What Do You Expect From Me?
Making work for the public seems to come with a slew of fuzzy social expectations. How do you navigate the tension between care and boundaries? I asked Randi Buckley and Jordan Maney.
Sometime this fall, it'll be the 20th anniversary of my very first blog post.
And over the past two decades, writing online shaped my life in profound ways.
As is probably self-evident, I love making work to share in public. I revel in taking a half-formed thought, massaging it into a thesis, and fleshing it out into a fully-formed argument to share with others. I live so much of my life in my own mind—and writing online gives me a way to share that life with you.
Of course, I didn't know all of that in 2003. I don't remember how I learned about blogging or what I expected from the practice. But what started as a tacitly public journal quickly turned into a node that connected me with former classmates and interested strangers alike.
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In October 2010, writer Ursula K. Le Guin started her blog.
She wrote about why she hadn't started one sooner in her first post. She said she "never wanted to blog before" but had been inspired to give it a try after learning about José Saramago's blog.
Another reason she gave for not starting a blog sooner was the concern her readers would expect her to interact with them. She wrote:
I was also put off by the idea that a blog ought to be "interactive," that the blogger is expected to read people's comments in order to reply to them and carry on a limitless conversation with strangers. I am much too introverted to want to do that at all. I am happy with strangers only if I can write a story or a poem and hide from them behind it, letting it speak for me.
As she closed out that first blog post, Le Guin wrote that when she realized that Saramago didn't interact with readers of his blog, she decided she could borrow that freedom from him, too.
I am hyper-conscious of other people's expectations.
When I was younger, and certainly when I first started blogging as a college senior, I was blissfully unaware of most of them. But that led to a lot of misunderstandings in which I was always the party at fault. So over time, I learned to pay closer and closer attention to what I should be doing in any remotely social situation.
Of course, the expectations I will bend over backward to meet don't even have to be real expectations. I'd rather play it safe and assume the most stringent expectations others could possibly hold as the bar I need to clear. Knowing that I don't fully understand the rules of a given social situation, I'll construct an elaborate framework of rules for myself.
I was going to say that this works for me until it doesn't. But it doesn't ever really work. It produces hyper-vigilant anxiety, over-functioning, and emotional exhaustion. I might feel like I'm keeping my head above water for a time—but I'm drowning.
The way that I perceive what others expect from me and how I act to meet those perceived expectations drains my capacity. But again, this is a fairly recent revelation. As a college senior blogging in 2003, I was naive to my own limitations.
The potential, as Le Guin put it, to "carry on a limitless conversation with strangers" seemed to be all upside. In hindsight, I know that my innocent embrace of limitlessness as a teenager and young adult led to clinical depression and autistic burnout. My blog certainly didn't cause the downward spiral I experienced immediately after graduation, but I think it contained all of the signs of the way I overextended myself.
It can seem like limitlessness is synonymous with freedom.
Le Guin granted herself the freedom to write online by allowing herself a limitation of interaction. By denying the expectation to respond to comments or encourage parasocial relationships with her readers, she opened the door to connecting with more people through her work.
I hope one day to be half as wise as Le Guin.
Like Le Guin, I prefer to let my work speak for me. It's already a direct or indirect response to the comments and messages. It's my half of a conversation—but with the framework of social expectations that I'm most comfortable with. And yet, in the parasocial landscape of our time, I fear that all of the public work I make just isn't enough. I worry that my half of the conversation isn't enough—at least not without devoting myself to hyper-responsiveness in the wake of that work.
It was with the backdrop of this persistent fear that I noticed a post that Randi Buckley, the creator of Healthy Boundaries for Kind People, made on LinkedIn.
The post was about an author who received "pushback for having boundaries." In no uncertain terms, Randi laid out how no one involved was entitled to anything beyond the work this person had already offered—no matter how friendly or intimate the relationship might seem on the receiving end.
Randi wrote about how people want to make an impact, even a connection, and that's why people make art, movies, books, and blogs. They are containers for what they can offer to those who want to listen, watch, or read. But those creators have neither the capacity nor the responsibility to attend to their listeners, viewers, or readers individually. She wrote, "While [these creators] appreciate that they have had a positive impact, the art itself was the container."
The art itself was the container.
The moment I read it, I felt relief wash over me.
I haven't stopped thinking about that line for months.
It's what Le Guin was getting at. It's the hope I build into every episode I put out or essay I write.
And it's why I reached out to Randi to chat.
The Medium Is Us
"To a large extent," Randi tells me, "we have morphed into the medium of social media itself."
If we become the medium of social media, what is our message? What's the character of our mediated, online selves? We've taken on the defining character of the platforms we use—always on, always accessible, always having something new to say or share. We mold ourselves to fit the standard of parasocial intimacy endemic to social media spaces and the internet at large.
While the social media era has introduced this issue to a massive segment of the population, Randi first saw this dynamic working with household names in the 90s. Working with well-known people in Hollywood and on TV shows like Friends, she started to notice just how much fans expected of their favorite on-screen personas. The fans "thought they had a very close emotional, if not intimate, relationship with them because [of the] familiarity. They saw them all the time. They thought they knew them."
Of course, the actors had no idea who these people were. And it was unclear whether fans felt they had a relationship with the actor or the character the actor portrayed. Randi explains that it was a "constant negotiation" because people felt like they should have some level of access to the actors she worked with—while the actors themselves wondered if this dynamic was even safe.
This leads to Randi's approach to personal boundaries. Without clear and solid personal boundaries, we mold ourselves to others' expectations, including the way those expectations feed the always-on, always-accessible character of our online personas.
So real quick: What are boundaries?
Randi says boundaries are expectation management. Boundaries are your values in action. They're the conditions we need for others to get us at our best. "Boundaries are the conditions you need to live the life and have the relationships you desire," she explains. People may contest the boundaries we've set—but that doesn't negate their power. "If I'm in [a] heightened state all the time," illustrates Randi, "you're not going to get my best work."
For me, this means that boundaries are a framework I can use to counteract the gravitational pull of what I assume other people's expectations are. I may never be able to stop second-guessing what I'm supposed to do in a social situation, but I can know what I am able to do regardless of what those expectations are. To use that framework, Randi says, I need to be confident in the completeness and enoughness of who I am and what I create.
"What we create, who we are," she reminds us, "is complete in and of itself. We don't have to have this lingering sense of 'I owe more.'" Just because our followers like what we've made or have been impacted by our ideas doesn't mean that we owe them more. "Let what you've done stand and be complete."
"What we create, who we are," she reminds us, "is complete in and of itself.
We don't have to have this lingering sense of 'I owe more.'"
I will fully admit that the lingering sense of "I owe more" is a much louder voice than the one that says "this is enough" almost every day. I'm constantly at war with my perception that others perceive me as cold and uncaring. I battle the same misunderstandings that autistic women have battled for centuries.
I've bent over backward to avoid that perception so many times that each new attempt risks breaking my back. And at the same time, I know that I'm not cold and uncaring because the idea that I've disappointed, hurt, or left someone feeling unappreciated breaks my heart.
Other than the hormones of middle age, this concern is probably the biggest contributor to my ongoing insomnia.
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When we've operated from the "I owe more" mindset for so long, it's hard to know what our boundaries might even be.
And it's tempting to think that we need to come to terms with being enough and complete before we can name or uphold boundaries. Randi says that's a myth. "That makes me itchy all over because sometimes we don't know our bottom line or don't know a situation doesn't work for us" until it happens.
That said, it's worth the energy to get clearer about the boundaries you can anticipate needing. Randi suggests thinking back to a time in your life when you felt like you had everything you needed to do things in the way you desired. You felt like "things were rocking, things were flowing." And for those who haven't had that experience yet, Randi encourages them to consider what conditions would make that situation possible.
Once you have that memory in mind, consider the circumstances that supported you in that state of ease and flow. Because, Randi explains, "they're very likely similar conditions or circumstances [to what] you require now because you're the same person."
What are the conditions you need to be at your best?
It's quite possible that some of your ideal conditions are a bit out of reach. They may even seem infeasible for cultural or economic reasons. In extreme (but not unusual) scenarios, the conditions we need to be at our best might even put us at risk of harm.
But when you know what you need, you can start taking steps to realize the scenario in which you do have the conditions you need to be at your best.
"People-pleasing is not bad," says coach, "People-pleasing at the cost of your sanity, safety, peace is." Jordan specializes in coaching people she calls "bleeding hearts" and helps them find radical joy—which inevitably includes some work on boundaries and expectations. She also writes the newsletter.
"The first time you try to build a boundary," she explains, "it usually comes off more as a request." It's a whisper. A suggestion. A question.
"When you get really clear about all the ways that you've advocated for yourself," Jordan continues, "the realization that no one else is going to advocate and protect your peace more than you, there's a lot of resentment and anger that comes up." Boundaries become forceful, even aggressive demands. Jordan cautions that that's not sustainable either.
She suggests a third way—boundaries can be both a declaration and an invitation.
"Like, 'this is going to happen, but I'm going to invite you in to navigate how you want to work within that,'" she demonstrates. The invitation might also be to opt out of the interaction if they can't work within your boundaries.
Jordan has a brilliant list of boundaries on the About Page of her website. Here's one that really stood out to me—and illustrates what she said about her boundaries being both a declaration and an invitation:
We prioritize in-depth communication over constant accessibility to us via social and our email inbox. So expect calls and emails to be returned thoughtfully within 72 hours. If it’s an emergency, ask yourself what constitutes an emergency and why not having immediate access to us makes you uncomfortable.
"When you make a boundary," she explains, you're putting a stake in the ground and saying 'you can't cross here.'" But that can be jarring for people who are used to interacting with you on an anything-goes basis. That's why she includes the invitation: "It's about allowing people to interact with your boundary. It doesn't shift the fact that the stake is in the ground." The invitation is a way to encourage mutual understanding of the boundary.
Now, what if you are the person who's felt put off by someone else's boundary?
Maybe you've felt hurt or unappreciated because a comment, DM, or email went unanswered. Maybe you thought you were entitled to more than you received.1 We've all been that person at some time in our lives.
How can we reexamine the impulse to push back?
"Ask whether the person operates differently than you do," advises Randi. "We make a lot of assumptions in our behavior based on what works for us." Instead of projecting those assumptions or expectations onto someone else, we can remain open to their experience or needs being different from our own. Are you trying to fill in the blanks with your own desires, needs, or preferences rather than accepting that the other person fills in those blanks differently?
As an autistic person who operates very differently from most people, this is my world. I can never assume that the way I would fill in the blanks matches the way someone else would fill in the blanks. I'm acutely aware that the person on the other end of the Zoom, social media account, or social interaction experiences things differently than I do. Yes, it's a lot of work. But it would be less work if others did the same.2
Maybe that's what we should expect from each other.
We each have a responsibility to stay open to the likelihood that those we interact with—online or off—aren't using the same operating system we are.
When we recognize that we don't all share the same capacity or capabilities, we can avoid jumping to conclusions or filling in blanks we just don't have the answers to.
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Self-sabotage—any of the myriad ways we can make it harder on ourselves to make or do the things we want—is something most people deal with. And once you're in the self-sabotage cycle, it can be hard to break out. Self-sabotage behaviors tend to feed other self-sabotage behaviors.
"Follow-through isn't about the quantity of energy you bring to a project. It's about the quality of energy. It's finesse."
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This is not excusing people or companies that don’t follow through on the stated terms of products and services. You are absolutely entitled to what you paid for. Although, you’re also not entitled to more than you paid for.
This is a classic example of Damian Milton’s double-empathy problem theory. He proposes that, while both autistic and non-autistic people experience difficulty communicating with people in the other group, it’s autistic people who shoulder much more of the burden because of their perceived “deficit.” Read an explanation of the theory here.