Did anyone have a better Monday than Meghan Markle? Doubtful. The former actress spent her last day at what some might call the most thankless job she’s ever had looking positively giddy, as one tends to when leaving a toxic gig. (Except she did so looking less business casual and more Downton Abbey revival in an emerald cape dress and fishnet fascinator.) For many, it served as a victory lap for a woman who had placed her happiness and sanity above any perceived duties.
“The smile of a woman who set boundaries and won her happiness back,” the life coach and author Michelle Elman wrote on Twitter, utilizing a b-word that has been dominating the online therapy-speak world and pop culture for much of this emotionally fraught year.
You can see boundary-setting in action from Meghan’s decision to prioritize her personal life over her allegedly miserable professional one. Or on The Bachelor, which always has a finger on the pulse of pop psych culture, when Hannah Ann first told Peter how wrongly he had behaved, and later when Madison Prewett stood up to her boyfriend’s overbearing mother. And after spending much of her adulthood in front of a reality TV crew, Kourtney Kardashian has decided to film less of herself and young children.
And, very physically and practically right now, the novel coronavirus means people are rationing their movements and interactions with care. Boundaries are everywhere.
“Most of the time when you teach someone how to set boundaries for the first time, they will respond with ‘I can’t do that,’ or ‘I can’t say that,’” Elman told The Daily Beast. “Meghan Markle’s situation is such a good example because it completely proves this sentiment wrong and contradicts the idea that just because you've not done it before, doesn't mean you can't do it.”
In January, Meghan and Harry announced they would “step back” from official royal duties, and moved to Canada, where the actress lived while filming Suits. It was a surprise, unprecedented decision that left many people, but mostly Piers Morgan, spiraling over their supposed flaunting of tradition and disrespect of their family.
“It’s the perfect example that you get to decide the rules in your own life, even if it’s never been done before,” Elman added. To be fair, and quite unfortunately, Meghan already had practice cutting harmful family members out of her life—despite her father Thomas’ public pleas for attention, she has kept up a difficult estrangement.
“When your boundaries are continually being crossed, the final consequence is having no contact and cutting them out of your life,” Elman said. “It’s something that people believe is not possible. Especially when it is discussed in the context of family, there is a lot of shame around it.”
Brené Brown, the University of Houston research professor and TED Talk-famous “vulnerability” extoller, has long lauded the virtues of boundary-setting. She has previously described the practice as setting up “simple what’s OK and what’s not OK.”
“When we don’t set boundaries, we let people do things that are not OK,” Brown said last year. “Then we’re just resentful and hateful. I’d rather be loving and generous and very straightforward with what’s OK and what’s not OK.”
Easier said than done, maybe, especially for women, who can be vilified simply for saying “no.” As Dr. Deborah Serani, a professor of psychology at Adelphi University, said, “Boundary-setting is about confrontation, and some people are afraid of that. When you say no to somebody, they may not be happy, and you have to accept and be OK with it. It can appear you’re being selfish, when really you’re being self-caring.”
Elly Belle is a freelance writer from New York who calls herself “a huge boundary person.” In a recent, popular tweet, Belle explained how she asked a new girlfriend if she was free one day, and the date responded she would love to hang out, but could not that day due to “life things to take care of.”
“Honestly, I just want to say people with boundaries are so hot,” Belle wrote. “yeah baby respectfully turn me down and openly communicate to me that it isn't personal you just know what you need for yourself right now, that's the stuff, uhhhhhhhhhuhhhhhhhhh.”
“I love it when people are able to set boundaries with me, because I think it means that the person not only respects themselves enough, but also respects me enough to say exactly what they need,” Belle told The Daily Beast. “They know who they are, know what they want and what’s good for them, and are able to stick to that.”
Dr. Serani often talks about boundary-setting with her clients, especially around the new year and spring. “People like to emerge from the winter, start to do an inventory and think, I want to change this and that,” she said. “I think Meghan leaving the monarchy is a huge story about self-care, and when a high profile individual talks about something, it sets off a ripple effect.”