2017 really was the year of embarking on a long-dreaded exploration of my boundaries. Learning where emotional and psychic limits lie can be challenging for people who grew up in volatile households or who experience marginalization because they’re fat, feminine, dark-skinned or broke. Why? Because boundaries are fundamentally about recognizing the sacredness of each individual.
Toxic families and cultural oppression seek to break down that sense of sacred autonomy that each of us craves and, in fact, possesses. If you’re fat, in particular, our culture seeks to remind us every day that there is no line between our bodies and it. We are constructed as public property, destined to live our lives as scapegoats performing the service of upholding fear and compliance. Ugh, no thank you, western civilization. No thank you.
I have never met a person who has no boundaries or limits (in this article, I use those words interchangeably).
I have met many people who very rarely articulate boundaries/limits, but the ability to articulate does not determine the presence or absence of a boundary. The truth is that even if you don’t know what your boundaries are right now, you have boundaries. If you’re not in touch with your limits, it’s important to figure out how they show up for you. If you haven’t had room to express them, then chances are you’ve figured out secondary ways to get your needs met in a diminished form.
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Manipulation, hostility, acts of service, and anger are methods of getting our needs met without articulating them. These tactics are not awesome because they’re exhausting and often people who respond to them are seeking a codependent relationship that, yah, will drain and alienate us further. But they’re sufficient when we feel we can’t express our core needs outright.
My “favorite” way to extort care without expressing boundaries is anger expressed verbally.
I grew up watching explosive verbal anger modeled on a nearly daily basis. I started calling anger my “emotional red herring” because it’s always distracting me from what is really going on. I get angry when a boundary has come up unbeknownst to me, I don’t articulate it because I don’t realize it has happened, and then 47 minutes later I start freaking out and I am sure it is because I am dealing with an asshole. Sometimes I am in fact dealing with an asshole, but an asshole is a person who says “no” when you tell them what you need, not someone who didn’t get the chance to say “no” or “yes” because you never told them. The anger serves a purpose: it keeps me safe. But it also has a poopy result: me thinking a lot of ok people are irredeemable shit bags and confirming the sense that no one cares about my needs.
If you don’t have the tools to ask for what you need it’s likely because somewhere along the line you were taught – explicitly or implicitly - that it doesn’t matter what you need. It’s not ok that anyone ever taught you that. Think of these things (manipulation, hostility, etc.) as a trail of bread crumbs that can lead you back to your boundary, your need, your desire, you.
When you’re fat or feminine or a person of color or queer or you come from a legacy of family trauma, it’s a radical act to name your needs.
It takes practice to do this. If you just audibly groaned, that’s ok. Girl, I hate practice too. Whenever you find yourself in your pattern and you’ve reached the “red herring” moment, stop for a sec and ask yourself “If I had a magical pink sparkly emotional translator robot girlfriend and she could fast forward me to a point in my future where I knew with complete certitude that my needs and desires mattered, what is the thing I would have asked for in the very beginning that would have entirely avoided going down that road in the first place?”
In case that’s a little too conceptual let me offer you a moment that illustrates this in my own life: I have a bag of clothes I no longer wear. I’m thinking of dropping it off at Goodwill but then I realize I should probably take it with me the next time I visit my family. They usually act really poorly when I do that stuff, but they like my style, don’t have a lot of money, and I always feel like it’s my duty as a good daughter to share nice things with them.
I arrive at their place with the bag. One of the women always goes for the smallest thing in the bag and makes a big deal about asking me if this garment doesn’t fit me anymore. She seems to really like those particular garments the most. I might try to ignore the question, but she’ll just keep asking me until I answer. I’m starting to get angry, but I’m suppressing it because I’m trying to be accepting of her bullshit fatphobia. Then she tries it on and, oh look, it fits her. Does everyone notice it fitting her? Did everyone notice that it was the same garment that no longer fits me? At this point I’m livid, all I want to do is leave and never come back again but not before I take whatever she’s wearing and throw it into a river of shrimp guts.
Did you catch where my limit came up?
In that scenario, if I talked to my sparkly pink robot girlfriend she would say that the whole episode started before I even left my house to go to my family’s place. It started the minute that I packed up my bag of wonderfully gawdy castoffs and decided that even though I don’t like the way my family behaves I’m still going to bring them the bag of clothes.
The limit is: “I don’t like the way I feel when I give my family my clothes.”
If I’d acted on the limit and set a boundary it would have been “because I deserve to take care of myself I’m not taking them anymore of my clothes.” Weirdly enough, this actually serves me and them. They’re not given the opportunity to do something that will upset me and they don’t have to deal with my anger. To the person who’s been trained to ignore any needs they might have, it’s hard to believe that boundaries make everyone’s life better, but they really do.
When you’re fat or feminine or a person of color or queer or you come from a legacy of family trauma, it’s a radical act to name your needs. And the reverberations of that act are far-reaching. We all benefit when we speak clearly and frequently about what we need in order to thrive.