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Courtesy beam_me_up_softboi / Instagram / Illustration by Calum Abbott

Boundaries, triggers and the problem with weaponising therapy-speak

According to allegations made by his ex-partner, actor Jonah Hill used the language of ‘boundaries’ in an attempt to control her behaviour. But what does boundary-setting even mean?

According to any number of self-help authors and TikTok life coaches, establishing boundaries is the secret to the good life. As much as any other piece of therapy-speak, this idea – first rising to prominence in the 1990s – has flourished in the social media age. Boundaries allow us to ignore work emails over the weekend, to maintain healthy relationships with our friends and family members, to enjoy romantic happiness and – according to some – to avoid ever having to do anything we don’t want to. Crossing someone’s boundaries has become a new cardinal sin, a way of describing a range of transgressions from the serious (violence and abuse) to the trivial (your friend venting about how their cat died or they didn’t get tickets for the ‘Eras’ tour – bo-ring!) Our boundaries, we are told, are sacred and inviolable. We don’t need to explain or justify them to anyone, and they demand respect on their own terms. But what if our boundaries are absurd, unreasonable and coercive? Are they still boundaries, or do they become something else?

Over the weekend, Jonah Hill was accused of being “emotionally abusive” by his former partner, the professional surfer Sarah Brady. She took to Instagram to share a series of allegations against the actor, backed up by screenshots which appear to show Hill making a series of demands about her behaviour. If she wanted to be a relationship with him, she couldn’t “surf with men”, “post pictures of [herself] with a bathing suit” or “have friendships with women who are in unstable places”. While this seems like textbook coercion, Hill justified himself using the language of therapy: he was asserting his boundaries, and he found her Instagram pictures “triggering”. This was despite the fact that he was aware of her job and social media presence before they began dating, which makes his appeal to “boundaries” even less convincing. If dating someone who posts bathing suit pictures is a red line for you, you should enforce your own boundaries before the point of sliding into their DMs. 

The idea that men can weaponise therapy language in order to be controlling is by now well-established. In Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, a 2002 non-fiction book about abusive relationships, expert Lundy Bancroft examines the archetype of ‘Mr Sensitive’: the abusive man who appears gentle, soft-spoken and supportive, who is able to articulate his feelings, and “speaks the language of popular psychology and introspection”. This veneer, however, is exactly what makes him so dangerous: he appears so reasonable that his victims assume that the fault lies with them, and their complaints to other people, who consider the victim lucky for securing such a catch, are likely to fall on deaf ears. Mr Sensitive, as Bancroft writes, demands constant emotional attention, weaponises his own fragility to deflect from his actions and, being a good male feminist, considers himself incapable of abuse.

Written over two decades ago, this account feels more relevant today than ever. Anecdotally, I know scores of people (mostly, but not exclusively, women) who have dated men like this and, even when the situation never quite rose to “abuse”, the underlying dynamic was the same. The modern-day Mr Sensitive sighs when you post a sultry picture on Instagram: he’s not angry, he’s just disappointed that you’ve allowed yourself to be brainwashed by the neoliberal attention economy. If you suggest that his behaviour is possessive, he chides you for having such a reductive, individualistic understanding of a structural problem – ever heard of a little-known author called bell hooks? How will we – as a society – construct a more positive vision of masculinity if you spend all your complaining?

His confidence in asserting his own narrative, along with his fluency in the language of therapy and social justice, becomes a mechanism of control like any other – even when his behaviour is blatantly unreasonable and patriarchal in the most obvious, time-honoured ways, it’s easy to find yourself brow-beaten into thinking that you are the guilty party. Maybe you really were disrespecting his boundaries by hanging out with male friends; maybe you really do need to work on yourself and whatever deep-seated pathology he has accused you of having. As he explains, your relationship suffers from a toxic, hurtful and deeply harmful dynamic, where you don’t always do exactly what he wants. Do better.

Therapy-speak can be exploited in all sorts of ways, but the idea of “boundaries” lends itself particularly well to controlling behaviour, partly because the term is so vague and widely applied. There’s not really a specific definition, but it’s generally agreed to be about setting a limit for what you will accept being done to you, with the aim of protecting your own safety and sense of integrity. It’s not about trying to change other people, then, but your own reaction to their behaviour. As therapist Nedra Tawwab writes in her book, Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships, “When the solution to the problem is ‘they need to change’, the problem will never go away. You can only control your side of the street.”

In reality, this distinction can be a little more complex. Boundaries shouldn’t be about control, but setting your own limits will often mean asking other people to change, even if only implicitly. In many cases, this is entirely justified: you might refuse to go to the pub with a friend who gets aggressive when they’re drinking; you might decline dinner invitations from your mum for as long as she continues to make critical remarks about your weight. First and foremost, though, this is about deciding what you are comfortable with experiencing, rather than making demands of someone else.

In the aftermath of the Hill controversy, much of the reaction was split into two camps: one side argued that these were not actually boundaries; the other argued that they were, and his behaviour was therefore unimpeachable. By communicating “don’t have male friends” and “put your clothes on” with such honesty and openness, he was, in fact, being every inch the modern gentleman! As these people see it, relationships are like a legal contract: we are entitled to dictate whatever terms we like and our romantic partner, if they are unhappy with the proposed arrangement, is free to walk away. But this ignores the power dynamics in any relationship (in this case, the fact that Hill is a wealthy celebrity is surely relevant). Once you become emotionally invested in someone, you are more vulnerable to coercion. You might freely choose to capitulate, but your desire to appease them is exactly what they are exploiting. Whether or not Hill’s demands were “boundaries” seems to me beside the point – they can still be unpleasant, unreasonable and misogynistic, however we describe them.

Rather than believing that boundary-setting is always legitimate – and if it’s not, then it’s something else entirely – we should consider the context in which it’s taking place and what it is trying to achieve. What we can say with certainty is that it’s unacceptable to control who your partner spends their time with (whether men or “unstable women”); the kind of work that they do and how they choose to present themselves. These attempts at coercion are no more palatable for being rooted in someone’s boundaries, or glossed over with any other form of therapy-speak. It is, of course, important that we respect the limitations people set, whether emotionally or physically – there is never a justification for violating someone’s autonomy. But we do not have to respect “boundaries” as a vague, amorphous concept, a magic wand that men can wave to bend you to their will.

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