When I was thinking about writing this piece I recalled a session that I went to on Boundaries at South West Love Fest in Tuscon last year. At that session, Diana Ryan talked about boundaries in terms of what a home would look like depending on how your boundaries were maintained. This was such a clear depiction that I want to share it here. For many years my boundaries looked like this picture:
My boundaries were severely neglected. The fence had half fallen down, the windows are hanging off their hinges and the doors were wide open. I barely had any boundaries at all. I was willing to accept all kinds of behaviour that felt terrible to me. I was willing to prioritise other people’s comfort and desires over my own needs. This didn’t go well for me, and it didn’t go well for the other people I was in relationships with either. It meant that I felt resentful because they were trampling me and not paying attention to my limits or needs. That was easy for them to do because I wasn’t expressing boundaries, limits or needs to them. Instead, I was putting up with my mother telling me that I was ‘fat’ and her faux concern about my health. I was accepting partners always deciding what we did, where we went and the kinds of sex we had. In short, I was not an active participant in my relationship life. I was doing my very very best to not have any needs, limits or boundaries. Unfortunately, that isn’t something humans are good at.
Whether we acknowledge them or not, we all have things that we need, and minimum standards by which we would like to be treated. An example from this period is this: I was part of a games group, and in the group was a guy that kept punching my arm. He did it when he thought something was funny, and I really didn’t like it. Get me right, I’m not saying his behaviour was generally acceptable, but it was normal for him to punch his friends in the arm and all of them seemed fine with it. I wasn’t fine with it. I didn’t say anything about this though, because I felt awkward and I didn’t want to make the situation awkward. Instead, I ruminated about it. I thought about how wrong it was, and I thought about how all the other guys in the group should do something about it. Of course, I never talked to any of them. Eventually, when he hit me particularly hard, I told him that if he ever did it again, I would report him to the police for assault. He was horrified, and some of the other people in the group were too — it came out of the blue for all of them. This is a common issue with people with few boundaries. It isn’t until you’re so angry or hurt or resentful that you can’t take it anymore that you actually say something. When you do, it often comes out of the blue for other people because you never told them that you have a boundary.
That brings me on to the big change in my life. I went from having precious few boundaries to this:
Yeah, I created myself a fortress of solitude with a full-on moat. Having realised that the absence of boundaries was ineffective, I decided that I needed some. Like many people that have struggled with boundaries I went from almost none, to so many that I couldn’t meaningfully connect with other people. I was armed to the teeth and totally inflexible about anything whatsoever. I was totally committed to autonomy and freedom. I came out as non-monogamous and non-hierarchical. I was unwilling to let anyone have any influence whatsoever over my decision making. I was, in essence, an island.
I went from free and breezy to absolutely locked down in the space of months.
It probably goes without saying that this wasn’t great either. Several of my partners in this period felt like I didn’t care about them at all. Others found that they didn’t know important things about me and my process. I felt lonely and isolated. It was a big hard shell that did allow me to do some healing, but it also drastically limited intimacy with other people. I barely had any receptive sex at all for a few years. I didn’t know how to do it and still feel safe. Rather than allowing partners to treat me as they liked, I withdrew from connections where someone had done something that didn’t feel OK to me, often without explaining why. My boundaries were rigid, poorly communicated and heavily enforced. A boundary that I did communicate in this period was telling my mother that if she continued to make comments on my weight, I would stop seeing her because it made visiting unpleasant. This was effective — she stopped these comments for a decade — but it was also very all or nothing. Boundaries expressed in this way can damage relationships, especially if there are many ‘no go’ areas.
It took a number of years to move through my lock down to something closer to this:
This is where I am now, most of the time. My boundaries are in place and important to me. There is a well-maintained fence with a closed gate. The windows have locks and the door is closed. For me this means that I am able to communicate my boundaries to my closest people and take appropriate action to maintain them. I can communicate with people that treat me in ways that I will not accept with greater clarity. This means being more able to express my physical and emotional boundaries. Some examples of my boundaries are:
I will not share a bed with someone that resets an alarm in the morning (presses snooze repeatedly).
I will not be in a sexual relationship with someone that shouts at me or raises their voice in anger.
I will not have sex with someone that is judgemental about ‘mess’.
I will not live with someone who invites people I feel unsafe around into a shared home.
I will not have a close relationship with anyone that makes judgemental statements about my weight.
I will not continue kinky relationships with people that don’t check in with me after a scene.
I would like to say that I am consistently good at expressing and maintaining my boundaries, but the truth is that is a work in progress. From time to time, especially at times of crisis or major change, I have defaulted back to a less healthy state. Most often my fortress of solitude. This is something lots of people do, and it seriously inhibits communication in relationships and escalates conflict. Broadly speaking though, I do communicate my boundaries better these days. I am able to recognise when something has happened that wasn’t really OK with me, and to talk about it with relevant people. Occasionally if the issue relates to historic trauma and is difficult to uncover, this can take a long time. However, most of the time the process is pretty rapid. Future posts will look at the process of recognising boundaries for yourself and communicating to others. In the meantime, here are some questions to reflect on:
Which of the depictions best reflects your relationship with boundaries at present?
Has this changed over time?
What boundaries are important to you?
Have you expressed them to relevant people in your life?
What boundaries are the most difficult for you to keep and why?