What The Discourse On Emotional Boundaries Failed To Address
What this discourse failed to communicate was that any healthy relationship should be built on mutual and reciprocal trust, respect, and care.
This essay contains discussions of sexual assault and mentions r/pe
It’s been an exhausting past couple of weeks on the hellmouth known as Twitter. As I was writing about celebrities conflating criticism with hatred, my timeline was saturated with takes on emotional labour and setting boundaries in friendships. What started the conversation was a thread written by Melissa Fabello, PhD, that began with a screenshot of a text she’d received from her “very good friend.” They’d asked if she was available to talk through a medical matter with them. The take-home of Fabello’s thread was to establish the importance of asking for your friends’ consent before venting to them and to remind people it’s okay to set boundaries within friendships.
This was great advice, but something about the thread felt off to me. My discomfort only grew as I read more. “I am the kind of person who people reach out to when they’re in pain,” she writes. “I’m good at emotional processing AND logical problem-solving… [Which means] I have several crises [or vent sessions] happening in my text messages at once.”
I’m not sure what her exact intentions were, but they didn’t seem entirely honest at this point. It felt like Fabello was using her friend’s time of need to boast about her professional expertise and how her “rescuer personality” made her such a good friend. While I’m all for selling yourself and your skills, in this case, her self-importance was antithetical to her thread’s premise that we should treat our friends with consideration and compassion. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but leveraging someone else’s vulnerable moment to promote your Twitter brand and professional services is not a prime example of being a good friend.
That’s why her conclusion to the thread was particularly triggering for me. She suggested a template for people to work off of if they felt too overwhelmed in the moment to support a friend in need. Considering the inappropriate self-aggrandizing in the previous tweets, what set off even more of my trauma alarm bells was the clinical, detached tone of this example.
After being on the receiving end of some callous replies in times of vulnerability, I’m purposefully deliberate about who I reach out to when I need support. Almost five years ago, I asked my best friend — let’s call her Elena — for support after her friend and our co-worker raped me. Though she believed me at first, once she heard “his side” of things (no doubt a blatant lie), it was her “objective opinion” that what happened wasn’t rape. When I told her how much that hurt in an e-mail Elena insisted that she had to treat me in a “nonpartisan light” and said that my “expectations of our friendship were unreasonable.” She wanted to remain neutral and out of the situation because it involved our workplace, which she was deeply protective and passionate about.
I’m sure Fabello didn’t have this particular scenario or even a remotely similar one in mind when she wrote that template. But considering how she positioned herself as an expert earlier in the thread, her authority on the matter made it seem like the template was this perfect, shining example of how to talk to your friends. While it may work in some contexts and for some people, it certainly isn’t universal or applicable to everyone. Given my personal experience, I saw a serious risk of harm to other people if this expert-endorsed and viral template was normalized and left unexamined.
Since we worked at a federal government department, it was clear that Elena was used to communicating like a professional bureaucrat, compartmentalizing her humanity from her writing. When our friends are vulnerable and in need of support, we can at least reassure them that we love and care for them. Not only did Elena’s so-called neutrality (read: moral cowardice) put her squarely on my rapist’s side, but refusing to talk to me like a human being after I was assaulted further invalidated my humanity and dignity after her friend sexually assaulted me. “You will come to realize that in this world, no one is there for you but yourself,” she said.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the surface level message of Fabello’s thread: boundaries are key to any healthy and mutually supportive relationship, whether platonic, romantic, or otherwise. In a piece about setting boundaries, Holly Hurban writes over at Tiny Buddha: “Asserting yourself when all that is required is kindness and compassion is not assertiveness at all; it is selfishness.” It’s important to be mindful of our own limitations and it’s more than okay to say no, even to our loved ones. But we can communicate our own boundaries without invalidating their experience or treating them like a burden. I saw many people minimize my concerns, dismissing it as “nitpicking” or arguing about semantics. Other people hopped into my mentions to say that taking an issue with the template at all was ableist, full stop.
Some reactions to the thread were indeed ableist as hell, especially those that slung insults like “sociopath” or “pathological” at anyone who needs a template to talk to a friend. Neurodivergent folks, particularly those on the autism spectrum, may rely on scripted responses to cope with feeling overwhelmed during hard conversations. Moreover, we all have individual communication styles and preferences between our different relationships. But Dr. Fabello’s thread failed to convey this, instead lumping in good friends with social media acquaintances while prescribing her particular method of managing her relationships as the golden standard. A topic that should have been treated with nuance and empathy was instead judgmental and condescending.
I found it deeply ironic that in a Twitter-wide discussion about healthy boundaries, people were straight up disrespecting and shaming me for mine, calling me ableist or personally faulting me for being “too sensitive.” Coping with borderline personality disorder means accepting that I am particularly sensitive and vulnerable to emotional cues and navigating my relationships accordingly. Had I known Elena was a misogynistic narcissist, I wouldn’t have been her friend at all, let alone reached out to her for support in a moment of crisis. I also wouldn’t reach out to a friend who I knew was easily overwhelmed by heavy or emotional conversations, for both of our sakes. It wasn’t anyone’s business to judge how we each conduct ourselves within our personal relationships, yet many people took it upon themselves to do just that.
Of course, there are definitely people out there who treat their friends like emotional dumpsters and would get mad when their friend finally had enough. What this discourse failed to communicate was that any healthy relationship should be built on mutual and reciprocal trust, respect, and care. It’s confusing that the thread begins talking about a friendship that fits that description, but the suggested template ultimately sounds like it was written for someone who doesn’t. The disconnect here, I think, is what led to the intensely polarizing reactions across my timeline.
At the end of the day, all we can do is be mindful that we’re all human with our own shit to deal with and to be there for each other when we can. There is no one, flawless way to navigate our relationships, and no amount of authority in the world puts anyone in a position to tell us what we should and shouldn’t expect out of our loved ones. That’s something we have to work out together as friends, person-to-person. At the bare minimum, we should be treating each other with compassion and respect for our humanity. Perhaps it’s also worth pausing to think critically about our actions before turning our friend’s time of need into content for the timeline.
Roslyn Talusan is a Canadian freelance culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing aims to critique media and dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.
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