How Society Makes It Difficult for Women, Minorities to Set Emotional Boundaries
Collectivist cultures like India’s train individuals to take life decisions based on what other — often more powerful — people feel.
“How do I say no to my sister, especially when she is mom and dad’s favorite?”
A client whom I have been seeing for a few months came into their therapy session with this dilemma: their sister wanted to borrow an expensive belonging and they were concerned she might misuse the product. As an adult who doesn’t even live with their family anymore, setting boundaries as to how much their family expects and demands of them, and when and how to enforce those lines, is still a concern.
They’re not alone. Many of my clientele bring in such issues. Setting boundaries as to where the self ends and where other people begin, navigating relationships with this balance in mind, and saying no when necessary, is a difficult task — especially for women and people from marginalized communities.
It becomes even tougher in a country like India. Certain parameters decide the qualities of culture, and one of the important ones is the level of individualist or collectivist philosophy in the culture. In individualistic cultures, the person or individual is the primary unit. India falls more towards the collectivist end of the spectrum, however. In cultures like ours, family is the primary unit; the individual exists within it. Research conducted by Vaunne Ma and Thomas Schoenemann, researchers in the field of social and applied psychology, can help explain the difference: They found 60% of Kenyans (a collectivist culture) described themselves in terms of their roles within groups, while 48% of Americans (an individualist culture) used personal characteristics to describe themselves. It’s the difference between introducing oneself as a good daughter versus a good painter.
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The blurred self
An important concept around understanding boundaries is “differentiation of self,” given by Murray Bowen, a family therapist who originated concepts related to distinguishing self from family, and thoughts from feelings. According to him, “level of differentiation of self refers to the degree to which a person can think and act for self while in contact with emotionally-charged issues. It also refers to the degree to which a person can discern between thoughts and feelings. At higher levels of differentiation, people maintain separate, solid selves under considerable stress and anxiety. They manage their own reactivity and choose thoughtful actions. At lower levels of differentiation, people depend on others to function, and they develop significant symptoms under stress. They act, often destructively, based on anxious reactions to the environment. Their intellectual reasoning fuses with emotionality. Even highly intelligent people can be poorly differentiated.”
In collectivist cultures like ours, low levels of differentiation are encouraged in order to ensure loyalty to the family and the culture. We are asked routinely to make decisions about our lives based on what others feel. For example, we may be asked not to order something we like in a restaurant because everyone else is having a certain cuisine. Or, what we study or whom we marry might be chosen by family for the larger interest of the family. Over time, this can lead some people to end up having no self at all.
This is more pronounced for sections of society that are typically more oppressed or have fewer rights, such as women or people from marginalized communities. Growing up, all of us have reached out to our mothers for help, regardless of what they may be doing at the moment — perhaps busy with a phone call or work. However, if we have to ask something of our fathers or brothers, we tend to check if they have the mental space to accommodate our request. Those who have more power in society, like men, build a lot of unwritten rules around themselves, and their time is often treated as a privilege. These powerful sections also ensure that the time and effort of others is seen as disposable, and thus, this means these oppressed sections end up doing more of the work and having hardly any emotional and personal boundaries.
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How to set boundaries
The first step is to identify the people and situations where boundary violation occurs. The next step is to identify a range of responses — for example a blanket “no” to “not right now” to “I will do some, but not all of it” to “I can accommodate this part of your request, but not that.” Boundaries are not one-size-fits-all situations. As long as the person setting the boundary is able to hold their space and comfort in some regard, even while compromising, that is okay. The point is to challenge the idea that each request put across will be accepted without question.
The biggest fear with boundaries is, of course, what happens when people do not respect them, which is common within collectivist cultures. And when people who are oppressed or have less social capital set boundaries, they do often encounter resistance. For example, a daughter-in-law often has to change a lot about herself to be accepted by her husband’s family. However, her husband faces no such pressure from her family; he is accepted as he is by his in-laws. Therefore, if the daughter-in-law were to go against the values of her husband’s family, she would encounter a whole lot of resistance, which may not be meted on her husband, should he go against the values of her family.
In the context of an Indian family, it may be important to remind important people that we love them, even as we set boundaries. It might help to say, “I really care for you, but I am unable to do this right now.” Because we see a person pursuing their individual rights as a threat to the relationship and/or family, it takes some hand-holding before we can accept that the person is setting boundaries not because they do not love us, but because they want to love us in a sustainable way.
Being consistent with enforcing boundaries is important. This doesn’t have to be rude or hurtful. Boundaries can be safeguarded at many levels. For example, a person can choose to limit the time dedicated to a request or task, delay the time of their engagement, or explain a conflicting obligation.
Sometimes, it’s a question of big decisions that don’t agree with your values. For example, being asked to engage in an arranged marriage when you prefer to choose your own partner. Here, boundaries can be set by gently but assertively expressing that you understand your parents want the best for you, but this is not what you feel you will be happy with.
Lastly, getting used to your boundaries is the task of the other person, not yours. If some people repeatedly erase your boundaries despite clarification, it may be time to make firmer and larger distances from them.
Ultimately, boundaries are about ensuring an environment of consent and comfort for everyone. Boundaries help ensure individuals do not feel used or taken for granted, they aren’t exposed to emotionally taxing situations, they don’t experience burnout, and they are able to love well because their relationships are based on the emotional bandwidth of both people, not just one.
Sadaf Vidha is a therapist and researcher who applies both an individual and a social view in her work. She specializes in issues of anxiety, depression, body image, relationships, children and families.