Culture Editor Jeevan Farthing argues that boundaries in relationships help them to thrive.
As an annoying 14-year-old (and net burden on society) I used to declare ad nauseum that “sharing is caring”. I have since dissociated from being that person, such is the perpetual reinvention-of-the-self necessitated by late-teen development, and the phrase now appears, to me, to be a double-edged sword. While apportioning your Daim bars among your friends remains a redistributive courtesy, where sharing consists not of material goods but of offloading all of your inner qualms onto your friends, it is not always mutually beneficial. The fundamental facets of sharing are still there – the division of a whole into parts – but without the establishment of boundaries it becomes more dumping than sharing, perhaps even an outsourcing of the self.
To be sure, it is human nature to want to confide in those you trust, and its inevitability makes finding a healthy solution all-the-more necessary. But in human relationships the sharing economy is not a circular economy: not every person will give and take in equal measure. Our connections with others are entangled and intertwined, and with the plethora of characters that the university experience introduces us to, we subconsciously identify that person who you know will always listen. But they will probably be that person for everyone they know. In Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, the research of Dr Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller would suggest it is disproportionately those with an anxious attachment style who become that person, because they derive their worthiness from providing a service to others in fear of abandonment. And so they become overburdened and overwhelmed. It feels self-indulgent to bestow upon myself the label of that person, but I have certainly felt like one in the past.
The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but if I divulge on one person it does not make up for the six or seven others divulging on me. What’s worse, such a divulgence will consist not only of my own problems, but of those offloaded onto me, and sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by everyone else’s issues that I end up struggling precisely because of them. It is usually my mum who I am fortunate enough to have to listen to my ranting, but she is also that person for all of her friends, and so I am further contributing to her burden, and feel terrible about it.
Once someone confides in you, you feel you have a moral responsibility to follow through. If I know something might go wrong, and I choose to retreat from the situation when I could have intervened, I won’t forgive myself. You feel wounded that people don’t seem there for you, but it’s your own fault: you’ve chosen not to tell them anything because you feel they are already overburdened. And so the situation arises where I’ll receive a knock on the door to inform me that someone I’ll never meet and lives 400 miles away has given birth, and they won’t ever ask about my mum’s long covid. I’ll watch someone deteriorate in real time over messages, not following the advice I’ve already given to them about prioritising, and feel like a failure for not communicating the advice clearly enough. One of my friends changed my name on Snapchat to codependency problem; I laughed it off.
When it all gets too much I feel like the only way to get attention is to do something reckless, like leaving the country out of the blue, or turning off my phone for days. Maybe I am a hypocrite for writing this article, offloading my struggles onto the devoted readership of The Glasgow Guardian’s lifestyle section. But I’m managing a lot better now, and if you feel like you are struggling to be that person, it’s probably because of boundaries. A few months ago my therapist bluntly told me that I do not have any, and I’m currently in the process of setting them up in friendships where they are still lacking.
It’s unfortunate that boundaries possess negative connotations, such as rejection, when really they offer opportunities. Instead of completely cutting off someone you get on with, because their problems become too unbearable, you can give them your mobile number and emphasise that texting is for emergencies. If someone sends you feature-length essays on Snapchat every few hours, you can reduce your responses to once a day. And if they still keep on phoning you on every one of their drunken nights out, remember that you are fundamentally not responsible for their wellbeing, and there really is only so much you can do.
The beautiful thing about boundaries is that they are movable. I am still friends with everyone I’ve mentioned here, even the ones who have left university, a decision which they made completely of their own accord. Setting up boundaries is a process, and one which I’m still getting to grips with, but it is essential to be patient, because with boundaries, our propensity to share can work for everyone. Sharing problems with others isn’t always caring, but if we care as we share, we’ll all be happier and healthier for it.