be examined and let go of.

As to that self-examination, it would be wise and skillful to see that you feel threatened by the encroachment of another or others. What is that feeling of being threatened? Go within and look more closely at it. And not only do you feel threatened; you also feel powerless. How so? Why so?

Lastly and from a nondual point of view, most tellingly setting boundaries (declared or implicit) perpetuates the belief and feeling that you are a separate self and that others are separate selves. If nondualism is true, then this strategy models illusion and delusion. It is a strict contradiction.

Is there another way? Of course. To begin with, you can actually examine your dis-ease, which dis-ease is giving rise to feelings of (a) helplessness or powerlessness, (b) the sense of encroachment on “personal space,” (c) the desire to flee or pull back, (d) the fear of being fully engulfed and hence without any autonomy, and so forth. Is it possible to see into tanha, that is, the graspings and aversions that have been governing your seemingly immediate negative emotional reactions?

Once genuine understanding emerges and also once the push/pull of tanha has been quieted and equanimity begins to settle in, you can open yourself up to different rhythms in life. On this understanding, you don’t have to say “no” or “yes” in some invariant way; instead, you can say, and mean it, “perhaps later” or “not right now” or, if need be, you can issue a gentle, non-egoic no.

On the lighter side, you can slow down the pace at which you see someone or some ones. (Or quicken the pace when something lovely is occurring between you and another.) Yet slowing down the pace does not mean, or entail, building a wall. Rather, it is a graceful way of allowing the relationship to come back to a more proper footing.

On the more emphatic side, you can, as I said, learn to say “no” but without that bone in the throat. Can you be loving and gentle while doing so? Can you decline without intending to hurt the other person’s or other persons’ feelings? And can you let go of a relationship in the event that it becomes abundantly clear to you not–no, no–that it’s not “serving you” but that there’s no genuine possibility of sweetness, conviviality, and mutuality here? If we can’t sing together, then there’s no use in pretending (to ourselves) that we can. Let’s stop trying.

In short, self-understanding, wise discernment, and graceful application make for a better approach to being in relationship than boundary-setting. Where the former allows us, at varying speeds, to breathe together and then also to breathe apart, the latter carries a kind of violence born of regarding others as antagonists or threats. From the vantage point of enlightenment, life is friendly.