Discussion notes: relating, respect & boundaries

“It is basic to any relationship, and particularly important in open relationships, that no one person can own another.”
Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy (2009). The Ethical Slut (2nd edition). Celestial Arts. 71.

Part one: what are boundaries?

  • Boundaries can be thought of as our conditions for staying as close (emotionally, but also physically and mentally) to a person as we currently are.
  • Boundaries relate to self-care: boundary crossing is what leads to things that just “don’t feel right.”
  • Where boundaries lie is often hard to define – we often only know where they are after they’ve been crossed.
  • Boundary-setting can be used punitively. How do we use boundaries in a way which is kind (both to ourselves and others)?
  • We often don’t know where our boundaries are until they’ve been crossed. It can feel cruel to have to enforce a boundary, but it isn’t necessary cruel or punitive if we’re doing that to make ourselves safe.
  • Boundaries are a natural response to aggressions or violences
  • Ideally, we would never exercise our boundaries because there would be no exercise of power over us: imposing boundary is a forceful exercise of control over ourselves
  • Boundaries are often tested and weakened (and our consents eroded) by:
    • Repeated questioning;
    • Excessive pressure (e.g. employing force or privilege to make a person feel like they have to accept a boundary violation)
    • Special pleading (e.g. saying one has is legitimised in violating a boundary because of something else)
    • Minimising (e.g implying the boundary violation is not a big deal)
  • Boundary violations are common in childhood due to power imbalances between children and adults – e.g. compelling children to hug people they don’t want to
  • It is particularly common for people assigned female at birth to have their consent violated during their upbringing due to social pressures to be ‘nice’ (e.g. acquiescent)
  • It is often difficult to know where is the “correct” place to have boundaries
  • Believing that the needs of others are greater than our own can make us susceptible to boundary violations
  • It is considered socially desirable for wives/parents to ignore their own boundaries to meet the needs of their spouse/child
  • We have no obligation to experience harm for on behalf of another
  • Boundary violations will occur regularly if we are in the habit of valuing the needs of others over our own
  • People will cross boundaries to prevent themselves being harmed. Somebody may experience something as emotionally destructive (or a threat to themselves) even where to others this may not appear to be the case
  • We experience trauma where our boundaries are crossed and our ability to cope is overwhelmed. Trauma diminishes our future capacity to cope, necessitating that we have greater boundaries than before experiencing trauma. Enforcing a boundary is about reducing a potentially harmful stimulus to a level we can cope with.
  • We can work out where our boundaries are by starting out with what we cannot cope with (physically, mentally, emotionally), then working up from there as what we can cope with at certain levels with certain people or in certain situations
  • It’s not always possible to sustain the levels of care that we are giving to other people in crisis – we are not obligated to commit to supplying unsustainable levels of care

Part two: how do we create and defend boundaries?

  • People are often not conscious of the violence they do or the power that they have
  • People with strong boundaries are often aware of and used to accessing their power (or capacity for violence)
  • Boundaries are enforced at systemic and structural levels: boundaries around certain levels of physical and emotional violence are underlined by (the threat of) institutional violence as enacted by police and justice system
  • Mutual support provides relief when we realise that problems are bigger than ourselves
  • Learning how to set boundaries starts in childhood – letting children set boundaries for themselves
  • Sometimes we do not state our boundaries, because stating them and having them be ignored (when we have no way to enforce them) feels worse than just having the violation
  • It is easy for relationships where boundary crossing is going on to withdraw from society and the visibility of communities. In resisting this kind of behaviour we need to build structures that make isolation more difficult
  • Where boundaries have had to be stated, something has already gone awry
  • Boundaries are part of a culture of consent – checking in with people that what is going on is working for them
  • Boundaries do not have to be fixed – they change over time
  • Having health boundaries means “I can go to most places and be safe”
  • We need to develop strategies that work for us to defend our boundaries
  • Boundaries are intimately related to the idea of coping: we benefit from boundaries when we can use them to identify when we cannot cope
  • Failure to cope often manifest as:
    • Seeking reassurance, followed by
    • Anxiety, followed by
    • Irritation/aggression, followed by
    • Dissociation
  • We need to think about how boundary crossing makes us feel
  • Boundaries are mostly about our own behaviour – if you do x, i will not y with you
  • But we can also put limits on others behaviour – e.g. asking a person not to contact us (we have the right to not associate with people)
  • Saying that we cannot limit other people’s ability to contact us can read as victim-blaming people who are stalked
  • Sometimes the only way to defend our boundaries is to use physical, psychological or emotional violence – this is justified to keep us safe
  • Ways of enforcing boundaries:
    • State the boundary (Please do not touch me)
    • Clarify the boundary (I don’t want you to touch me anywhere)
    • Restate the boundary (I told you not to touch me at all)
    • Indicate that you will leave if boundary is not respected (I will leave if you keep touching me)
    • Escalate through levels of emotional (you are upsetting me by touching me), psychological (lying – I will get you in trouble if you keep touching me) and physical violence (pushing the person away)
    • If these fail, the result is often to dissociate until the threat goes away

Part three: what is a legitimate boundary?

  • We have a right not to be harmed by others (except where that harm results from their legitimate need to defend themselves from harm).
  • Many of us do not have enough practice negotiating consent, which makes it harder to enforce our boundaries.
  • How do we negotiate sharing emotional labour?
  • It can be difficult to generate boundaries until they have been crossed.
  • It is often difficult to want to say “no” when someone is taking more from us than we are able to give.
  • We may understand that our needs exist, but not know how to get them met
  • There are two ways to determine boundaries: to experiment (reactive) and to imagine (proactive)
    • We experiment when we learn where our boundaries lie by experiencing the feelings that come with them being crossed
    • We imagine where our boundaries lie when we imagine what a situation would be like, and whether we might feel a boundary has been crossed
  • It would be helpful for communities to support people in having strong boundaries by providing support on a platonic level.
  • It is difficult to talk about one’s own boundary crossing behaviours due to feelings of shame for behaving in these ways. This encourages people to hide their behaviours rather than challenge them with the support of their community.
  • The skill of listening to a person without judgement is useful when that person is trying to understand their feelings, and how their boundaries have been crossed (or why they’ve crossed others’ boundaries).
  • It can feel like we are often too hung up on finding the right answer (to what boundaries are or aren’t, or what’s fair or not) rather than finding ways to support people in the here and now.
  • It is easy to rationalise away why we feel bad when our boundaries are crossed. A good way to counter this can be to center the experiences in our bodies, and use these experiences as a guide to how we feel about behaviours.

Author: PILSAR

This user is shared by the PILSAR Group facilitators for site admin purposes and posting collaborative content.

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