On Proxemics, Boundaries and Agency

Jamesetta Newland became fascinated with proxemics while observing others on her morning commute. When people were able to be apart and claim some space, even when it meant standing instead of sitting, they did. When there was no hope of doing so due to overcrowding, the commuters would close off. They would look anywhere but the eyes right in front of them. They would plug in their music or pull a book over their faces.

The father of proxemics, Edward Twitchell Hall, found that there were four ‘interpersonal zones,’ namely: intimate, personal, social, and public. There are social and cultural rules, and biological comfort, to the point that when one of these zones is breached we will understand that breach as rude and unacceptable. In Newlands work, she reminded nurses that they too were to abide by these rules. When they had to enter personal space, which you can imagine would be often, they were encouraged by Newland to do this delicately and let the patient know exactly what was happening. Asking permission to enter that space was noted as important.

When one thinks about cults or any kind of abusive relationship, the science of proxemics seems to fall by the wayside. Personal spaces are constantly broached and if complaints are heard, it is the complainer who has something wrong with them. Yet, the manipulative abuser is the one digressing from acceptable social rules.

I was sitting with my psychologist the first time I heard the word “boundaries.” I had been trying to set them my whole life while feeling like I was bad for doing so. I had no idea that this was a psychologically healthy and necessary concept. The irony was, those trying to broach mine had never been taught properly how to remain in theirs. So, it seemed boundaries were twofold: we needed to set them for ourselves and for others.
It is important to realise and state at this point that not everyone has the privilege I do and aren’t so easily able to enforce their set boundaries. When you CAN enforce them, I wholeheartedly beg you to feel empowered to do so. I also think we need to be advocating for the boundaries of others to be kept, all the way from cultural and institutional rudeness, right through to human rights violations.

Boundaries aren’t just physical. They are mental, emotional, sexual and even spiritual. I asked some fellow Mormon members to share stories and thoughts about boundaries in the LDS church, and for the rest of this post I will share the replies with you. While some may argue these are “simply” cultural ills, culture is powerful. *All names are changed.

Many had experienced people only asking them questions when they were inappropriate to ask, ie. “when are you having a baby?” or “when are you finally going to get married?” rather than asking what their personal boundaries and needs were. Some didn’t want to be visited, while others really wanted that intimate emotional support of a visit. Others felt they were never taught it was okay to set those boundaries: that it would be okay to say no to a calling or someone entering their home. Others felt assumptions were made about them and inappropriate probing resulted. One of my friends even recently had someone ask them why they weren’t wearing their garments. For the record, asking about underwear is creepy.

From Sarah*: “This past March I went to Florida for spring break with my boyfriend. We stayed in an Airbnb. We tried to find one with separate rooms/beds, but we couldn’t, and they were all way too expensive, so we got one with BUNK BEDS. When my dad found out he obviously wasn’t happy, but I kinda just told him it’s my decision.
We come back on a Thursday and so we go to church that Sunday. After church, my branch president says he wants to talk with me. He asks me about my life. He asked how school was. I told him it’s been a stressful semester for me. He asked how me and David* are. I was like “um we’re good. Never better” like I didn’t know what to say because I had a feeling I knew where he was going with his questions. Next question he asks: how was your vacation? Followed by “what were your sleeping arrangements?”
I wanted to reply with “none of your freaking business!” But I told him bunk beds.”

Sarah was then told to be careful and she then tried to explain that she’s just not like that and felt comfortable in her choices. She felt she was released from her calling because of this experience.

(A note about this: gossip seems to be a particularly potent fuel when it comes to breaching boundaries…)

From *Jack: “After the mission age change, my ward got *extremely* nosy with literally everyone around my age. It faded away for a while after my bishop had to literally ask the congregation from the pulpit to stop, but it made its way back. After a lot of praying, I decided to take a year of college before leaving on my mission so I’d be in a better state physically, mentally, and financially.
My process of coming to that revelation was a very personally spiritual one. Without thinking, I brought it up in Fast and Testimony meeting, sort of as a brief mention that I’d be staying a year. After the meeting and throughout the block, I literally had four people ask me if it was a worthiness issue. That’s obviously not okay. At all. I felt so violated and like my whole life was on public display, even though it wasn’t a worthiness thing at all.
My sister’s been married for a year and three months now. They live in a ward with a *lot* of very rich, very social-elite power couples (like the president of BYU and 50 professors, two CEOs, etc.). They keep getting asked when they’re going to have children. Over and over and over again, despite her frequently saying that it wasn’t a plan of theirs.
She got pregnant in December, and word slipped out to the ward. Suddenly, she had everyone touching her belly *all the time* without her consent. People would literally walk up to her and put their hands on her stomach and ask how she was doing. It was incredibly hard, however, when she miscarried last month. Suddenly, it was everyone’s business to know exactly when, why, and how the miscarriage happened, what she’s doing to “prevent it from happening again,” and when they’re going to try again. I was with her in her ward the week after. Even with her leaving immediately after Sacrament meeting, it was incredibly physically painful to watch her have to deal with a barrage of questions. I don’t know how she held it together in there. I seriously almost lost it and shoved people out of the way.”

*Amanda said: “Although I grew up in the church, I only learned about boundaries in therapy a few years ago and setting them with church leaders has been a major opportunity for personal growth.

My experiences with people not accepting ‘no’ range from innocuous, like:

bishop: “Would you like to come over for dinner tonight?”

me: “No, thank you.”

bishop: “Why not?”

me: “I’m on a special training diet.”

bishop: “We’re on a special diet too!”

me: “It’s not the same, probably. And I’ve got my food prepped.”

bishop: suspicious noises

To problematic:

home teacher: comes by my house unannounced

me (socially anxious): hides in the back

home teacher: *sits on my porch for an hour waiting for me to come home*

To advanced problematic:

me: *unlists phone number from ward directory*

relief society president: passes it out to everyone anyway without my permission

To actually dangerous:

me: “I would like to not have my contact information published in the ward directory, because I have a stalker who’s threatened me with harm”

ward clerk: *publishes my info anyway*

me: *moves*

ward clerk: “We’d like your new info”

me: “I’m sorry, I can’t trust you with that information”

relief society president: “I have a present I’d like to give you. What’s your address?”

me: “I’m not home much, but you’re welcome to come by my work on campus, where you also work”

rs president: never brings it up again. Because she seems to have been trying to TRICK ME with presents into giving me up my data

In every instance, people refused to respect or overrode my desire for privacy. They treated me like a child, and ignored my clear, firm refusals in many instances. It’s particularly infuriating because I have PTSD and several co-morbid disorders now, but I’m not interested in disclosing that to the average ward member, so I have to do SO MUCH FIBBING when people don’t respect my social boundaries, and it makes me feel like a liar and a weirdo, and now I’m literally in therapy for anxiety & church. Woo!”

*Karen also experienced inappropriate behaviour from a bishop:

“I dated a guy back in high school and subsequently became friends with his friends. My boyfriend was very close to his bishop and told him everything about our relationship. He hung out with his bishop all the time so this was all in a casual setting. Well, my boyfriend and I broke up and after a while I ended up casually dating (kissing) a few of his other friends. At one point I attended my ex-boyfriend’s ward for a mission farewell and, after the meeting, my ex-boyfriend’s bishop asked me to step into his BISHOP’S OFFICE to talk to me. I nervously agreed and then received a stern lecture about how I was making out with too many boys and being too promiscuous, etc. and wasn’t living the way I should be. I had met this guy maybe twice before. All the information he received was from my ex. First of all, none of his damn business because he doesn’t know me. Second of all, he had absolutely no right to call me into his office, having no authority over me, to tell me that I need to repent and shape up. I may have a bit of a grudge still.
So anyway, that guy didn’t understand boundaries in his calling as a ward bishop and basic social boundaries because what weirdo dude would ask a young girl he’s met twice to sit and talk with him, alone in his office, about her physical relationship with other dudes?! I should have said no and walked away.”

The thing is, hindsight says what we should have done in certain situations, but while you’re in the thick of it like Karen was, it can be hard and scary to know what to do. Power dynamics can make this particularly hard.

Considering church is a place where personal information and vulnerability is shared often, we need to be careful what we do when that information falls into our laps. It was not part of Gods plan for us to conform, nor was it part of the plan to be compelled to be so. We are complex beings with nuanced needs and agency. While my relationship with Mormonism is complicated, I still believe agency is an important doctrine, and ignoring boundaries very much means that we are also trying to rob someone of this gift. We may cause them great psychological distress. As the wife of a psychologist and a studying psychologist myself, I affirm that boundaries are important for health and social cohesion: both things needed to build “Zion.” (Let’s talk about what that means to me sometime…)

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4 Responses

  1. MollyNoMore says:

    “It was not part of Gods plan for us to conform, nor was it part of the plan to be compelled to be so. We are complex beings with nuanced needs and agency. While my relationship with Mormonism is complicated, I still believe agency is an important doctrine, and ignoring boundaries very much means that we are also trying to rob someone of this gift.”

    I have often tried to make this point in Gospel Doctrine or Relief Society meetings to be refuted with comments about “following the Spirit” as if that is a pass for ignoring personal boundaries. A woman in my RS actually boasted about literally putting her foot in the door when she made unannounced and unwanted visits to women on her visiting teaching list. I’ve heard countless stories of members who have chosen to disassociate with the Church and set clear boundaries for contact only to have them violated time and time again. This often leaves people with no other option but to remove their names from the records of the church or threaten legal action.

    Sometimes my relationship with Mormonism feels like trying to leave an abusive relationship. It shouldn’t require a restraining order to get our fellow Saints (regardless of one’s “status” at church is) to respect simple boundaries.

  2. Chiaroscuro says:

    boundary setting and maintenance has been a brand new idea for me that I only heard about in the last few years. my experience growing up in the church and was very enmeshed. It has been so difficult to learn new skills and stand up for myself, but so worthwhile when it goes right.

  3. Yes, another boundary problem I have experienced is people bombarding people close to me with questions seeking information about me, especially when I have been involved in activism. I have had to train people close to me to say, “I don’t talk about April behind her back,” or “If you want to know that, you’ll have to ask April directly.”

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