The Importance of Boundaries Online
“Ok, so can you describe some of your personal boundaries?”
When my therapist first asked me that question, I had no answer. My mind went blank. The answer I eventually gave was something along the lines of “I guess I don’t really know what my boundaries are, or what it feels like to set one.” Yikes. For all the reading, learning, and healing I thought I’d been doing around my mental health, I had somehow managed to understand the concept of boundaries without ever thinking to apply them to myself.
The conversation about boundaries really took off online this past year during COVID-19 in large part because we, as a general population, went from being already-pretty-online to exclusively-and-entirely-online basically overnight. It’s pretty hard to interpret text alone, and it can be especially tricky to interpret brief snippets of text from someone you’ve never interacted with before.
Everyone has different expectations and rules around how social media interactions should work, what kind of responses they’re entitled to, and which emojis and punctuation are acceptable to use in any given context. And since doomscrolling isn’t a particularly stress-free activity, many of us are likely engaging with social media while stuck in fight-flight-freeze-fawn mode.
This means that our brains are seeking out potential threats and then engaging with them automatically as if they were genuinely life-threatening, which can really quickly derail and escalate an otherwise pretty standard conversation. It’s basically the perfect recipe for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and harmful behaviour.
There are a lot of really important conversations happening online, and it’s normal to want to contribute and participate. That said, if we’re going to have productive, nuanced, world-improving conversations, we need to be sure that we can increase our tolerance for discomfort, and know when we need to disconnect. Boundaries are a big part of that. But let’s start from the beginning.
What is a boundary?
There are a number of ways to think about boundaries. Here are a couple:
Your skin is the outer barrier of your body, the dividing line where you physically end and the rest of the world begins. Boundaries are the emotional equivalent of that.
They’re the private rules you set with yourself (no work on weekends, no spending money after 9PM, intentionally booking some “me-time” and not letting anything interrupt) and the ones you speak aloud in order to protect your energy (I don’t have time for that, I’m not interested in taking on this project, I’m not comfortable discussing this with you).
At its core, it’s realizing and acknowledging that you are not responsible for the emotional state of others, just as they are not responsible for yours.
Ashley Brodeur has another really helpful way to think of boundaries (doors in a house that you can open, close, and even lock):
It’s important to note that your boundaries end where another person begins. That is to say, not everyone has the same boundaries as you, and we must be mindful that we’re not forcing our boundaries on other people, just as we’re mindful that they’re not forcing their boundaries onto us.
Where do we learn boundaries?
Our caregivers (parents, teachers, mentors, etc) model boundaries and boundary setting while we grow up. If your caregivers did not set or respect each other’s boundaries, you might have internalized that you shouldn’t set boundaries, or worse, that setting boundaries is dangerous or selfish. This can often result in someone, once they’re an adult, overachieving, never saying no, and prioritizing everyone else’s needs above their own. If this sounds familiar, sorry for the pointed (but loving) call out.
The flip side of this is internalizing that other people’s boundaries are more flexible than they actually are. If you have a very strong reaction to someone telling you “no” and setting firm boundaries, it might be worth examining why that is. Do you expect to always have access to those close to you? Why is that?
Need some tips for setting boundaries with family members? Check out this TikTok by KieVonne King:
Alright, here we go. The internet is a strange, sometimes wonderful, and often truly terrible place.
It allows us to connect with people all over the world, all of the time. We are constantly shouting into the void, and often finding that it can shout back, and it sometimes does so in a way that’s really hurtful. It can be really easy to get wrapped up in the urgency and immediacy of the conversations happening online, consciously setting boundaries can help protect us, and others, from getting hurt.
Publicly announcing boundaries
Not everyone does this, but it is becoming more of a common practice online, especially for activists, artists, and people who have large followings on Instagram. While Instagram itself is a “public” space, everyone still agrees to the terms and conditions to access the platform, and you still own your personal page. You can choose to keep it private, or make it public. It’s important to note that making your page public does not mean that anyone is entitled to your time and energy.
Let’s imagine that your IG page is kind of like a public art gallery that you own, or perhaps a small shop within a larger shopping mall might be more apt.
Regardless, we all know the classic rules for public spaces, right? No shoes, no shirt, no service. The people who follow you or engage with your posts are a guest in your space, which means you have every right to block them if they break your rules of engagement, no explanation needed. The same applies the other way, of course.
You can post your boundaries publicly as a story highlight - you can check out Blair Imani’s RULES highlight, Wednesday Holmes’ Boundaries highlight, And Dr. Kiona’s NEW PPL highlight for some examples. Not everyone will read these, but it’s handy to keep them available so that you can direct people there if you get a big influx of followers. I’ve made a habit of finding and reading the boundaries of the people I follow when I arrive, just to make sure I’m being a respectful guest.
Not sure what boundaries for your page might look like? Here are some examples:
- Do not repost my content without permission or credit
- Only people who follow me can comment (this is a setting you can choose)
- I can make my account private whenever I choose
- I will reply to comments and DMs in my own time
- I have closed my DMs for the time being
- Hate speech will not be tolerated. Any comments containing hate speech will be deleted, and the accounts blocked.
Here’s an excellent example of some boundaries set by @girlsagainstoppression:
It’s important to examine your relationship with social media and set boundaries with yourself. By this point, most people know that social media is built to be as addictive as possible and, as such, the most controversial takes are usually the ones that get the most traction. That’s why it’s important to take a step back and really look at how you engage with the various platforms you have accounts on and consciously choose how you’ll be interacting with them going forward.
Here are some examples (yours might look totally different!):
- I only spend X amount of time on social media a day
- No social media before breakfast or after 8PM
- If a comment in a conversation I’m engaged in really upsets or angers me but I still want to engage, I take a pause and step away for a while before responding.
If you’re not sure what kinds of boundaries to set, just try a few and see how they feel! When you notice yourself getting aggravated or feeling resentful towards a particular situation, online or otherwise, take a moment to assess those feelings. Did you or someone else cross over a boundary you didn’t know you had?
In discovering and setting your boundaries, you may upset some people who are used to having unfettered access to you and your energy. It’s really unfortunate when this happens, but remember that boundaries are, ultimately, an act of love, for yourself and for others.
Setting boundaries allows you to show up as your whole self when helping others, and because you know where your limits are, you can stop yourself from over-extending, growing resentful, and burning yourself out. If you’re not used to setting boundaries and feel a bit uncomfortable bringing them up with people you don’t know, try discussing your ideas about boundaries with a trusted friend, loved one, or therapist.