How Western Culture Gets Emotional Boundaries Wrong
According to Cloud and Townsend’s seminal book, boundaries are anything that helps to differentiate you from someone else. According to Bowen theory (a widely accepted psychology in Western culture), this is what self-differentiation looks like:
“People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.”
Asian culture centers on poor self-differentiation. The boundaries between tribe, family, and individual are blurred because the individual doesn’t exist outside of his family and tribe. In the truest sense, you are not your own person. You do not belong to yourself. You belong to your family and your tribe. And because Asian culture is communal and driven by honor and shame, Asians place high value on conformity and approval-seeking. In Asian culture, you never really grow up, that is, become an autonomous individual. You are always bound to your parents. You are always bound by tribal expectations.
When Chinese reporters express concern over Lin’s housing, they’re effectively saying “Your selfhood is bound up with us, your fellow tribe members, and we express that through concern over your well-being. You not only represent us, you are us”.
Western culture looks with disdain on this kind of communal bondage and boundary transgression. But postmodern Western culture has a different form of poor self-differentiation.
It’s found in the following statements:
“You made me feel bad”
“Stop shaming people”
“You guilted me into doing such and such"
Let’s examine these three statement and see how each of them exhibit emotional care-taking. It means your emotions are not your own. The people around you are responsible for your emotional well-being. And you are responsible for the emotional life of everyone you come in contact with - whether in-person or on social media. The boundaries of emotional responsibility are blurred.
“You made me feel bad” is an explicit proclamation that a person can coerce another into feeling a certain way. In this statement, the speaker has no agency and is victimized by others’ words and actions. And yet we make those kinds of statements all the time, especially when we feel hurt by another’s words or actions. When we say “made”, we’re saying there is no boundary between a person’s words and actions with our emotional life. They are one and the same. There is no difference. It’s more helpful to say and think and believe “I felt frustrated when you. . . “ which separates a person’s words and actions from your emotion - an example of boundary-setting.
It’s tempting to say in our ever-expanding world of mental health issues that no one has full control of one’s emotions. And yet the Bible is full of injunctions about emotional life including “Do not fear”, “Do not be anxious”, and “Rejoice”. Do not mistake thinking biblical psychology presumes you can instantly turn on/off one’s emotions. However, it certainly means we are responsible for our emotional life and we can exert influence over our emotions based on what we think and believe.
“Stop shaming people” is issued with the implication that one can “shame” another into feeling toxic shame. In postmodern Western culture, shame is, by definition, toxic. It is understood one can “shame” another person. It is used as both a verb and a noun. You can cause someone to feel inherently unworthy about themselves.
This goes against the biblical and Eastern idea of shame. In the Bible, shame is about community and exposure. Shame is both the act of exposing something disgraceful or private (“put to shame”) or the emotional by-product of that exposure. You can only experience shame in community and it means you are sensitive to others’ perceptions (and why shamelessness - the ability NOT to feel shame - is the mark of a sociopath).
Take Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Before eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve are naked but feel no shame. After eating, they experience shame. They become aware of the base impulses now awakened by each others’ nakedness, experience shame, and look for covering. They did not shame each other nor did anyone “shame” them. They became aware of something inherently wicked about their desires - an exposure - and then looked for something to salve the pain of exposure. Throughout the Bible, you have verses like this:
Proverbs 19:26 He who does violence to his father and chases away his mother is a son who brings shame and reproach.
Here, shame is a by-product of immoral behavior, specifically acts of disobedience to one’s parents. Shame is the act of exposing sin in the context of community. “To bring shame” means to invite group condemnation due to one’s actions. The emphasis isn’t on the toxic emotion of shame but on the consequence of acts that violate community. Asian American Studies professor Russell Jeung explains that shame is different from guilt (doing something wrong) and fundamentally about breakdown in relationship. Therefore, biblical righteousness means being right in relationship with others. Shame is the byproduct when one is not right with community.
1 Cor. 1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
In the above passage, Paul uses shame as a verb but he is not referring to forcing a toxic emotion upon others. Rather, he is subverting society's emphasis on strength and exposing this value as arrogant and bankrupt.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating condemnation or bullying but rather recognizing the appropriate boundaries around what abusive language can and cannot do. Abusive language is destructive and harmful but it does not have the power to control another person’s emotional life. The receiver may be triggered by the language but he chooses how to feel based on his interpretation of the message.
“You guilted me into doing such and such” is another example of where Western culture improperly uses a noun as a verb. To “guilt” someone means to force someone into experiencing the emotion of guilt. This is another example of a boundary transgression. No one can actually coerce you into feeling guilty. People can certainly use manipulative language like “If you were my friend, you’d do this for me” but the receiver of the message chooses to feel guilty or not. The sender of the message is responsible for manipulative language but the receiver is responsible for interpreting the message and deciding how to respond emotionally.
I have friends who lead worship and say to a seated congregation “You can stand now if you want to”. They don’t want to say “Please stand” because it sounds like an imposition - like law - and might deemed offensive. That sounds like emotional care-taking to me. After all, no one wants to experience the shame of being deemed “offensive”. It is good to guard against coercive and manipulative words and exercise sensitivity and wisdom in our communication. And yet we are not ultimately responsible for others' emotional responses to our words. That’s the boundary.
Mark Manson, a popular blogger and author, has a concise definition about healthy boundaries:
Healthy Personal Boundaries = Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others (emphasis mine)
We may intellectually understand this principle and apply it to our lives but if we use the above examples in our speech, we may be guilty of unintentional emotional care-taking. Yes, you can choose to feel as guilty as you want about that. We would do well to take note of the gap and cultivate greater consistency in our boundaries even though the language of Western postmodernity encourages the opposite. Jeremy Lin should have no problem with reporters fretting over where he's sleeping but he's not responsible for their anxiety.