Searching For Boundaries
How do you set limits for others when you don’t know your own? And does it really matter?
During my first week at University, we had a public speaking course. It was basically an attempt to compensate for a lifetime of systemic privilege in five days, through breathing exercises and singing, to counteract the fact that white males from rich families who don’t have to lift a finger to be listened to are somehow better at speaking in public than anyone else.
Our teacher, a startlingly optimistic failing TV actress, had the ambitious task of helping us all speak like guys from rich white families. To be fair, she was good at her job.
Anyway, one of the exercises we had to do was about defining our boundaries in public spaces. We were divided up into pairs, and your partner walked towards you.
“We all have invisible boundaries, like bubbles. And we feel it when people enter them. And depending on how intimate we are with the other person, we feel comfortable with the coming more or less close,” explained the teacher.
We were supposed to say “Stop!” every time we felt our bubble being penetrated. My partner went first, and I walked towards him, and he said “Stop!” at each new bubble I pierced. 5 metres away. 3. 1. 0.5. Then it was my turn. The problem was, I didn’t feel anything as he walked towards me. I didn’t feel like I had any boundaries until he was so close I could count his eyelashes.
I’m not great at boundaries. I’m a pretty open person, I overshare with total strangers on a regular basis. And that was true even before I found my way onto Medium. I’ve lived in naturist communities before, and I’m really not a prude. I don’t care if people see me naked, I’m just worried that I’ll be judged for not caring that people see me naked. Both physically and metaphorically.
So I’ve always had quite a lot of problem defining my barriers, separating different parts of my life. Saying no to people. Especially back then, when I was eighteen and carefree and open. I was shy and I used sex as an ice breaker because I was at ease with my body, imagined that everyone respected each other like the humans we were, and saw sex as a casual, friendly thing to do.
The problem is, we need boundaries if we are to survive in a world of people. If you don’t have boundaries, you have burnouts. You feel spread too thin. You have people taking advantage of you.
We all need boundaries, we all have boundaries, but in my case, I only found out where they were after they had been violated by nasty men who didn’t take no for an answer. When people had treated my body like it was a buffet.
I only found out where my boundaries were once they had been crushed. And by that time, it was already too late. My boundaries had been decided for me.
Now, I set my boundaries further out than I’d like. They’re like electric fences around a football field. It feels safer. It kind of sucks.
We all need boundaries, but it isn’t that easy. Firstly, to work out where our own are. Secondly, because we aren’t all equal in our ability to express them. The less privilege you have, the less legitimate you feel to set out boundaries. And the less you are heeded when you do.
Again, it helps to be a rich white guy. And it will take more than five-day courses to reverse that ingrained inequality.