All the reasons I don’t defend my own boundaries

I wish I was better at defending my boundaries. I am honestly so bad at it.

I have this problem where, even though I totally understand how important it is for people to respect each other’s boundaries, and even though I am both willing and able to go to bat *hard* for other people when their boundaries are being violated, I always, always instinctively err on the side of not rocking the boat when it comes to my own.

Either I will say nothing and hope that the violation ends soon (in situations like street (or public transit) harassment), or if I do say something I heavily downplay the importance of the issue. Like, I am so fucking ingratiating about people misgendering me – and sometimes that is actually fair, because hey, they didn’t know any better/they are genuinely trying and I can tell, but also, that shit *hurts*. Sometimes a lot. And I know I could do a better job of making it clear that people really should be trying harder, because it doesn’t hurt them to slow down enough to think before they speak (or at any rate, it probably doesn’t hurt as much as having my identity erased).

Part of this is that I don’t like to admit that I am hurt by things. I don’t like to admit that I *can* be hurt by things. On some level, I don’t trust people not to take advantage if I draw them a precise picture of what things hurt me in what ways. Which is genuinely unfair to most of the people in my life, and I am working on that.

Sometimes the problem is that, by letting someone now they are hurting me, particularly around my gender, can be a catalyst for in-depth conversation about my gender that I don’t necessarily feel like having. Like, this is not a thing that is relevant right now maybe except for the fact that I really need you to stop calling me a “girl” right now, mmkay?

I have an overwhelming desire to not seem “difficult”, to not be perceived as “causing problems”. Even while I *know* that if someone is hurting me or violating my boundaries, they are the one being difficult and causing problems. Even though I know that I am trying to *solve* the problem. But because everyone else doesn’t want to have to see the problem, I know I will be seen as the person violating that bullshit social contract about making people feel uncomfortable.

I have had problems in the past, with people whom I trust enough to actually outline important boundaries explicitly, where I have had them make it about themselves, where I have had them explain to me that they are hurt or uncomfortable about the fact that I have boundaries, where they have explicitly or implicitly guilt-tripped me about having (those) boundaries at all. In the extreme case, any time I tried to set a boundary with my abuser (especially sexually), the thing I had set a boundary around would always magically become extremely important and vital to him, and the boundary-setting had the opposite effect I intended. He would constantly poke and prod and push at it, far more so than ever would have happened if I hadn’t said anything to begin with.

So many times in my life I have sacrificed my own boundaries because people have made it more painful for me to defend them than to just let them violate me. And all of this has made me extremely circumspect about setting boundaries with anyone, ever. And it makes me extremely touchy about it when I do. Which is shitty all around.

Pro-tip: when someone tells you they don’t want to do something with you, accept that as a fucking ‘no’. Don’t make it about you – it’s fine that maybe you would have like to do that thing, but you get to express your disappointment exactly *once* before it becomes pressure and a violation of the boundary. I promise you that you were heard the first time. Don’t manufacture excuses to talk to them about that thing to try and make them see that they should be comfortable with talking to you about, because that accomplishes the exact opposite of making you seem trustworthy. It demonstrates that you can’t fucking well be trusted to respect their explicitly stated boundaries. (And *still*, when I was in this situation, by the way, I was nice about it and tried to simply reiterated my boundary, while simultaneously walking it back step-by-step (to my extreme detriment) to account for the other person’s stated discomfort about the boundary’s existence. Sometimes I hate me.)

I have had so many people be so shitty to me about boundaries both explicitly and implicitly stated, that I sometimes feel like I have no idea what to do anymore. I know that my boundaries are going to be violated. It is going to happen. And I rarely have the energy or the wherewithal to deal with violations of explicitly stated boundaries. I (almost) prefer not to tell anyone about them so that if I get hurt all I have to do is blame myself – and really, I just find it so much easier to beat up on myself and wallow in self-hatred than to actually try to deal with other people’s genuinely shitty behaviour toward me.

What I really need to learn is how to respond effectively when it happens. I need to learn that I deserve to be treated better and start writing people off (or at least downgrading my relationship with them) when they don’t make the grade. I need to learn that it is ok to get angry.

But also, I know that in the moment my immediate response to this kind of threat is to go into total shutdown, to become so trapped in my head that I can’t communicate anything more complex that small talk, and that very very often it can take me days or weeks (or sometimes, however long it takes for me to get some distance from the person who did the thing) to figure out how to fully articulate what caused that to happen and to convince myself that it’s not just my problem that I have to deal with.

I am tired. There seems to be a never-ending list of reasons for me to avoid stating and defending my boundaries. I have no solutions. What are all y’all solutions to this kind of bullshit?

13 comments

  1. I feel like you described me, to a large extent. I copied a passage, intending to quote it, here, and respond to that specific thing, then quickly realized I’d have to copy-paste half of the post, if I went on that way.

    I have experienced so many of the same things. An abusive relationship in which stating a boundary was seen as a challenge, rather than a full-stop situation. Wanting to please. Not wanting to make other people uncomfortable by expressing things that made me miserable. The neverending fucking gaslighting from people who never fail to tell me that I’m overly sensitive, or just need to grow up, or suck it up, and accept that this is how the world works.

    Except… those people are assholes, defending a really broken status quo.

    I basically had to burn it all down to the ground, then mourn the loss of community and family and companionship, to be able to set boundaries and enforce them. I stated in a blog post that I could not carry on friendships with people who would maintain friendships with the man who abused and sexually assaulted and psychologically terrorized me for months. I was immediately inundated with accusations of being manipulative, of being oversensitive, of being abusive, myself, to my friends, by “not respecting their choices.” But that wasn’t what was actually happening. I was simply stating my own boundary around what kind of people I was willing to have in my life, and the idea of someone placing standards on friendship made them so uncomfortable because it meant they had to examine their own character and motives. While it was devastating to lose so many connections, it was also very freeing. Learning that I could survive the loss of almost every piece of my social support network, and keep on keeping on, *forced* me to recognize my own strength. That enabled me to set boundaries around other things, in other areas of my life, that I’d always been reluctant to set and enforce.

    I was able to tell my alcoholic father that, while I really wanted to spend time with him, I could only do that when/if he was sober. I was able to enforce with my ex-husband, and father of my kids, that he didn’t get free reign to be verbally abusive with me, just because we have to communicate regarding our children.

    It still sucks, sometimes. It’s still hard, and I still often catch myself wanting to just nod and go along with whatever makes other people most comfortable. I still tend to fall apart a bit, after all is said and done. The trade-off is, the few people who now have my trust and regard actually deserve that. They respect my boundaries, and never try to push past them.

    I do stress, sometimes, about rebuilding that social network. My standards are pretty high, and that makes making new friends somewhat difficult. I also recognize, though, that it’s rather absurd that wishing to be treated with respect, wishing to surround myself only with people who are capable of respecting me and one another, is somehow a “high standard.” That’s just fucking pathetic. It shouldn’t be a thing that having empathy is such a high bar.

  2. Wow. 😪

    Thank you both for sharing. It’s disturbing how common abuse seems to be. I’ve experienced very similar things. Almost identical.

    And yet, I’m extremely loud and ferocious about my boundaries.

    You articulated what it took me decades to realize: these people just wanted me to shut up and suck it up.

    I ended up burning everything to the ground too, because I thought “well, even if I *could* put up and shut up, I certainly fucking wouldn’t.”

    I said that to myself, but of course I would have given in because belonging is so built into our damn bodies.

    Luckily (?) I couldn’t. Reading this I know the results would have been the same. Abusive people fucking abuse. It’s that simple.

    So now I set my boundaries to myself. I correct any words that cause me pain for myself. I say it aloud for myself. I don’t explain it, I just say “woman” if someone calls me “girl.” For me.

    When I trust myself, it doesn’t matter what the others are doing because I can remove myself from them. And I know I will because I have.

    I trust me. And I trust that others will fuck up intentionally or mistakenly. I trust I will, too.

    I will always firmly repair the trust with myself. Luckily.

  3. There was a recent time where you stuck up for yourself in a huge way – you got your work to allow you to wear a name tag with your preferred name. I know it’s easy to get down on all the times we fail, but don’t forget these victories!

    1. Thank you for the reminder! I am always better with institutional stuff than interpersonal stuff for sure. My biggest problems come with friendships and romantic relationships honestly :/

  4. It’s an investment of energy, again and again and again, and it can be worth it in the relationships with people you care about and in the places you come every day for years (like you have in your work place :) which was kinda a huge deed) but not energy you can expend with every single stranger and it’s really hard if people keep doing it wrong who know better…

    It’s like when you’re suffering from depression or when you encounter racism, I think… some people you tell, some people you don’t, the “jokes” and the misunderstandings and the deliberate abuse can be tiring and discouraging but always, always it’s good to fight the few fights that’d bring you what space you do need in the places you want to be safe, and you have, and you’ll have times where it seems so not worth it.

    One person who gave a speech after getting praised for breaking the glass ceiling for women expressed it really well, I think. She described how thousands upon thousands of women had been running headlong into that glass again and again to try and weaken it, break it. She was just one of the lucky ones to walk on through after all those others had broken it. I think that’s how a lot of these fights are won… someday someone will live a good life because others kept fighting and fighting….

    But I think it’s also good to see that a life needs to be lived, in spite of all the potential fights that one person alone really can’t fight. And that just that, the living, is already a giant victory.

    So go you and f*** assholes.

    1. As an African American–and someone who’s dealt with depression–I find this comment really resonates with me. Maybe that’s why, even though these particular issues aren’t mine, I feel drawn to what you all are saying. Being “different” in the world and getting people to acknowlege let alone respect it can be a 24/7 battle, and there’s a lot of battle fatigue. So the 2nd to last paragraph above is my takeaway from, to celebrate the victory of living, that I’m still alive and being and creating is the midst of the struggle. Also, I like the last paragraph too :)

  5. So much of what you said here resonates. I’ve been in abusive situation where setting boundaries meant that the abuser would go out of his way to intentionally violate that boundary. I also grew up in a situation where any perceived weaknesses or flaws were exploited – I totally feel what you said about not wanting to admit you can be hurt by things. I have very much become guarded because my life experience has been that admitting to vulnerabilities means that those vulnerabilities will be exploited.

    Also wanted to echo an above commenter who pointed out that you totally set a boundary and stood up for yourself with your workplace’s name tag policy, and that was AWESOME.

    I find sometimes when I don’t defend my personal boundaries, it’s because I know that doing so will be an exhausting battle that I don’t have the energy to fight. And a lot of times, I find ways of rationalizing ignoring it, just like you do. Especially when you’re dealing with someone who you know will make your boundaries all about them (as you pointed out). It really is tiring, and I think that’s what some people count on – that they can wear you down and you’ll give up.

    I’m dealing with one such person right now, and I’ve just become very repetitive. Any time he tries to make a certain issue that’s not about him into something about him, I just remind him that it has nothing to do with him. He’s the type who takes everything personally and tries to invalidate anything that he has never personally experienced (straight white man who’s rather sheltered), and I just keep calmly saying, over and over, “Just because it isn’t a problem for you doesn’t mean that it isn’t a problem.” I also use “as a straight white male, I don’t think your experiences have been the same as [whatever person/group he’s trying to whitemansplain.]”

    His new thing now is, “You’re womansplaining!” And I say, “Yes, I am, and you need to listen so that you can understand how I experience things differently than you.” And when he doesn’t feel listened to? “The straight white male narrative is the dominant cultural narrative and it gets plenty of airtime. Please allow others whose narratives don’t get as much attention speak without interrupting them.” Basically, I have an answer for all of his objections, and I just rattle them off as needed.

    I have found in the past that having practiced reactions helps – which I know sounds ridiculous, but I swear it helps. I had a work situation some years ago where the same person kept pulling the same crap, and this was when I was more afraid of confrontation, so I practiced a response. Next time she did it, I had an immediate response that caught her completely off-guard. I found that after a while of having prepared responses to common issues I faced, it got easier to reinforce my boundaries without having to think through or practice it first.

    I also practiced a stoic calmness. It’s harder for others to upset you if you have a very practiced, well-maintained outward control. Doesn’t mean you’re not pissed as hell or that emotions are invalid or wrong, just means you’re not letting someone use your emotional response against you. That’s not to say you can’t tell them how you feel, or that you shouldn’t have feelings, because you totally should. But in the moment of a confrontation, I’ve become very good at keeping a fairly stoic facial expression and a calm tone of voice and explain rather than display emotions.

    It might also help if you have a tendency, as you said, kind of shut down. If you have practiced responses to common boundary violations, and practice saying them in a more stoic, controlled way, it may help you feel more empowered to be able to say what you need to say. It worked for me eventually. Now I can react to people who throw stuff at me I wasn’t expecting with relative ease, but 10 years ago? I’d completely shut down, or I’d react inappropriately. That rarely happens now, but it took work.

    Also, a friend taught me this trick – listen to the other person carefully, and repeat back what they say. “So what I’m hearing is, you feel that…” This works for two reasons – one, they realize you are listening to them and will be more likely to listen to you, and two, sometimes when they hear someone else repeat back their words, they realize how absurd they sound. I use that mainly on people who get super argumentative or who are really emotional.

    And, when all else fails, end the conversation. I use, “I’m no longer willing to discuss this with you” all the time. Sometimes you have to repeat it, and sometimes you have to also walk away or delete a follow up email or ignore a phone call, but if you can manage to not allow yourself to get drawn back into a non-productive dialogue, there’s something so freeing about saying, “This is not negotiable. This is not open for discussion.” Sometimes adding, “And if this continues, I will ___.” And having others know that you mean it when you say it. It actually amazes me when I think about the people whose behavior changed when I started doing this.

    (Sorry for the uber-long comment, I just felt this so hard, and I’ve worked really hard at it myself.)

    1. Lot of wisdom in here. Reading this makes me realize–again–that being a healthy human being in this world is a discipline. It doesn’t just happen. I have to learn how to work at it; I have to practice and commit myself, in the same way I have to practice good eating and exercise habits to be physically healthy. I find it easy to think “If I wasn’t so fucked up, I wouldn’t have so much trouble with this. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I figure this shit out?” But then I realize that i’m better at life than I used to be, and that didn’t just happen. It happened because I made commitments to myself to work and grow. Thanks so much for the insight about practice.

  6. If people don’t care about my needs when I talk to them, then I don’t talk to them anymore, I move on. I have told people I don’t see them as a friend in those situations, after a cooling off withdrawal on my part. They might not like it, but the thing is there’s always going to be people displeased with you. It comforts me to know, that whatever I do, people will always be criticising and complaining – because it’s the same for everyone – personality clashes are an inevitable part of social life, like the danger and occurrence of bullying and abuse.

  7. Boundary setting to an abuser is like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull.

    Boundaries are hard to develop, if we didn’t learn how to set and protect them as children. So, as to your question on solutions…I do a lot of therapy.

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