By Malika Noor Mehta
Art by Kanika Dhandekar
Each of us is navigating a unique life journey. The paths we take on this journey are determined by what we do and what we do not do. As family therapist, Sarri Gilman states in her Ted Talk, “Your (life) stories are being shaped by what you are saying yes to and what you are saying no to. Your yeses and nos are what boundaries are made of” But what are boundaries? How do we create them? How do we heal when our boundaries are trespassed upon? While these questions might seem esoteric, answering these questions with intent and patience will likely ease the inevitable stresses we encounter in our life’s journey.
What is a boundary?
A boundary is a space between you and another human being, the line beyond which you will not cross someone, the limit beyond which you will not allow someone to cross you. These lines can be drawn for different facets of our being - physical, emotional, social, cultural, mental, and beyond. Our boundaries are what we want to do, what we allow ourselves to do, what we say “yes” to. Just as importantly, our boundaries are also defined by what we do not want to do, what we will never venture into, what we will utter a categorical and resounding “no” to.
How do we create healthy boundaries?
Step 1: Understanding Ourselves
Who are we? What are our tangible and intangible needs and desires? What makes us tick and gets us riled up? Most of the time, we do not understand the nuances of our own personalities – and sure, when you’re working 16hr days, you probably don’t have the mind space to ponder these questions. Yet, allocating time and effort into examining our core values, our fundamental needs and our deepest desires might save us a lot of stress and hardship in the future. Certainly, if we don’t know ourselves, it becomes that much harder to explain what we want and need from another human being – be it a lover, friend, co-worker or family member.
Step 2: Empathy
The ability to place ourselves in the shoes of other human beings and understand certain problems or thoughts from their perspectives remains absolutely critical to the health and sustainability of any relationship. We must ask ourselves some fundamental questions about the person with whom we are interacting.
What are this person’s context and experience?
What does this person really want?
What does this person truly need?
What could this person fear or dislike?
While we may not always be able to ascertain clear answers, our intent to understand another human being’s motivations, anxieties and desires, helps us come that much closer to knowing where their emotional and mental limits lie. Therefore, we are much less likely to break those boundaries.
Step 3: Active, honest communication
We may know what we want but if we do not articulate it to both, ourselves and to others, we will never be able to institute healthy boundaries. Without verbally stating what it takes to make us feel happy, we are essentially relying on the other person's intuition, and hoping that they are excellent mind-readers.
Alongside our verbal explanation, we must also listen intently when another person tries to explain their needs and desires. The reciprocal acts of explaining and listening, of asking questions and understanding, of unearthing our own quirks and nuances, and allowing the other person to do the same, sets the foundation for healthy boundary-building.
At its core, boundary-building is the process of understanding oneself as well as the person with whom we are drawing the boundary, of being compassionate yet firm in our language as we inform (not ask) the person what we need to feel content, respected and safe.
Boundaries in an Indian Context
For Indians - perhaps all South Asians - boundary setting is somewhat anathema (too harsh a generalization? I think not). Social hierarchies play an important role in our inability to create and maintain healthy boundaries. For example, imagine a new bride telling her mother-in-law that she dislikes the wedding garments that have been chosen for her. Good Lord, the disrespect! Or, imagine a new employee informing his boss that he will not work till 2 am on a Saturday because he does, in fact, have a life outside the office. Gosh, what a slacker! While these examples do not pertain to India alone, the culture of hierarchy is uniquely ingrained in our country’s fabric because of our social, cultural and religious legacies.
If we are to understand how to set healthy boundaries, it is perhaps as important to note what unhealthy ones look like, and the caste system provides the perfect example. This form of social stratification segregates Hindus into four hierarchical groups according to their Karma (work) and Dharma (duty) – Brahmins (scholars and intellectuals), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (menial laborers). Dalits, or untouchables, remained outside of the caste system entirely.
For generations, the caste system has determined how Indians interact with one another. While this system finds its legitimacy within Hindu religious texts, it permeates Indian society as a whole and often defines relationships not only among Hindus but also among other social and religious groups. This system allows us to use status to draw not healthy boundaries but menacing walls around ourselves, isolating ourselves from those who are less privileged or simply different from us. This is the kind of boundary setting that leads to xenophobia, homophobia, and perhaps any other phobia you can think of.
For centuries, Indians have understood relationships – all types of relationships - through the boundaries dictated to us by such social hierarchies and stratifications. To think that modern India – the “TikTok celebs” and “Insta influencers” – are not impacted by our country’s past would be shortsighted. It is this past that prevents the young bride from politely explaining how she has her own tastes and views on what she will wear on her wedding day. It is this past that inhibits the junior employee from respectfully telling his boss that he needs to balance his personal and professional life in order to feel content and happy. It is indeed the heavyweight of caste and class – systems of subjugation and patriarchy - that make it harder for the average Indian (or even South Asian) to create personal and professional boundaries. In turn, this prevents so many of us from taking charge of our individuality and drawing a set of progressive, thoughtful and healthy boundaries
So how do we disentangle ourselves from the old vanguard?
While self-awareness and self-exploration is always the first step forward, in India, such concepts are often not taught or modelled in the school or family contexts. Perhaps because of all the baggage of caste and class relations, we simply have not been educated in the art of boundary setting. We do not know how to draw a straight, coherent, unbreachable line between ourselves and others. Our lines are squiggly. They intersect and overlap and undercut each other.
As a result of this lack of education, our boundaries often do not exist or are drawn in the most caustic and spasmodic ways. We either become pushovers or dictators. For instance, a father who reads his son’s journal may not feel a twinge of guilt – he may simply see it as his parental duty to stay “informed” on his child’s life – and may not listen to his son’s rebukes for invading his privacy. Or the schoolgirl who acquiesces to her friend’s demand to copy her class-notes may not stand up for herself and say that ever-powerful, boundary-defining word - “no.”
In order to truly reform our mindsets and break away from our innately hierarchical legacies, we must break the cycle of intergenerational boundary aversion.
Invariably, individuals who find it difficult to set healthy boundaries have, perhaps early in their lives, perhaps by their elders or seniors, had their boundaries desecrated. Perhaps they were not allowed to express their discomfort in an awkward situation. Perhaps, their hopes and dreams were belittled. Perhaps, they were taught that being a “good” person meant accepting tangible or intangible forms of subjugation. If boundary setting is not actively taught and gracefully modelled, how does one actually learn this art? Moreover, when the time comes to stand up for oneself and request space or time or distance, the boundary-novice will be plagued by a calamitous set of anxieties.
If I draw a boundary, will I be vilified?
If I draw a boundary, will I open myself up to belittlement?
If I draw a boundary, will I feel sad or guilty or angry with myself?
How do we overcome these anxieties and heal?
The funny realization some folks eventually have (some of those lucky, self-actualized few) is that people respect those who know their mind and are not afraid to speak their truth. Even in India, in a country sometimes shrouded by its prejudicial past, tides are gently changing. Usually (not always) people find maturity and self-assuredness quite attractive. The first step in healing from broken boundaries and overcoming the anxieties that prevent us from setting or resetting them is accepting and reinforcing these positive thoughts.
As we evolve, as the world evolves, our boundaries shift and change. What was acceptable to us as adolescents may no longer sit well with us as adults. (The 18-year-old me loved the idea of bungy-jumping. The 32-year-old me gets nauseous when I look outside the window of an eight-story building). Acknowledging that we are not static beings will help us accept that while our ancestors behaved in certain ways, and were beholden to certain systems, it is perfectly acceptable for us to question or reject those antiquated structures.
Ultimately, setting boundaries helps us find peace, allows us to breathe deeply and easily, ensures that our community experiences our best selves. These boundaries are acknowledgements of the differences in what we need and what others need. These boundaries are demonstrations of respect, both for our individuality and for the nuances of others. At their core, boundaries involve the farfetched yet liberating notion that we will remain worthy of love, kindness and compassion even if we when the need arises, utter a gentle yet boundary-defining “no.”