Personal Boundaries and Social Norms

It’s something that we’ve all noticed. A disproportionate number of pagans seem to be, well, socially awkward. Many a pagan – and not only the younger ones – seems to have a bit of a problem with social skills, particularly with personal boundaries. This awkwardness can make pagan networking a little tricky sometimes, not to mention interactions at pagan festivals. It can also make the awkward among us seem that much more unusual to those outside of the pagan community that only have pop culture and media stereotypes as the basis for their expectations.

Sure, some people have problems adapting to social norms. I’ve heard allegations that a higher number of pagans have Asperger’s Syndrome than non-pagans (although I haven’t verified this at all) . Paganism also has a reputation for being more open and accepting to unusual people, which can easily make it seem more inviting to people who are less socially aware. Sometimes, however, social awkwardness is tolerated unduly from individuals who should (or do) know better – the famed pagan tolerance could keep some from correcting socially inappropriate behavior. In a worst-case scenario, that tolerance may be taken advantage of by people who are simply too rude or self-absorbed to be bothered with respecting other people’s boundaries.

The Occult may offer an attraction to people who lack or have difficulties with social skills. The socially awkward may hope to use magic as a substitute for social skills, either to more successfully interact with, or even manipulate, other people. The study and mastery of magic is also associated in popular culture with images of seduction, charisma, and power, which may lead the awkward to believe that magic, or the association with those versed in it, can provide them with the charisma needed to overcome their social deficiencies.

Many of those involved in areas of the occult or paganism often actively choose to rebel against mainstream societal norms. I’d wager that most pagans out there have encountered (or once been!) the “rebel pagan, ” who seeks to reject utterly the xtians, along with every aspect of society and culture deemed to be somehow associated with them. This can range from standards of dress and hygiene (I practice a nature religion! Bathing isn’t natural!) to sexual mores, to political associations. Rebelling can be a great and liberating experience, if done with forethought and for the right reasons – unfortunately, things like forethought and having right reasons for doing something are often among the Christian-like cultural values that get unthinkingly rejected.

In some cases, conventional social norms may be rejected due to a pagan’s perceived status as an “outsider.” Indeed, if you felt rejected by society, why would you support society’s norms? Historically, many pagan religious movements have embraced this outsider status, even cultivating it, which doesn’t bode well for adherence to mainstream social conventions. In some cases, the more extreme rejection of conventional norms can be taken as a “badge of honor, ” and eccentricity can be used to cultivate status in the pagan subculture. The more distance one takes from the “Christian values” of mainstream society, the more highly one can be regarded by those taking pride in their outsider nature. Ironically, this attitude only further alienates such a person from mainstream society, which will respond with confusion or mistrust to one who so blatantly relished violating social norms.

In some cases, individuals may purposely cultivate the outsider image to create a sinister glamour, generally to insulate themselves from forming legitimate social relationships. This phenomenon applies to the occult in general, as well as related subcultures such as the Goth and vampire milieus. Unfortunately, wearing all black and sitting in the corner of Denny’s all night whilst quoting obscure Crowley texts doesn’t do much to anyone more sociable, and in the end run only reinforces negative stereotypes.

One of the difficulties in maintaining personal boundaries in the pagan community is related to the notion of trust in magical or pagan settings. Tradition tells us to enter a circle only “in perfect love and perfect trust, ” without really establishing what that means. Too often it is taken to mean that a real pagan will trust another pagan implicitly, even with his or her innermost secrets. I don’t know about you, but I’ve met plenty of untrustworthy pagans, and honestly I’m slow to open up even to people I know well. Yet somehow the bond of a common religious affiliation (if there can be said to be such a thing in paganism) is supposed to transcend such concerns, and I’ve encountered many people in pagan settings and gatherings that not only see no problem with asking extremely personal questions, but who actually becomes offended at a reluctance to answer.

The trust issue is closely related to a general expectation of “openness” of all things from fellow pagans, especially at pagan gatherings and festivals. Stereotypes of pagans as sexually open are not limited to the non-pagan community, and I’ve encountered a few individuals that were affronted by the fact that I am not interested in same-sex coupling, not to mention the fact that my partner and I are quite happy in our monogamous arrangement. The sentiment that I’ve encountered is that such attitudes are somehow prudish relics of my Christian upbringing, and that if I were truly open to my pagan path I would reject them and joins in one big open, happy, pile of love. While I admittedly have only encountered this on a few occasions, the assumptions and implications bother me, not the least of which is the fact that my relationship to the gods is called into question because I expect others to respect my sexual choices. Sexual boundaries are too often assumed to be permeable and flexible in pagan settings, and I’ve heard many anecdotes on problems stemming from those assumptions.

One major problem that I have noticed in the pagan community is the unwillingness to correct social inappropriate or intrusive behavior. The pagan community prides itself on it tolerance and willingness to accept alternative or unconventional views and practices, and this can often manifest is a reluctance to critique the behaviors of others. Telling someone “no” or “stop” in certain situations can end up becoming a faux pas in its own right, and explaining that you don’t wish to share or that something is not someone else’s business can result in chastisement. While openness and tolerance are important values to pagans, the ability to establish your own values and boundaries are just as important, and decisions of those types should be respected.

Social norms and personal boundaries have developed and been employed for a reason – they allow people to develop a space in which to feel comfortable and to better establish their own identities. While exploring and modifying those boundaries is certainly a valid magical experience in its own right, the fact that those boundaries exist should not be overlooked, nor should the fact that most people function better with those boundaries firmly in place and respected.

Social norms allow people to cultivate a certain amount of acceptance in the general community. By sharing and demonstrating certain values and behaviors, you become less threatening to the dominant culture. A pagan in a suit and tie is bound to be received less judgmentally than the same person in black leather sporting a ten-inch silver pentacle necklace. That isn’t to say that pagans shouldn’t be – or enjoy being – different from “normal” people, but to point out that not all contemporary social norms are inherently bad, and that respecting the decision of others to live by them will make it much easier to relate to them.

Personal boundaries also make it easier to relate to people, as it gives the individual more control of what degree of intimacy and comfort he or she can establish. Not having to be defensive about how much of yourself you want to share and why can make it much easier to meet new people, and to form the kind of deep friendships that will lend itself to the openness and sharing many in the pagan community seem to want. This gradual exploring and negotiating of personal boundaries – and establishing who is allowed in and who isn’t – is the true basis for and expression of trust.

There is a certain amount of relief when entering the pagan community, in that some of the stricter and less rational social restrictions and norms aren’t rigidly enforced, and peculiarities and oddities are tolerated and even encouraged. It allows for means of expression that are interesting and liberating, and can allow for unique growth experiences. But some respect of personal boundaries must be given, so that people can feel comfortable and secure in their personal and inner space. It should also be recognized that some social conventions do have merit, and should not be rejected out of hand because they are shared by the dominant Christian culture.

(First published on the Witches’ Voice on 2 May 2010.)

3 responses to “Personal Boundaries and Social Norms

  1. Pingback: Going Alone | Blacklight Metaphysics

  2. You’ve hit on nearly every single reason why I now avoid Pagan gatherings of any sort like the plague. I have very strict boundaries, and do not suffer fools gladly. (And I don’t want to be That Person who delights in skewering the unwary on the blade of my cranky wit.) As a younger Pagan, I ran into nearly every situation you listed- from people who were into over-share to a particular kind of skeevy male whose sole reason for being Pagan was to score some sex, and believed that ‘no’ meant that he wasn’t trying hard enough. And yes, I’ve encountered the rebels, the misfits, the controlling priest/esses, and the lost souls as well. And genuine seekers. I was- and still am- a seeker.

    It makes me think back on what motivated me to get into magic and occult study (and practice) myself. Curiosity, mostly. It was ‘forbidden’, and that made it catnip for me. Why was it forbidden? What could possibly be ‘evil’ about it? I had to know. I was raised Catholic, but feel it didn’t stick because all the cool stuff was for boys only. I wasn’t a boy, so I couldn’t do the cool stuff (including wearing the robes, doing the bells and smells and all that). So I had to find a way around that. And I eventually found training and initiation and got to wear the robes and do the spells and all that. I did that until I realized that the theatrics got in the way of what I was trying to learn, and I decided to broom the whole lot to the curb. “Hardwarian” practice only goes so far, so I walked away, and formally retired as a Priestess and Witch, went through an atheistic abyss, and came out the other side as a plain ol’ Mage. Oddly enough, my magical knowledge and training was never something I considered using to entrance, overpower, frighten or seduce anyone. I do like Terry Pratchett’s idea of “Headology” though, and have become an avid student.

    The whole ‘perfect love and perfect trust’ thing was an invention of Gerald Gardner, among many other ‘accepted’ Wiccan practices (which are now being closely questioned by scholars) and was meant to be used only in ritual. But I’ve seen the concept get abused by people who wanted to run cults (or strange occult sex-clubs) instead of covens. Perfection is one of those things that is technically non-existent. And trust- for me at least- has quantifiable levels. So, ‘perfect trust’ (or love) cannot exist except very fleetingly. It certainly won’t be found in a semi-public festival full of people reeking of patchouli and sage.

    It is interesting that Aspergers is specifically mentioned in this essay. Folks with Aspergers are what I see as the ‘technician-geeks’ and original magicians of the world (if you read the bios of a lot of them, many have Aspie traits). To paraphrase Steve Silberman, ‘geeks’ were the folks who invented technology and magic, and pulled the rest of humanity out of the stone age- starting by making better stone weapons and going from there. They like to tinker, experiment, push the envelope. They want to know how things work, and many can care less about social niceties- or religious taboos. It’s not in their wiring. They have to be taught those things, but ‘people’ are a second language for many of them. Being one myself, I should know. It’s probably also why my Christian upbringing didn’t stick- I actually read the scriptures, and it did more to remove me from that belief system than any rebellion could have done. The irony was that I read them to become a better believer, and was freed by the action. When you run a lot of what happens in Scripture (and a lot of other religions) through a hyper-logical mind, the noise of social control gets lost in the translation, but the occult layer becomes discernible. And stripping back the layer of social foofery and getting back to the nuts and bolts is perfectly suited for Aspergian minds.

    I’ve mostly withdrawn from the social layer of occultism and Paganism. The noise obscures the signal for me. People and crowds overwhelm me, and having my personal barriers tuned to the max is taxing. The Internet is a far better mechanism for me to use to study, socialize, and learn, and has a clearer flavor of interaction. I don’t have to parse body language, hare off after perceived errors- and I can bail out any time I wish.

    • The “perfect love and perfect trust” thing is almost ALWAYS taken out of context. There is exactly one ritual context in which that statement belongs, and it is not a usual open-court, public, everyone come and enjoy kind of circle. If you hear it in any place other than the one specific ritual in which it was originally written, you are hearing it out of its original (and meaningful) context. “Perfect love and perfect trust” is not a norm for the greater neopagan world.

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