Boundary-setting is a key component of verbal self-defense, and verbal self-defense is a huge piece of the empowerment self-defense model. It’s easily equally as important as physical self-defense. Participants are often surprised by that. But 75% to 90% of physical assaults against women & girls (and those perceived to be women & girls) come from a known attacker. That’s a terrifying statistic, but the silver lining is that we can often notice when someone isn’t going to be safe well before they escalate to physical violence.
There’s a paradox here. Coined by my colleague Lynn Marie Wannamaker, it’s called the “self-defense paradox,” and the two truths it holds in tension are, on the one hand, “one person – the perpetrator – holds sole responsibility for the decision to assault someone.” And on the other, “people at risk of violence can take effective steps to increase their own safety.” All of that is to say, if someone doesn’t notice that someone isn’t safe and they escalate to violence, it’s not the fault of the person who didn’t notice.
The truth is, it can be really easy to not notice, and many of us have been well-trained to not notice. Or at least, not to take action. The way we work against that training is through boundary-setting. Setting boundaries with people gives them the information they need on how you want to be treated. And it gives you the information you need on whether they’re interested in learning how you want to be treated.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that there’s a gendered component to this, because I’m otherwise going to ignore it. Even though statistically ‘gender-based violence’ is meaningful, there are plenty of cases when it isn’t, I don’t want to leave folks out. There’s plenty to be said about how gender norms come into play, but this article is not going to address those.
That being said, let’s dig into the training that discourages us from setting boundaries, regardless of our gender identity. Imagine a scene: Jordan and Robin are in high school, and they’re dating. They’re a new couple, and Robin feels like the luckiest person in the world – this is their first real relationship, and Jordan is super-popular. One day, Jordan tells Robin that they like a lot of physical attention – playing with hair, back rubs, that sort of thing – and if they don’t get it from Robin they’ll get it from someone else. Robin feels hurt by this, but doesn’t say anything, and just accepts it – or tries to.
So, from where we sit, it’s really easy to see that it would be better for Robin if they set a boundary with Jordan and told them that the comment hurt their feelings, right? But it’s also pretty easy for us to imagine the reasons Robin is reluctant to speak up:
- Age/experience: Jordan and Robin are in high school. They’re teenagers without much experience in life. Teen dating violence is incredibly common, and part of the reason for that is being young and not knowing what can be expected from dating. Speaking from my personal experience, I was probably in my mid-30s before I figured out that there’s no actual manual for human behavior that everyone was hiding from me. I may be a late bloomer, but I think its safe to say that most folks don’t have this figured out in their teens.
- Popularity: This isn’t something we can ignore, and shouldn’t downplay. There’s a very adaptive benefit to being popular. Back when survival was a lot more precarious than it is now, being popular could in fact be the difference between life and death. This is compounded by the high school/adolescent experience, which is both intense and socially constrained.
- The fear of a bad reaction: This is the one that comes into play regardless of age. Jordan may get angry if Robin sets a boundary. Or they may feel sad and ashamed. None of those feelings are fun to watch someone you care about experience. And it’s especially uncomfortable if you believe that you caused those feelings. Now, there are some who will insist that we don’t “cause” others’ feelings. And, fair enough – but our actions affect others, and that includes emotionally. So I think that’s a little bit of a specious argument. But it’s also true that, while we have an ethical responsibility to be kind, our first loyalty ought to be to ourselves. It’s unfortunate that Jordan said something that hurt Robin’s feelings. It’s unfortunate that Jordan crossed a boundary. And if they did it out of ignorance, that’s also unfortunate. But that doesn’t make it not true, and Robin hiding that fact doesn’t change the truth of it.
As I said above, setting boundaries with people we know and care about gives them important information about how we want to be treated – and it gives us the information about whether the people we care about are invested in treating us as we want to be treated. Too many of us are afraid that if we push too hard, if we have too many needs, then the people we care about will not be willing to meet those needs. So we try to cope by not having too many needs, but that’s actually not possible. So instead, we end up not expressing our needs, and we miss out on the information.
So, yeah – setting boundaries is simple, but not at all easy. The simplicity sometimes makes people think they already can do it, just because they understand how. But there’s a huge difference between knowing how to do something and being able to do it. And, as with other things that fall into that category (like palm heel strikes), practicing makes it easier.
We give people the opportunities to practice setting boundaries in our classes, which is a great place to start. The stakes are super-low because it’s artificial. But it still brings up all of the emotions and automatic reactions that people have ‘in real life.’ And because it’s artificial and we have the luxury of stopping the interaction and talking about it, participants get the opportunity to look at those automatic reactions and decide if they’re helpful or not. And we hope that our participants take the next step, and start setting boundaries in their everyday lives. The beautiful thing about practicing boundary-setting on a regular basis is that you’ll naturally start to surround yourself with people who respect your boundaries. Which makes you both feel safer, and makes you actually safer.