Reflection 68: Massive Boundary Confusion

We live in a world of systems and systems, by their very nature, find ways to perpetuate themselves, and extend and deepen their reach.

Given the cultural reality in which we must operate, this fact takes on special significance if we hope to live more decently. Why? Because our culture is dominated by a highly coherent and dynamic system that places a priority on a set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – that is deeply at odds with the values Radical Decency embodies and promotes. As a result, any serious change effort needs to confront the many systemic mechanisms that so powerfully reinforce these very different mainstream values.

One of the culture’s more subtle – and effective – self-perpetuating mechanisms is its genius for leaving many of its most problematic aspects unnamed. Lacking a name, they become invisible and, for all practical purposes, cease to exist. We may sense that something is “off” in our lives but, unable to identify it, we are unable to deal with it in any effective way.

One key example of this negation by neglect – the subject of this Reflection – is what can only be described as a massive, culture-wide epidemic of boundary confusion. Simply put, we live in a world in which most of us are strikingly unaware, in our day-by-day choices, of where “I” end and another person begins. We are equally unaware of the internal boundaries that grow out of our inherent physical and emotional limitations.


For many, this last statement may seem implausible or, at a minimum, greatly overstated. And that may be true.

But a second possibility – the one to which I subscribe – is that this epidemic of boundary confusion, as well our surprise when it is called to our attention, is an entirely expectable byproduct of our singular pre-occupation with compete and win, dominate and control.

Here’s how I see it working.

In a world in which these values are pre-eminent, the default relationship of choice is authoritarian; one in which one person is dominant and the other controlled, with the goal being to “win.” In this sort of relationship, awareness of and respect for another person’s boundaries is, at best, an after-the-fact add-on, designed to moderate of a way of relating that is, in reality, governed by this habitual mindset:

“If I can overpower your will, dominating you to the point where you completing accept my perspective, so much the better. I win.”

This authoritarian mindset also pushes us to ride roughshod over our inherent biological limitations – our internal boundaries – so that we can be forever vigilant and in attack mode. The goal: To be a finely tuned instrument of success, the psychic and physical consequences of our choices be damned.


And where here does this epidemic of boundary confusion show up?


At work, for example, authoritarian relationships and their handmaiden, massive boundary confusion, are taken-for-granted ways of living.

In a typical workplace transaction, something doesn’t go right and the boss’s understandable reaction is one of disappointment, annoyance, or anxiety. Steeped in authoritarian power, however, his immediate response is a wholly unreflective boundary cross. Instead of owning his feelings and managing them internally, he lashes out at a subordinate demanding, in effect, that she take on and tend to his pain.

In response, there are steps the subordinate could take that would deflect the boss’ boundary crossing attack, beginning with a clear and steady defense of her emotional distance and integrity. But because she, too, is a product of our mainstream culture’s win/lose mentality and inattention to boundary issues, these steps rarely occur to her.

Instead, lacking a viable means of defense, the boss’ attack invades her psyche and takes over, leaving her with an unshakable the sense that, somehow, she did something wrong and is responsible for fixing the problem. Then, in her confusion and pain, she embarks on her own unfortunate round of reactive, boundary crossing acts.

Where does her boundary crossing process begin? With a shredding of her internal boundaries as shame, self-judgment, anxiety, and other inappropriately assumed feelings flood her body, often accompanied by lost sleep and other symptoms of physical distress. Then, to further complicate and confuse the situation, a second phase of boundary crossing is often added to the mix as the subordinate, unwittingly mirroring the boss’ initial boundary cross, seeks to push her bad feelings back onto him through sarcasm, sullenness, and/or foot dragging.


When we look at the non-work side of life, the situation in no better. The same authoritarian, win/lose mindset that drives our endemic boundary confusion at work also thoroughly infects our personal relationships:

  • A problem comes up with a friend and I instinctually seek to win the “who caused it, blame game,” by putting responsibility for the breach on him.
  • A discussion – about politics, or which car to buy, or what the movie really meant – imperceptibly shifts from a sharing of different viewpoints into an attempt by each person to impose his or her view on the other.
  • A friend’s spontaneous outburst makes me uncomfortable and I respond with a cutting sarcastic remark that, masked as humor, is meant to embarrass him into silence.

Indeed, our confusion about boundaries even extends to our romantic relationships, the one place where most of us like to think we do better.

Take Susan and Jack, for example. They are “in love.” In other words, each of them has that wonderfully strong visceral/sexual attraction we all relish. But far too little attention is paid to the fact that this feeling is simply a state of mind – a fact on the ground, so to speak. It says very little about how Susan and Jack actually relate to one another, beyond the fact that they are very motivated to do so.

What is typically happening when this “in love” state predominates is a massive boundary cross. Jack makes up a story about Susan and spends his days with “that person.” Susan is perfect – clever, funny, wise, etc., etc. – and any flaws are simply swept away; Susan’s protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

“You’re not insecure. That’s ridiculous. Everybody loves you.”

And, of course, Susan is busy doing the same thing in reverse with Jack.

Standing alone, there is nothing wrong with this process. In fact, being “in love” is one of life’s great joys and is, in fact, nature’s way to get us attached to a potential life partner.

But this process needs to operate side by side with an unfolding process of intimate relational growth between two different and distinct people. What is so problematic in our culture is that, far too often, the couple’s true relational journey is wholly supplanted by this boundary obliterating, “in love” fantasy dance.

Living in a world in which boundary confusion is unnamed and unseen, what happens next – far too often – is this: As the drug of first love fades, the real Susan begins to intrude on Jack’s fantasy world (and vice versa). But instead of respecting and getting to know the real contours of her personality, Jack fights back.

Consistent with the culture’s dominate and control mindset, he responds to behaviors that contradict his original romanticized version of Susan with disbelieve, anger, and a demand for a return of the old Susan. With Susan responding in kind, a win/lose power struggle ensues that, all too often, either ends the relationship or leaves each partner in a permanent state of confusion, disappointment, hurt, and corrosive anger and resentment.

This story – an all too common outcome of our inattention to boundaries – has fostered a widespread sense of pessimism when it comes to romantic relationships: “Love never lasts.” “Our hard wiring makes infidelity and betrayal inevitable.” “In the end, we all have to settle.”

Fortunately, none of this is true. But what is true is that a successful marriage – as well as productive and mutually nourishing relationships in every other area of living – require a far greater understanding of what is “mine,” what is “yours” and, then, how to treat each with the sensitivity and respect they deserve.

More generally, we need to tease out and craft creative responses to the many other subtle and invisible processes that – like our epidemic of boundary confusion – so relentlessly pull us back toward the mainstream culture’s habitual ways of thinking and acting.