Lately, I have been thinking about the saying “Good fences make good neighbors.” I said it to somebody recently, telling her that it was ok to set a boundary with someone. It is a saying that has come to mean a lot to me.
I never really understood the saying before I put boundaries around my eating. I don’t even mean that it used to mean something different to me and now it has taken on a more profound meaning. I mean it used to seem like just a bunch of words. (Like “We have to let them win a few battles so we can win the war.” I still have no idea what that actually means. Apparently it is a good thing that I am not a military strategist…)
I talk a lot about how I keep boundaries around my food. But I don’t remember how much I have talked about how I put boundaries around how I am willing to be treated. Because I do. I draw lines. I say no. I say that things are not ok. I make requests for people to stop doing things that I find intrusive or abusive. I walk away when I am not honored.
When I put boundaries around my eating, I had to uphold those food boundaries with people. No you can’t have a bite. I can’t wait for you, I need to eat now. I can’t eat that. No, thank you. Etc…
But it eventually became clear that I needed to put boundaries up with people for things other than food. And that these boundaries were linked to my eating disorders and keeping them under control. It was about what I thought I was worth and how I deserved to be treated. First by myself. Then by everybody else.
“How I’m willing to be treated” and “intrusive or abusive” makes it sound like I’m talking about big, scary, obvious things. You’re not allowed to hit me. You’re not allowed to call me a stupid bitch. You’re not allowed to steal my money. But really, it can be things that other people think are silly or petty or ridiculous. It can be things that make other people say, “You’re overreacting.” “You’re being extreme.” Please don’t give me unsolicited advice. Please keep your opinions to yourself. No, I can’t do what you’re asking me to do.
It turns out that people aren’t mind readers. And that many people think they are being kind, or helpful, or playful, or friendly, or intimate when they do things that are hurtful. And many (many) people don’t have any boundaries of their own, so they can’t even imagine what it means that I do. So if I need something that I am not getting, I say so. And if I don’t want to do something that is being asked of me, I don’t have to. I can say no. Because when I ask for things clearly and answer requests honestly, I am giving people an opportunity to honor me.
Right. An opportunity. That sometimes, some people will refuse to take. There will always be people who hop fences. Literally and figuratively. There will always be people who either don’t know how, or just plain refuse, to honor my boundaries. There will always be abusers and thieves. There will always be bullies and assholes. But my personal experience is that setting the boundary is more important than whether or not others honor it.
It is also my experience that somehow, some way, almost magically, if I honor myself, people will either be compelled to honor me too, or they will disappear. I have found that the ignorant and misguided will learn. And that bullies and assholes, thieves and abusers fall away.
But there is something else to setting boundaries. Maintaining them. Because people test. They think I was just being cranky when I told them that it was not ok for them to give their opinion about my weight. Or how I eat. Or whether or not I wear makeup. Or if I use artificial sweetener. They think I will realize that I was being silly. Or that I will change my mind once I realize that they were trying to be kind. Or they don’t care that I have said no, so they think that if they badger me enough or try to manipulate me, I will be coerced into doing what they want. Or they think that if they cross my boundaries enough times, I will stop setting them. I will let it go. I will let them pass.
Because so many times, people do let it go. They let the boundary-crossers pass. Perhaps they think that boundaries should be set nicely, so as not to hurt anybody’s feelings. Or perhaps they wonder who they are that they should be allowed to say no. And don’t. And that is not ok. Perhaps they think that it would be rude to walk away. That it would be arrogant to assert themselves.
It is a scary thing to honor yourself. When I was first learning how to do it, it seemed so much harder to have a difficult conversation with somebody, than it did to shame myself and decide that I was the one with the problem. It was easier to fall back on the idea that I was the one who was overreacting and being extreme. But the more I do it, the better I get at it. And eventually it became the natural choice. It can still be scary from time to time. And some conversations are still difficult. But for me, it’s about my life and my sanity. So a difficult conversation is still easier than failing myself.
I agree that in a perfect world, we would all be able to set boundaries in a pleasant manner. With kindness. And in a gentle loving way. But it’s not a perfect world. And as a friend of mine says, it doesn’t matter how gracefully you set boundaries. It only matters that you set them.