Boundaries are complicated.
Sometimes you want someone to stop doing something, and you have every right to demand that they stop. Sometimes you don’t, because it’s something they have every right to do.
Sometimes it depends on the relationship.
Sometimes it’s very, very ambiguous.
Sometimes it’s the kind of thing where it’s ok to ask, but not ok to demand.
And this works in reverse. Sometimes it’s ok for people to demand that you stop doing something; sometimes it’s ok to ask but not demand; sometimes it depends on the relationship; sometimes it’s ambiguous.
When you’ve been taught that you aren’t allowed to have any boundaries, part of what that means is that you’ve probably been prevented from learning the tools to tell which things it is and isn’t ok to demand, insist on, or request. The relationships and various categories of obligations are probably unbelievably confusing.
Part of learning how to have boundaries is learning how to respect other people’s boundaries. Respecting boundaries isn’t at all the same as deferring to people, but the difference can be really hard to sort out.
This means that when you start learning to have boundaries, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You’re going to demand things it’s not really ok to demand, and you’re going to refuse things it’s not really ok to refuse. You’re going to make mistakes about other people’s boundaries.
And you’re going to hurt people, including yourself.
That’s unavoidable, because it takes time to learn these things. This doesn’t mean you should give up.
Sometimes, while you’re learning about boundaries and making a lot of mistakes that hurt yourself and others, you might feel like you should give up. You might feel like you are irredeemably bad, and that maybe you’re just too awful to allowed to have boundaries. You might even feel like you’re too irredeemably awful to have the right to live (I’ve felt that, at times). These are really common and normal feelings for people who are learning this, but they’re not the reality.
You have the right to exist. You can learn this. You can learn how to have boundaries and respect other people’s boundaries. You can learn how to keep yourself safe and still treat other people well.
You have a lot to learn, and you have to keep caring how you treat people. It’s important to keep actively paying attention to your boundaries and other people’s. You have to continually work on it and improve, in both directions. You have to do the best you can, learn from your mistakes, and try to do better. You can do this.
It’s ok that you are going to make a lot of mistakes. It’s not ok to ignore the mistakes you make. Part of learning to assert boundaries means that there are a lot of other skills you have to learn about understanding obligations and treating other people well. This gets messy.
You also have to accept that some of your mistakes are going to have consequences. On the extreme end, you might hurt people in ways that mess up relationships while you’re learning. Some mistakes you make might be deal-breaking for people you’d really like to remain close with. Even if it is not entirely your fault, even if you messed up ought of honest confusion, it still might be legitimately deal-breaking for someone else. You might get banned from cons you like. You might get fired. You might lose your place in a group you valued. It’s awful when that happens, but it’s bearable. It doesn’t mean you should give up. It means you should take what you’ve done seriously, keep learning, and leave the person you hurt alone if that’s what they want.
Even when it’s not your fault you don’t know how to treat people, other people don’t have to tolerate it when you treat them badly. They also don’t have to sympathize, forgive you, or listen to explanations about how you came to misunderstand the situation.
That’s the extreme end. That might not happen. What will definitely happen is that you will hurt people in more minor ways that almost everyone your age knows how to avoid. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but you do have to take responsibility for what you do, fix things if you can, and keep learning.
This is hard, but it’s important, possible, and worth it.
Don’t give up.
All of this. And it’s a lifelong process, to learn to say no and to learn to accept when other people tell you know.
A lot of non-disabled people are socialized from an early age to never say no to anyone or anything. They grow up to be “people pleasers" and saying no to a request can be really really stressful. A lot of these people are people who are socialized as girls, so if you are looking for more reading about this sort of thing you’ll find a lot of it in women’s self-help materials.
I was hoping I’d find something on Diverse City Press’s web site about this, but nearly all (most? maybe even all?) of the books are for service providers or support workers, and everything I saw that mentioned “boundaries" was specifically about sexual stuff. Which is important, but not the only type of boundary that exists and is important.
I agree that women’s self-help materials are helpful, but I think that what people with disabilities experience goes a lot deeper than most of those books deal with. Also, they tend to attribute everything to gender and ignore other issues. This can make them difficult to use for female-socialized people who have a history of having all of their experiences misattributed to gender, or male-socialized people who have a history of women dismissing their experiences as things that can only happen to women.
I’d recommend Power Tools to everyone, and probably the other books as well (although I have not read most of the others).
Power Tools is written from the perspective of a direct service provider, but it’s a much more general book about having power and learning to acknowledge it and not abuse it.
That’s a skill that everyone needs to have, from both perspectives. Everyone has power over someone else at some point. It’s also useful as a way to learn to notice other people’s power.
Yes, I simply mean that women’s self-help is a place to go for more information. There isn’t a lot written about this sort of thing. I think even books about boundaries are usually written with the assumption that everyone reading them will be female. They are good for finding strategies for asserting boundaries and learning ways to state and defend your boundaries, though.
Power Tools sounds like a good book. I’m sure everything there is good, I’m just disappointed that it’s all described as being for service providers and support workers. But that’s a different issue/criticism and probably doesn’t belong on a post about boundaries.
I agree that women’s self-help books can be helpful for learning how to have boundaries. I just think it’s import to realize that:
- These dynamics can happen for reasons other than gender
- They can happen to people who weren’t socialized female
- If you were taught not to have boundaries, it’s ok and not appropriative to read and learn from women’s self-help books, even if you weren’t female-socialized and/or don’t identify as a woman
- There are common ways people are taught not to have boundaries that go deeper than what those books tend to talk about
- You can’t assume that a feminist therapist who talks about boundary issues will understand the ways this happens when they don’t fit that gendered pattern. Even if they’re really insightful within their understanding of that pattern.