Never Get "Kanye'd" Again

Don't get "Kanye'd." it's just a matter of good boundaries.

Posted Sep 17, 2009

From Joe Wilson's rude outburst, to Serena William's threat to a judge, to Kanye West's witheringly rude don't-have-any-idea-what-to-call-THAT insult to Taylor Swift at her moment to shine at the Video Music Awards, Americans are abuzz about the topic of why we have become so rude and disrespectful to each other.

It's not new, but the rapid escalation is, along with the advent of not just email, but social media which without invitation, so often forcibly introduces us to the intimate interior of people's most private thoughts.

The astounding degree of insult IS new, and our concern and learning ought not just stop at that, but go to the root causes of what is happening to the national psyche.

It's a simple lack of understanding of personal boundaries, and the defensiveness (or ego defenses) left to protect our emotions when we've had a failure of good boundaries with each other.

As recently as 2002, 79% of Americans considered general rudeness and civility not just a trifling thing but cause for great concern:

We can all remember a time only a matter of years ago when shouting down a sitting President in Congress, or rushing the stage at an awards ceremony, grabbing the mic, and in effect saying a winner shouldn't have won the award - which clearly, she has just won - was not just unforgivable, but truly inconceivable - utterly outside our wildest imaginings.

Now a new bar for rudeness and disrespect is set, and many, from school-aged kids to adults in the boardroom are saying, "Hey whatever you do, don't Kanye me."

There's a part of us that springs to action when we are "feeling defensive" or we are said to "have our guard up," and these have been called "ego defenses."

The psychoanalysts may point out that when we use immature ego defenses such as "denial" or "acting out," these happen because we are trying to walk a tricky tightrope between our urges and impulses (Id, the "devil" on one shoulder), and what we have been taught is politically appropriate and diplomatic by society (Superego, the "angel" on the other shoulder.) Our defenses negotiate between the two when they are in conflict and strike a careful bargain between the angel and the devil - lowering our anxiety.

It would be much easier to ponder whether it's possible that Kanye was acting out lingering grief, or Wilson was in denial - that yes, someone other than him or his friends are at the helm of the nation - by seeing that ego defenses are like "social habits" that operate our behavior when we are on autopilot, not paying attention to the impact we are having on others.

An insight which must be a foundation of respect, and an antidote to rudeness.

Underneath most if not all ego defenses that cause social awkwardness or rudeness is the skill of maturity we are all capable of called a personal boundary. Like ego defenses, our personal boundary can range from immature and socially ineffective to mature and socially effective.

Like ego defenses, our personal boundary also helps us be "guarded" or to "defend" against social stress, but in the most mature and healthy of ways. To use it in this adult way, however, we have to be awake, aware, and at the steering wheel of our own lives and behavior. What is left over when we are not paying attention to our conduct is "unconscious" - the reflexes and instincts, where the devil on our shoulder urges to get what we want, just because we want it.

Things like being right about who should win an award, or who should be leading the country.

When I teach about how boundaries work, I like to draw a circle for people, and note that what is inside the circle is your psychological territory - your personal opinions, beliefs, emotions, and rights to make the decisions about your life - and what is outside is the rights, emotions, thoughts, opinions, values, beliefs and autonomy to others to make their own personal choices as they see fit.

The personal boundary is also like a "tank," a container of your psychological resources to be appreciated, valued, budgeted, and held custody of by you and only you. What is in there is yours and yours alone, and nobody else in existence has the right to tell you how to feel, what to think, or what choices to make or preferences to have about your life.

It is also a shield, a suit of armor that defends you against social pressure and stress, things you know are bad for you, and ideas, opinions, and options that just don't suit you. And so when there are "chinks in the armor" - our "buttons" that people push, our "weaknesses," or "blind spots" through which others can influence or even manipulate, and where we ourselves don't even see our limits of control and ownership - these weak spots or "boundary holes" end up causing all the strife in social situations.

The less mature we are, the more "holes in our armor" we have. The more mature we are, the more solid and "psychological strength" we have. Social interactions, and life itself, go far more smoothly.

Underneath our tendency to be diplomatic or rude, there are processes much like the mode a plane is flying in when it is either being piloted by us, or is rather on "autopilot."

When we are piloting our own behavior, we are paying attention to the boundaries of others, and of our own, and can navigate through the clouds in a way that is both respectful, and self-respecting too.

When we are "away from the steering wheel," not paying attention and using social common sense, it is as if our autopilot has kicked in - and what's left are those ego defenses, either immature and rusty, clunky, and socially dangerous, or else more mature, tried and tested to be socially effective even when we mentally relax.

The difference is in how much work we have done on our personal boundary skill. That very act makes us more mature and socially effective, and the maturity of our boundary and our ego defenses go hand in hand.

Fixing "American Rudeness" doesn't just involve noticing that social networking sites encourage us to have poor boundaries about our lives - more uninvited access to each other's private thoughts and feelings - or that many advertising techniques encourage us to be immature, impatient or impulsive - as in "Buy now! Last day of the sale!"

Making sure you never get "Kanye'd" again doesn't just necessitate that you become more guarded, fearful and on edge socially, or that guaranteeing that you never unwittingly "Kanye" someone else means that you must become far more worried about every little thing you say or type.

All of these need the simple knowledge of what boundaries are, and how they work, that they are always good for us and for others, and that they themselves are what contain what we all call "strength" and "respect."

They operate just like the border of a nation, in which to have access to another person's opinions, emotions and decisions (including buying decisions, voting decisions, and award-granting decisions), we must first, courteously knock on the door, ask permission, and be granted a visa to enter before bursting on through.

Maybe someday they'll invent a kind of internet "customs and immigration department" we can all use to allow or disallow entry to our blogs and forums and private, inner thoughts - one where "haters" and "flamers" experience the shame they would ordinarily receive at a restaurant for doing the same ignorant behavior they do online. Then the internet could be a better teacher of personal boundaries.

Until then, simply envision a circle drawn around yourself, and around every other person you encounter. What you think, feel, believe, and decide does not belong to anyone but you, and what they think, feel, believe and decide does not belong to you. If you are going to team up, get along, work together, love each other, befriend each other, or communicate, it is going to be necessary to ask permission, find what you agree in common, feel in common, and choose in common, then enter intimate connection with each other on those terms and those alone.

Everything else, we can respect each other in agreeing to disagree.

Our time to win an award will someday come and our time to lead will arrive some day. Most often these honors in a social group come sooner not because we muscled our way in, or shouted the loudest (paying attention, talk show pundits?), but because we have shown the most strength and respect to the most people.

We can pilot the plane of our behavior with our full attention, turning off that old immature, defensive "autopilot," instead, confident in the power of our mature boundaries.