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    Bandwidth and Boundaries

    Therapy-speak is infecting our relationships and undermining our values.

    By Alexandra Macey Davis

    July 31, 2023
    • Melinda Meshad

      This is not just therapy-speak that is getting twisted. People are embracing capitalist, marketing-speak to their communication. As a therapist, I recently had a client tell me that they don't want friends that don't provide "added value" to their life. Added Value? Really? I understand we want to benefit from relationships. We want to laugh, have good conversation, share experiences.. but when a person is in need, that might not be "added value" so we should just "ghost" them.. or send a short text? This was the same client that said they no longer had the "bandwidth" for a friend. Sounds like good old-fashion selfishness to me.

    • Alliee DeArmond

      Having just taken a deep dive into Deuteronomy, I am impressed by how important taking a Sabbath day is. It's the dividing line between those who worship God and those who don't, to being his people or not. Perhaps there-in lies the core of this article's issue.

    • Kara

      The point of having boundaries is so that we can become resourced enough to give. Constantly pushing past our limits is not healthy and leads to resentment. Even Jesus frequently withdrew so He could be refreshed. I think this whole situation is much more nuanced than one article can address. We have a whole generation of people who are realizing how deeply wounded they are (and how wounded previous generations were and are) and are working to address it. This feels very uncomfortable and, sometimes, threatening, to those who haven't yet acknowledged their wounds. Yes, we need each other and sometimes others need a little extra from us. But we cannot be available to everyone at all times, or worry that (respectfully) communicating our needs is going to hurt someone's feelings. I'm afraid this article is going to fuel more people-pleasing in the name of "being a good Christian" rather than seeking God's wisdom on how, when, and where to best give our resources.

    • Robin

      I'm sorry that your friend hurt you at a time when you needed her. It is possible that she was being selfish. It is also possible that she herself was going through something that ate up her available time and/or emotional energy. Have you asked her about it? Have you told her it hurt you? I question the premise of your essay, i.e. that "therapy-speak" is to blame here. It is not the borrowed language of therapy that cause us to act selfishly or to prioritize ourselves over others. That's simply sin, or, possibly wounding from the sin of others. Additionally, "bandwidth" isn't actually a therapy term. It comes to us from the tech world via the business world. It certainly can be used to decline time commitments that Christ might want us to engage in as acts of love. It might also be used to simply acknowledge our finitude and the limited time available to all of us. It might mean someone has simply had to prioritize what they do with their time, and their priorities are not the same as yours. Talk to your friend.

    • Patty

      I thank you for you gift of sharing…even at 70… I needed to hear this message and I thank you again God Bless you and all of us as we live our love ❤️ of God the best way I/we can. AMEN

    • Jewel Showalter

      This is so true! I still remember the first time I heard a retreat speaker talk of "self fulfillment" and "boundaries." It sounded so counter to what I'd heard from Jesus about denying self, laying down ones' life. It's only gotten worse as "you do you."

    • Barry

      This hits so close to home. I never knew how to describe this splinter without sounding like I have no legs to stand on... How could I have written this article without feeling like a transgressor? The preponderance of psychological principle would have borne down on my small emotions and selfish needs, and with eloquence and evidence convinced me that I had no right to ask (certainly not to expect) a thing from anyone. Yet I squeak, "If we don't share a value that other people are important, along with the common understanding they're often inconvenient and taxing, then how can I adjure you to 'do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves?' What if I said that the way you're treating others, even your own family, is wrong?" "You're enmeshed." The conversation dead ends. I don't have the vocabulary to counter that counter. And even that is my own fault. Having done my own therapy, which was so helpful, I have nothing bad to say about the practice itself. I can only agree, with some sadness, that it can elevate the self at the expense of others. I've seen it happen.

    • Trisha

      This is overgeneralization peppered with a bit of self-righteousness. Many of us are saying no and setting boundaries in order exactly to care and nurture in our circle of community. Our church leaders recently agreed to participate in a rather large homeless initiative and then demanded small groups contribute time and money . They “ demanded”, not asked. Schools do the same to parents. And many jobs have “ mandatory “ overtime . There is no rest, no Sabbath, no play, no family time. Ditto on “ safe”. Due to the hate snd anger that seems to be prevalent in some lives, there are people I limit my time with as I am exhausted and sad after time with them. Its a tough time, be patient, and maybe trust people to do what they need. They really do not owe you anything or an explanation.

    • Trish

      Yessss! Thank You for capturing the essence of this harmful behavior. May we learn from our mistakes & open ourselves to one another.

    • Eric Blauer

      This is so true! I see this in the various communities I’m living out my personal and pastoral life and call. It’s sad how absolutely desperate for meaningful relationships people are and yet how distant and disconnected people actual live within communities. These feeling centric behaviors are exacerbating the problems and solutions.

    Lately, it seems like everyone is drawing lines in the sand. One of the defining characteristics of Millennial culture is the way the language of therapy leaches into our everyday vernacular. Concepts like “boundaries,” “bandwidth,” “priorities,” and “safety” have started to define how we talk about our relationships. From TikTok influencers to corporate America, this particular use of language is a rising trend, and one that shows no sign of slowing anytime soon.

    The use of what’s called “therapy-speak” to negotiate our commitments with each other has benign roots. As a generation, we’re chronically overextended, juggling multiple commitments every day of our increasingly fast-paced lives. Yet one recent interaction with a friend of mine made me consider how dark this tendency’s less pleasant side can be. I was recently bereaved and grieving; she was notably absent. When I asked why over text, the response felt more like a disciplinary corporate communication than an invitation to connection: she was pressed for time and energy and needed to protect her bandwidth.  She hoped I understood. This communication was more than just confounding; it was offensive to the very heart of what friendship should be about: a willingness to be inconvenienced by each other, sometimes frequently, when the road gets dark.

    My experience is far from unique. As chronicled in recent articles in Bustle and Slate, “therapy-speak” is rampant, and so are its casualties. Concepts initially developed to heal are acting, instead, as a source of harm, wielded as a brute force instrument that tears apart relationships that are already hanging by a thread in a society that’s increasingly polarized, isolated, and self-protective.

    illustration of a woman drawing a circle around herself

    Illustration by Rudzhan

    The more lines we draw between ourselves and others, the more we start to forget there are real people with real needs on the other side of the line. Therapy is a necessarily self-centered process: the patient’s needs come first in a therapeutic relationship. But extending this approach to our friendships – even adopting it as a paradigm, applied across every interaction and every context – makes for a harsher world and more guarded relationships. It’s easy to see how attending a family wedding or funeral, or taking a meal to a grieving neighbor, for instance, could encroach upon our personal needs. But the appropriate response in such situations can’t be to simply slash it from our schedules. Granted, we can’t do everything, all the time, for everyone. Nor are we obligated to. But a healthy awareness of our own limitations doesn’t require starting from a place that assumes human flourishing is a zero-sum game. Treating others as though our needs are in competition with theirs is a disturbing position to adopt.

    Mental health professionals propose an antidote to overzealous boundary-setting in “mutuality,” a two-way, reciprocal sharing of feelings, intended to improve emotional connection within relationships. In reversing current trends, it’s a practice that might be necessary. But I doubt it will prove sufficient. In the end, it attempts to cure the problem through the same therapeutic worldview that created it, subordinating an objective communal good to subjectively experienced, felt need.

    The truth is that life gives us seasons where the needs of our neighbor threaten our bandwidth.

    Focusing solely on our subjective experiences, on how certain acts or failures to act make us feel, loses sight of the underlying, objective truth about human relationships. And in this context, the truth is that life gives us seasons where the needs of our neighbor or neighbors – what we call the common good – might well threaten our personal bandwidth. We cannot deny our inherent connectedness. It is impossible to move through the world unencumbered by others’ needs.  And this is a good thing. Our most meaningful relationships aren’t an imposition on our own private quests for self-realization, but an intrinsic part of who we are. At our core, we’re made for community.

    Our dominant cultural narratives tell us to carefully guard our time, talent, treasure, and energy, but they fail to explain, ultimately, why that matters. What’s the point of all our aggressive self-preservation? If setting strict boundaries gives us more time in our schedule, greater emotional reserves, what will we then do with that surplus of time and energy? And if we don’t, like most of us, plan to use them for any particular purpose, why do we continue to fixate upon our own internal resources?

    I don’t think the answer is that Millennials are unusually, irredeemably selfish. I think it’s that we’re honestly afraid: afraid of what caring for others might demand of us. Maybe in times when we’re pressured by other commitments – work, or family, or problems of our own – this fear is legitimate. It can feel impossible to create the time, space, and energy necessary to give another person what they need. Yet Scripture shows much more can be done with little than we could ever imagine. With seven loaves and a few small fish, thousands were fed. And so, more than connection, perhaps, we need trust: trust that our efforts will not go to waste, that a humble offering can multiply in the hands of the hungry and the souls of the suffering.

    As painful as our culture’s focus on boundary-marking can be for those on the wrong side of those sharply drawn lines, what might be necessary, counterintuitively enough, is a greater willingness to accept discomfort in the service of something greater. What we need is a cultural reckoning that living a fully human life means living in community – and that means implicitly agreeing to be perpetually inconvenienced by others. That can be a demanding, difficult path to follow. But when we live this way, what we receive is not only authentic purpose beyond self-preservation, but the promise that we, too, will be blessed by someone else’s meager offering of seven loaves and a few small fish.

    Contributed By AlexandraDavis Alexandra Macey Davis

    Alexandra Macey Davis is an attorney and writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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