I am about ¾ of my way through Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, an endeavor that’s taking me weeks because I want to think about every morsel of wisdom before turning the page. It even inspired me to start a spreadsheet plotting my notes like a detective of the Major Case Squad.
Yesterday, however, she fully blew my mind with the following:
“The people who are the most generous in their assumptions of others have the clearest boundaries.”
I spend a good amount of time thinking about boundaries.
In 2016, I took the flagship Basics course with Impact Bay Area. It’s a 3-day full-force intensive course on self-defense and personal safety, and the entire second day is themed around boundaries. I realized, along with many of the other women in the class, that I lived in a state of near-constant fear of the outside world. I realized I didn’t know much about my own boundaries and certainly wasn’t very good at enforcing them.
There’s a lot to this — identifying as a woman in a culture that teaches us to mold ourselves around more dominant, male energy (being the “other” to any dominant group adds serious complexity). The politeness ideal (don’t want to hurt any feelings!). And ultimately, lack of self-worth or clarity around what I wanted or who I was. Setting boundaries with the suited instructors (who played at different points a creepy lurker, a potential rapist, my ex, and my mom) opened my eyes to the possibility that I could define certain guidelines to make my way through the world and I could effectively enforce them. I could actually impact how people treated me.
I was ready to receive that education. I loved the class so much, I became a volunteer assistant, a volunteer coordinator, and then an instructor. I currently teach intro classes in the Bay Area where I work with others on these newfangled boundary thingies.
A lot of our practice in class is building the muscle of boundary-setting. What do we do when a stranger is getting too close? When someone catcalls or uses offensive language? When a partner does something repeatedly that bothers us? When a friend doesn’t listen well or a colleague asks us to do their share of work?
What’s the cost of taking action? What’s the cost of not?
There’s a lot of fear around setting boundaries — largely in how someone may react. It may feel (and sometimes is) unsafe to do so. We’re revealing some assumptions about someone else’s not-so-good intent. It’s the act of saying ‘no’ to someone, or ‘this isn’t okay with me’. It’s vulnerable, and it requires holding people accountable. That sometimes makes people upset. We could be stepping into delicate territory. We could be prompting a very uncomfortable conversation.
We get so averse to creating any negative response that we often fail to see the negative state created by not setting or enforcing any boundaries. When we don’t set clear boundaries, we aren’t communicating our needs in a way that others can process accurately (without telepathy). But we are communicating some other things —our own discomfort in setting boundaries, that we’re more concerned with the well-being of others than ourselves, or that we may be a bit flimsy on our follow through. With potentially violent individuals, this can have catastrophic results. If I’m at a bus stop and someone is leering, making me uncomfortable, turning to face them and being prepared to set a verbal boundary (or physical one if I need to) communicates to the potential threat that I am clear on what’s ok with me and what isn’t, and I’m ready to enforce that as needed. Our research shows that a single determined act of resistance is usually enough to stop an attack, contrary to what Detectives Eames and Goren may have us believe.
In the daily, more mundane situations, this avoidance of boundary conversations builds up into a toxic resentment. I’m sulking over here, isn’t it obvious that something is wrong? There’s a tendency to complain to everyone except the person who we have an issue with. Gossip, venting, self-righteousness, exhausting mental gymnastics. Who is suffering here? Is anything getting resolved? Setting a clear boundary can alleviate a lot of confusion and emotional labor around what I or someone else is feeling or thinking. Boundaries with people we know can be set well in advance or over time when emotions are calm so there’s less likelihood of the dramatic, emotionally-charged moments we’re so afraid of.
I’m amazed at how much better my life gets as I improve at boundary setting. There are gobs of resentment I don’t have to deal with anymore because I don’t let uncomfortable situations linger. With a bit of groundwork, I can relax into my relationships. And I’m better able to plan my time well knowing what feels okay to me and what doesn’t.
As Brené’s research led her to believe, people with clear boundaries can have more generous assumptions of other’s intents. I’ve experienced this phenomenon since that first Impact class. In part, it’s because with the skills I’ve acquired, I am not powerless in the event of an assault. I have more confidence in my ability to prevent, defend or heal from an attack, so an assailant doesn’t have as much psychological power to harm me. But it’s also because my clear boundaries set the tone in interactions. There’s just less ambiguity to wrestle with, and relational ambiguity does not tend to bring out our best. I know I feel like a much better version of myself with my friends and family when there’s clarity up front about what they want, need, think or expect; that they want to be around me, for how long, and in what capacity. From there, a clear negotiation can progress.
Setting effective boundaries is a difficult skill that takes practice. We can start by paying attention to our bodies and noticing physical signs of distress. Nausea, clenched neck or shoulders, shortened breath, temperature fluctuations, tingling skin are all common ones. We’ve learned to tolerate these symptoms rather than listen to them. But they create the incredible opportunity to notice a crossed boundary and take action.
It is usually awkward and uncomfortable to tell someone ‘no’ or ‘this doesn’t feel good to me’, especially in the beginning. But in most cases, the worst part is the anticipation. Once the boundary setting begins, it’s really amazing to see the dynamics shift. I find even if I don’t know what exactly to say going into a conversation, I get incredibly present and find the words when I’m there. As we start educating those around on us how we want to be treated, we’re able to have more honest relationships and learn about people’s true intentions. Honesty + positive intent builds trust. And trust creates the space for generosity.
I think one of the secrets of Brené’s discovery is that people who are skilled at setting boundaries are more generous period. When we are able to take care of ourselves, in a large part by setting clear boundaries, we are better able to build our resources in order to share them. We trust ourselves so we can trust others. We’re more likely to look for the good around us. We’ve experienced our own abundance and can invest in our community. We’re no longer operating from fear. Boundaries may seem scary at times, but they set us up to make an empowered contribution on our own terms. And the world is waiting for our stories.