"Good fences make good neighbors" – Now as Then
My best friend from college taught me a phrase I’d never considered using before and hold dear to this day. That phrase is “that’s not ok.” See, until I learned this phrase I was a pushover, I tried very hard to make everyone (especially people I was dating) happy, even at the cost of my own well being. I gave my power away all the time and felt crummy about it. I spent a lot of mental energy trying to find ways of coping with being stepped on, rather than spending energy cultivating resilience, standing up for myself and setting good personal boundaries.
Once, at a young adult con, there was a fella who’d taken a liking to me – a creepy sort of liking. He’d follow me around, put his hand on my leg and ask me questions I didn’t want to answer. I thought the problem was me, I was too smiley and so he naturally thought I was flirting. I engaged him in conversation so he naturally thought I was interested in him. I was really conflicted because I desperately wanted to be nice, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and I also desperately wanted to be left alone.
So I visited the chaplain to get some advice on how to cope. She told me that not only was I doing a disservice to myself by letting him act this way towards me, I was doing him a disservice by not telling him his actions made me uncomfortable. “Maybe no one has ever told him that when he acts this way it creeps people out”, she said to me.
Owning this idea – that I wasn’t even doing him a favor by going along with his behavior – was the first step for me in feeling empowered to stand up for myself.
So, shaking, I approached him and (as coached) said, “when you follow me around and touch me without asking it makes me feel uncomfortable. Would you please leave me alone for the rest of the con?” He nodded sheepishly and walked away. I could tell I’d hurt his feelings. Even so, I’d never felt more Unitarian Universalist. I was willing to take the chance at being in authentic relationship with someone, willing to risk my own need to keep things copacetic in order to maintain my own dignity, finally willing to stand up for myself.Here are the steps I had to take to set a firm, healthy boundary for myself in that situation.
1. Remember that I belong to myselfMy body, my time, my feelings, my personal space, my thoughts, my spirit are mine to care for.
2. Understand that my situation is not my faultI cannot always control what other people will think, feel, say, or do. But I can set boundaries, leave, or seek help if others harm my health or safety.
3. Choose to listen to my gut feelingI don’t have to over-think or rationalize other people’s bad behavior. Even if I believe they are not intentionally being harmful, if I am being harmed (mentally, physically, sexually, or emotionally) then I have a right and a duty to speak up.
4. Feel the anxiety and do it anywayI may make people mad or sad by sticking up for myself but that consequence is worth it so I can maintain my own dignity.
5. Communicate what I feel in a way that can be heardEven if it’s hard, I can state my feelings in terms that are all mine rather than attacking the other person, state the specific behavior that is a problem to me and say what I specifically want the person to do. I can use, “I feel … When you … Would you please …” Luckily my suitor accepted my blunt revelation and my feelings of guilt for hurting his feelings were soon replaced with the pride of learning a new life skill, being disciplined enough to do something scary and having my request respected. That may not always be the case. If you find yourself in a situation that continues causing you discomfort, I suggest taking a look at the excellent article by Irene van der Zande, Teenpower Boundaries for People You Know, for tips. This is why I love my faith and love the ways we gather. One of the ways I knew it was okay to listen to my gut was because, as a community when we came together on the first night we agreed to a set of behavioral guidelines and a covenant. We agreed that we would speak up if we saw behavior that was out of covenant and that we would support each other in speaking up. My “that’s not okay” friend was actually aware of my suitor’s patterns before even I was. And she, knowing we were all accountable for keeping one another safe, was the first to call attention to it. She could have assumed that because I hadn’t said anything that his behavior was okay with me, or even that I was welcoming it, but she understood that we are all called to speak up when we see something that looks like an abuse of power or just simply... off. Sometimes being on the outside of a situation – or a bystander – puts you in a good position to intervene, or at least to support a friend who feels like they don’t have the power to do something themselves. I’d love to hear some of your personal strategies for maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships and in community. Please leave your comments below.