The Fine Line Between Boundaries and Bypassing
The fact is, a lot of people are really terrible with boundaries, and a lot of people use boundaries as an excuse to avoid being held accountable, so we’re going to dig into that today.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are defined as:
A psychological or physical demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group or that helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.
In other words, boundaries are a set of internal guidelines you create (consciously or subconsciously) to promote a sense of internal safety and protect yourself from harmful people, behavior, and situations. The more conscious one becomes of what their boundaries are, the more likely they are to enforce them, and the more likely they are to maintain a healthy emotional state. To some degree, you can think of boundaries as your personal emotional and physical comfort zone.
Boundaries are also reflected in society through expectations of how one should behave in social situations as well as through laws and various other safety nets and measures.
How we define our personal boundaries is entirely dependent on societal expectations and how we were raised, but generally speaking, most humans have at least the same basic boundary requirements.
Boundaries and Abuse
Childhood abuse and societal trauma greatly impact our sense of personal boundaries as well as our ability to consciously enforce them. Those who have had their personal boundaries violated at a very young age, whether emotionally or physically, may overcompensate with extremely rigid boundaries, or, exhibit no real sense of when their comfort zones are being intruded upon by another person or situation. A person may also exhibit both types of boundaries in different situations, for example, upholding extremely rigid emotional boundaries for themselves, but not respecting the boundaries of another person in an equal manner.
People with no respect for another person’s personal boundaries and a pattern of violating those boundaries are considered abusers. Abusers often become abusers because they, themselves, had their boundaries violated as children and have never developed a healthy sense of where another person’s boundaries lie. Enmeshment is also common among those who did not learn healthy boundaries, and they may often engage in unhealthy, emotionally clingy, controlling, or manipulative codependent behavior.
A healthy sense of boundaries respects the line between “you” and “I,” and recognizes where “you” end and “I” begin. Healthy boundaries are also incredibly sensitive to power dynamics to ensure that the person or people in positions of power uphold and respect the boundaries inherent with those positions.
When a person has a history of abuse and has developed extremely rigid boundaries, they may be triggered by seemingly small, innocent things. In these instances, the person may not have yet established a clear boundary between themselves and others in regard to emotional responsibility, and as such, may project undue blame for their emotional state onto others.
Likewise, a person with a history of abuse that has developed extremely weak emotional boundaries may take on responsibility for the feelings of others and and attempt to manage those feelings by altering their own behavior. We call this people pleasing or fawning behavior. This is a coping mechanism often developed in childhood to protect themselves from someone with an explosive temper or an overly authoritative figure, such as the individual with rigid boundaries described above.
Now that we know what boundaries are and what abuse of boundaries looks like, we can dig into the ways some people may abuse the concept of setting a boundary as a form of emotional or spiritual bypassing.
Emotional bypassing is when someone attempts to avoid unpleasant emotions. When a person uses spiritual concepts to avoid those emotions, it becomes spiritual bypassing.
Here’s where things get tricky: people with rigid boundaries are often more reactive to unpleasant emotions than someone with a healthy sense of boundaries, or even someone who is used to taking on the responsibility for the emotions of others. As such, people with rigid emotional boundaries are more likely to engage in emotional bypassing, because the unpleasant emotions (typically feelings of guilt and shame) trigger a trauma response and bring forward unhealed emotional energy from their childhood.
This is the person on social media who shut down or block anyone who disagrees with them, challenges their ideology, or otherwise reflects back to them any of those buried feelings of shame.
When these folks are in the spiritual community, they’ll often say that they’re “just setting a boundary,” or even accuse the other party of “projection” but the reality is that their boundaries are an overcompensation that is preventing them from healing and personal growth.
This is especially problematic when the person in question is in a position of power or authority within the community, because their (unhealthy) behavior is setting an example to their followers.
I watched an example of this unfold last summer on Instagram with The Holistic Psychologist, Nicole LePere. Nicole has 3.3 million followers who look to her as an authority on spiritual psychology. During the racial justice protests, many influential figures on social media made statements in support of racial reckoning and of commitment toward examining their own racial bias. Nicole remained noticeably silent.
A client of Nicole’s, a Black woman, contacted her expressing her disappointment on the subject. Instead of demonstrating that she was paying attention to the conversation happening around her, or allowing the interaction to alert her to the possibility that she might need to pay attention to that conversation, Nicole remained tone-deaf and treated the client in question like she would any unhappy customer, further demonstrating a total lack of understanding about bias in general, as well her own, and a general unwillingness to examine said bias. Nevertheless, the client gave Nicole the benefit of the doubt, assuming she would now put in the effort to educate herself and her audience about the importance of the matter.
Instead, Nicole made a single post acknowledging the racial justice movement, made no indication of a commitment to understanding bias, no effort to educate her audience, and continued with business as usual.
The unhappy client then made a public comment on one of Nicole’s posts, and made a public instagram story about her experience. Other women, both Black and White, began confronting Nicole in the comments sections of her posts on the matter, many in perfectly reasonable tones and language. Nicole began blocking them all, including the original client, claiming she was “setting boundaries.”
I’m 100% certain that in Nicole’s mind, she was simply setting boundaries, which demonstrates a lack of self-awareness and total ignorance to the importance of examining bias. As a spiritual psychologist, this is incredibly problematic. You cannot teach something effectively if you haven’t attained any level of mastery. It also demonstrates a very real disregard for the things happening in the world around her, as well as a disregard for the lived experiences of her potential clients. You can’t expect to create a safe environment for your clients of color if you are not willing to examine and dismantle your own bias, and you can’t expect to be trusted if you’re not also willing to put in the work to make society a safer place for them. And finally, it sets an incredibly poor example for the 3.3 million people who are looking to you as an authority.
It would be one thing if she were to accept accountability and listen to the chorus of voices who were (and still are) trying to wake her up to herself, but instead, she continues to shut down the conversation and avoid it using boundaries as her shield. This is a clear example of spiritual bypassing.
What happens when you resist a lesson the universe is attempting to teach you? The problem persists. And it grows. The longer Nicole continues down this path, the more people are talking about it, and the more awareness is spreading. Other influencers have picked up on and joined the conversation in calling her out, some of them with their own audiences of nearly a hundred thousand.
This dynamic isn’t new and I’ve seen it all before. This is why I say that one sign of a spiritually immature wellness influencer is if they have an army of haters trolling their social media posts, or if they’re engaging in an online feud with another influencer. It’s typically indicative that there’s some kind of shadow energy being manifested that they are refusing to look at, and if that influencer’s entire platform is built around being an authority on doing shadow work, that’s a big problem!
Nuance Is Important
Naturally in some cases, there’s other reasons a person may be setting a boundary in that moment.
When it comes to social justice, I often see people take an all or nothing approach. “You must join us or else you’re with them.” Yes, in general, silence is complicity, but as with everything, there’s always exceptions. I saw some unnecessary and downright dangerous shaming happening last summer as well. Another mental health influencer I followed told her 60K Instagram followers that their mental health wasn’t an excuse and if they had PTSD, they needed to suck it up. And she brands herself as Trauma-Informed.
A few years ago I had someone convey a similar message to me when I was in the midst of an emotional breakdown/dissociative state where I could barely form a coherent sentence and spent most of the day laying in bed staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t have formulated a complete thought on anything of significance if I wanted to. I was physiologically incapable and every ounce of mental energy was spent on holding myself together. I have memory loss from that time period and also experienced a severely traumatic event which was not public knowledge.
Unlike Nicole, I also wasn’t carrying on with business as usual on my platform. It was public knowledge that I was going through some shit and my writing topics–however infrequently posted–shifted to an internal focus, and changed to self-reflection and processing my experiences. My blog became more of a personal journal at that point. I cocooned from literally everyone and everything–including the news–for nearly three years. I also stopped writing completely for almost a year.
I tried to explain to this person, as best I could with my limited capacity to think at the time, that I could not do what she was asking me to do. And that led me to have to set a boundary.
How To Avoid Spiritual Bypassing
You can ask yourself a few questions and take a few actions when setting boundaries that can help you determine your motivation:
- Pause and examine your emotional state. Ask yourself what emotions you are feeling. Name them. Is there shame underneath?
- Which person is in a position of power in this dynamic? Is it you, or is it the other person?
- Is the person triggering this feeling attacking your character (shame)? Or are they holding you accountable for your actions (guilt)?
- Are you attempting to bypass accountability by setting a boundary? Or are you setting a healthy boundary because someone is actually shaming you?
- Does this situation remind you of any past instances where you were abused? Does it evoke emotions from a painful memory?
- Does setting a boundary result in the harm of the other person? (Healthy boundaries never harm someone else, even though an abuser will perceive it as such.)
- Does NOT setting a boundary result in your own harm?
Answering these questions really requires us to dig into the nuances between shame, guilt, accountability, and what belongs to us and what doesn’t. They’ll give you a really clear idea, though, of what appropriate boundaries look like.
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