You Are Not The Main Character
Jonah Hill, "boundaries," and learning how to be a person in the world.
If you are a person who pays attention to the Online Convo Du Jour, you have probably heard about Sarah Brady, her ex boyfriend Jonah Hill, and his “boundaries.” Brady, a professional surfer, posted a series of texts from Hill to her Instagram stories, wherein he sets “boundaries” for his continued participation in their relationship. The “boundaries” are insane and controlling. He doesn’t want his girlfriend, a professional surfer, to post photos of herself in a bathing suit. He doesn’t want her to hang out with unapproved friends. He doesn’t want her to surf with men. He doesn’t want her to model.
I’m not sure exactly when I first heard the term “boundaries” in the therapy-speak sense, but sometime in the last few years the concept has become ubiquitous. It pops up in advice letters and on Reddit boards, on the posts of Instagram therapists (and those who are cosplaying therapists) and in viral TikTok videos. And while it seems clear enough what a “boundary” is, in the wake of the Jonah Hill texts, it’s become apparent that, actually, we don’t really know how to define “boundaries” in a way that lets us keep the term but still makes Hill the bad guy. (To be clear, Hill is the bad guy).
I’m seeing lots of lovely and well-meaning folks on Twitter, for example, argue that boundaries are things you set for yourself, not for others — i.e., “if there’s alcohol at this party, I’m leaving.” But of course boundaries are set for other people. According to one college wellness center, “Boundaries can be physical (e.g., do not touch me) or emotional (do not lie to me). Boundaries can also be based on time or space (e.g., when I do X, Y or Z, please respect my time and understand I will not be able to speak/ hang out with you until X, Y, or Z is completed.).”
Another therapist puts it thusly: “A boundary is an imaginary line that separates me from you. It separates your physical space, your feelings, needs, and responsibilities from others. Your boundaries also tell other people how they can treat you – what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Without boundaries, people may take advantage of you because you haven’t set limits about how you expect to be treated.”
Boundaries are, almost by definition, drawing lines for other people. Often boundaries are about what you will or won’t do, but just as often, they are about what you want other people to do or not to. This is why we understand people when they say that so-and-so “crossed a boundary:” someone else did something you told them not to.
And setting boundaries is often good. But like any other novel therapy-esque concept that feels revelatory to a whole lot of people all at once and quickly worms its way into the broader lexicon (see, e.g., “gaslighting,” “trauma,” “toxic,” “emotional labor”), the concept of “boundaries” sees its utility decrease in rough proportion to its prevalence; a term that was perhaps useful for a particular kind of person seeking the ability to name or navigate a particular kind of circumstance becomes far less useful when it’s stripped of its specificity and recast as a social-emotional trump card. When any personal preference can be recast as a “boundary” and given sudden weight and the expectation of unquestioning respect, then that’s the end of the conversation — to challenge the fairness or sanity of the boundary is crossing the boundary. Concepts like “gaslighting” or “toxic” or “narcissist” or “emotional labor” operate similarly. All are useful, to a point. But even though all are also often badly misused, their very misuse sets a trap. After all, who denies accusations of gaslighting other than a world-class gaslighter? Are you really going to make me do the emotional labor of defending my use of the term “emotional labor”?
Again, I want to emphasize that these concepts can be useful. The widespread sense that they put a name on things many had been struggling to categorize or desperately needed to implement is why they have become so ubiquitous. But these particular kind of pop culture therapy terms, which often spread via social media, can also reinforce what I see as a broader trend of Main Character syndrome, itself so often manifesting on social media: The positioning of oneself as the protagonist of the one and only story; a turn inward to one’s own desires, thoughts, and feelings, not just to the exclusion of others’ feelings and desires (although that, too) but to the point of flattening others down into supporting actors in your own personal psychodrama. If your friend is in crisis, the question is whether you feel you have the emotional capacity to support them; do you want to continue investing in this season of your friendship? If a relationship with a loved one is strained, the question is whether that relationship still adequately serves you; if that relationship is difficult but not abusive, the question is whether the other person is toxic enough to merit you going no-contact. If you are party to a conflict, the question is not how two different people with two different histories and two different perspectives and inner lives may understand the same conversation differently; it’s whether the other person is gaslighting you.
These are not bad questions to ask, when balanced with other questions and concerns. But “how does this affect me, the person who is obviously the good guy, and the sole arbiter of the truth?” cannot be the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
A big part of what troubles me about our current Tik-Tok-psychology moment is that much of the viral therapy advice seems to feed into the fundamental attribution error: The idea that you are a complex person with complex motivations and a complex inner life whose actions are often influenced by factors outside of your control, while other people are simply who they are, and who they are is either good or bad, affirming or toxic. You were late to your friend’s birthday dinner because there was unforeseeable traffic; your friend was late to yours because, as usual, they are a selfish person and they don’t value your time. You said a clumsy thing to a younger colleague and because you are a good person you have pledged to learn and do better; your older colleague made an insensitive remark because she’s just toxic, and her response was a classic deflection.
In other words: You are fundamentally just this way. I, on the other hand, am a complicated creature responding to my circumstances.
When we are handed pop-therapy tools that are less about introspection than isolation — less about going deep and honestly reflecting about our flawed, biased, imperfect selves, more about fending off imperfect others — we feed into this fallacy that we are emotionally complex, while others who do not accord to our desires are fundamentally bad. This does not teach us how to be a person in the world. It is a recipe for a very self-righteous kind of loneliness.