Tag Archives: boundaries

Ghosting, boundaries and neglect

Which one appears to be happening will depend a lot on which role you are in. One person’s boundaries can look a lot like ghosting to someone else. Especially when that’s convenient to their story.

Is it ghosting? Do you have any way of contacting them? Did you try? Amusingly I was once accused of ghosting a person who had me on facebook, had my email address, my phone number and even knew where I lived. I wasn’t in a good way and I stopped making active contact with her because I couldn’t manage it. She made no effort to contact me, but apparently told mutual friends that I’d ghosted her. When someone disappears and stops answering email, when their phone doesn’t work, or they don’t pick up or reply to texts then that’s ghosting. 

Are they holding boundaries? If they’ve told you what they’re doing and why – like needing a few weeks off social media, then it’s about reasonable boundaries. If they’ve said no to something you are doing, that’s boundaries. People are allowed to say no, and to need things that are inconvenient to others – including time to themselves. If they’re doing things that really, obviously they should be able to do undisturbed – like going to their jobs, or sleeping – then their lack of response should be a non-issue. If anyone is demanding your attention when the timing is inappropriate, that’s a boundary violation.

Is it neglect? That depends entirely on the agreed parameters of your relationship. If you don’t have agreed parameters, then the thing to look at is how balanced and equitable the relationship is. If you have to be available on demand but they expect to be able to disappear for weeks and have that be fine – then it really isn’t fine at all. If you are asking for more than you are giving, then the other person isn’t neglecting you if they decide not to go along with that. If you are asking clearly and the other person keeps declining, you may not be suitable for each other. You may need a serious talk about expectations and needs.

When it comes to relationships of any shape, people will not usually have parallel needs and feelings. It’s important to talk about expectations, to deal fairly when there are imbalances, and to accept when something isn’t viable. Accusations of ghosting and neglect can be highly manipulative. Ghosting and neglect are damaging, and can be part of an abusive strategy.

How not to be a punchbag

Once upon a time I had a science teacher who liked to punish the whole class by making us sit with our hands on our heads. I’ve always had poor circulation, so this would invariably mean pain, followed by not being able to feel my hands, followed by prolonged discomfort once we were allowed to put our hands down. I never said anything to him about it because I was afraid that admitting distress would make him more angry. I was also a reasonably good and quiet student being punished for what other people were doing.

I learned early on that if someone upset me, it was best not to antagonise them by making a fuss about it. I have some really problematic habits around assuming I am responsible for everything. If someone hurts me, my knee jerk reaction is to assume it is my fault for getting something wrong, being ‘bad’ in some way or otherwise deserving it. This makes it hard to hold boundaries. I’m not even sure where the boundaries should be, most of the time.

This is a key thing around people not being able to get out of abusive relationships – I’ve been there. When you think it’s all your fault, you don’t leave. You try to fix things. You shoulder responsibility and try to appease, and apologise and do better. When you’re dealing with someone who wants to control and hurt you, this never works, but from the inside it can be hard to see that, and all the while you feel smaller, and worth less, and eventually, you feel worthless.

People project all kinds of things. They project their own fears and insecurities. Many people act as they do because of their own wounding. Some people will attack first when they feel threatened, even when the threat is entirely in their head. There are people who just use other people as punch bags, physically and emotionally. And I know I can’t shoulder that, or fix it. I can’t even help. I’m trying to learn how to get out of the way, at least.

It helps that there are people in my life now who are willing to help me work this through. It’s useful having feedback about what might count as fair or reasonable treatment. But sometimes I am still very much the kid in the science lesson, afraid to tell anyone that they can no longer feel their hands and that their arms are burning.

Sitting with anger

For some time now, I’ve been trying to find better ways to make room for anger. It’s been an educational journey. I’ve learned to make deliberate space and to actively give myself permission for whatever feelings I’m having. There have been some significant times in my life when I simply wasn’t allowed inconvenient feelings, and I’m having to re-train.

Anger is a protective emotion. It’s a healthy response to violated boundaries and injustice. Without it, what happens for me is that any problem arising gets internalised. Instead of holding my boundaries, I’ll feel like I’m not entitled to them. Instead of challenging injustice, I’ll understand that the problem is all my fault. A person who is not allowed to be angry will have a very hard time functioning well.

One of the things coming up for me is a change in relation to my history. There are many things in my past that were grossly unfair, only I didn’t have the experience and knowledge to identify them at the time. To take a simple example – I grew up being routinely shamed for not being able to run, throw, catch, do gymnastics and being treated by teachers like I was lazy and it was my fault. I’m intensely hypermobile, these are all things my body just doesn’t do well. These are things that cause me pain, and that I was always at risk of taking damage from.

Of course when I was growing up, no one was much aware of this sort of thing. But, my world would have been so different if anyone had treated me kindly and even considered there might be stuff going on with my body. I couldn’t hold a pen properly, or a violin, my fingers were all wrong on pianos, but no one put it together, me included. 

There is something restorative about allowing myself to be angry now. There is something in my anger that soothes the child inside me, and gives me back some dignity. I was not lazy, I had body issues. I was not making a fuss – I was easily hurt. It wasn’t fair, and being able to say that as an adult comes as a relief. 

I’m going round similar things as I look back at my experience of being bullied as a child. I’m allowing myself to be cross now about things that were forced onto me, that didn’t suit me or made me unhappy.  I can’t change the past, but I can change my stories about the past. I went through a lot of things that really weren’t fair, and I can allow myself to be angry about that now. There’s no one to shut me down and tell me I cannot have my own feelings about such experiences. 

We may not be able to change a situation, but the person who is allowed to feel angry can hold onto the edges of themselves in better ways. Life is always going to knock us about. If we are allowed to resent the hard bits, to get cross about boundary violations and unfairness, we get to maintain a sense of personal integrity. Anger may not solve a problem or allow us to act differently – there may be no real options. But, the person who can get angry doesn’t internalise their experiences in the same way. If you know you were worth more and deserved better, you take less damage from problematic experiences.

And apparently, it’s never too late to start making that space.

Conforming to group identities

For a group identity to make any sense, there have to be edges that define it. There are many questions we should be asking of those edges in any groups we encounter.

Who gets to define the boundaries? Usually it will be the people with the most power and privilege. Sometimes it will be people outside of the group itself. When this happens, it is often to silence or dismiss people who are inconvenient to a majority, or to a dominant world view. The way in which non-Zionist Jews are excluded when non-Jewish people talk (ominously, I feel) about The Jews at the moment is a case in point, and a deeply unsettling one.

What happens to people who are pushed out? Do any options exist for them? To be unable to stay in a local community space because it’s full of sexist dinosaurs is horrible, but probably liveable with. To be unable to access medical support because your provider won’t deal with trans people, is a disaster.

What happens to people who cannot fit in the boundaries? Are they punished for this? Are they pushed out further if they don’t go along with the group narrative? How much diversity does the group tolerate? How much conformity is demanded? Who gets to decide who should be conforming to what, and how do they wield that power? Who gets to control the narrative of the group identity?

There is power in defining the narrative. It is also an opportunity that is available to the most powerful. People who have least power are most likely to be pushed to the edges by people who have the most power. What happens when someone from outside the group takes on an identity to try and distort the boundaries and norms of the group? This does seem to happen online, and happens for political reasons.

How do we hold our edges? What are we protecting and what are we willing to make room for? What do we do when we’re pushed to the margins, and what do we do if we see someone else being pushed out? When is that justified, and when does it need resisting? These are not questions with simple answers, but ones to keep asking any time we engage in group dynamics.

Crisis Tactics

One of the things it is common to lose to abuse is a sense of where your own edges need to be. Abusers will work to erode your confidence and self esteem, because when you don’t feel you can say no, you’re more vulnerable to their predations. Standing my ground, defending myself, flagging up problems and expressing distress all still put me in a place of expecting to be knocked down harder than I was by the initial problem. It’s hard to hold boundaries when you fear that protecting yourself will invite twice as much trouble.

I’m not living in that kind of environment any more. However, that knee-jerk reaction remains. If I need to express distress, then fear of what that will bring is with me. Until I’ve tested something like this, I don’t know how anyone will react to me – will they double down? To navigate this I’ve given myself a set of rules. Having established this rule set means that under pressure and feeling emotionally vulnerable, I have a set of defaults to work with.

One. I am entitled to say no to anyone for any reason and I am not obliged to justify that decision. If someone hurts me and I want to just back off and not deal with it, I am allowed to do that.

Two. If I express distress then there are a number of acceptable responses – anything with an element of care, concern, apology. Anything that accepts my response as valid even if it wasn’t where I was supposed to end up. Anyone kindly explaining why it wasn’t meant that way. Any kind of ‘oops’ or ‘oh shit’ noises. I may need further conversation to sort things out, but any of these responses are worth working with.

Three. If I express distress and am met with blame, criticism, mockery, dismissal, being told why I shouldn’t feel like that, being told why I ‘made them’ do it or why their position is justified, or anything else of this shape, I am entitled to end the conversation and step away from the person.

Four. How much slack I cut is totally up to me. How much I am willing to forgive is totally up to me.

Five. How much I love a person is not a reliable measure of that person’s inherent worth. If a person does not value me enough to care when they have upset me, then they do not merit the gift of my care and attention. I am allowed to feel that I have made a mistake in investing in them.

Six. How a person treats me when I am upset is not a measure of my worth – although it may well be a measure of my worth to them, which is not the same thing.

Adventures in consent

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year or so about how to do consent more effectively.

One of the features of rape culture is the idea that it’s humiliating and painful for a man to get a ‘no’ from a woman, and that therefore it might be preferable not to ask. This of course is no kind of real consent. Inferred consent doesn’t mean someone consented. Pushy approaches can leave the person on the other end feeling threatened and that it is safer to go along than to resist. Rape can often be survived, murder less so. Ignoring the need for consent sends a clear message that this is not a safe situation.

One of my approaches to this has been to get into conversations with people about how we do, or do not do touch. I’m not reliably good around physical affection. I hate being touched unexpectedly by most people, and the vast majority of people I don’t want to touch at all. But, people I really like, I want to be able to be affectionate with. So I talk about it. That’s been going really well.

There have been a few people in the past who responded badly to my talking about it – guys who insisted that they kiss everyone and it should therefore be fine, and who weren’t willing to try and not do that to me even though it was causing panic attacks. It took me a while to truly realise I don’t have to accept that. I’ve had far more really brilliant conversations about boundaries and history, and it hasn’t been all about my own limitations, either.

In the last year or so, I’ve entered into situations repeatedly where I’ve been the one offering, and I’ve offered on the understanding that ‘no’ might be what came back. Is it humiliating? No, it is not. These are people I really care about, who for various reasons aren’t always in a place to say yes to a hug, or a kiss on the cheek. These are people whose comfort is more important to me than whether they say yes to me. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that making it totally safe to say ‘no’ creates an intimacy of its own. That can be a very rich and beautiful experience. It can be powerful, in a good sort of way, to offer and be turned down, and to be fine with that.

If you’ve felt unsafe, if your ‘no’ was unheard or there was never even space for it, this more deliberate space to say no, is needed, and good. Room to say no is a gift to offer someone whose ‘no’ has been ignored. Coming at this as someone who has had their ‘no’ ignored in all kinds of ways, offering someone else the freedom to say no also feels powerful. I find when I feel I can say no, I am more likely to eventually say yes. Nothing kills my fondness for a person like being forced into physical contact. Nothing feeds the warmth and respect I feel for a person like being able to talk this all through and agree where the edges are.

Shifting the boundaries

I was never terribly good at boundaries, growing up. Being a parent taught me a great deal about boundary setting. It’s no good declining to give a child boundaries, because that can leave them feeling unsafe and unable to navigate. Boundaries that are too limiting and rigid create resentment and restrict a child’s growth. The boundaries have to shift as the young person develops and changes. Those boundary shifts have to be talked about, so that they can happen in the right way, and be understood.

It took me a long time to realise that all the same things apply to adults. We need to have some sense of where the permissible edges are. We need the right to hold boundaries, but also the freedom to change them at need. Where we draw our lines in one instance cannot be taken as the rule for where our lines are. If I say yes to something once, I have not said yes to it forever.

Developing trust between people can mean a process of changing where the boundaries are. The process of interacting with each other can change how we feel and think, what we need and expect, and what risks we’re willing to take.

In some ways I’ve become a lot more guarded with my boundaries in recent years. I am far less tolerant of people who try to cross my lines uninvited. That’s about emotional lines as much as it is about physical contact. In some ways I’ve become softer in my boundaries because there are people I trust to honour what I say, and to still honour what I say if I need to change things.

We like clear and simple rules because they seem easiest to work with. But for every rule – religious or secular – it’s easy to think of times when breaking the rule would be the better choice. Lying isn’t good, but if Anne Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the door, of course you lie. I’m not in favour of killing people, but sometimes this is necessary to save lives. If a shooter walks into a school, there should be no question about trained police taking them out in any way they can. And of course because people are difficult, this kind of argument can then be used to try and justify arming anyone who wants to be armed. Give people clear and simple rules for all situations and a subset of those people will always try and bend the rules for their own gain.

When it comes to dealing with people, simple rules tend not to work very well. What we have are massively complex social structures full of privileges and power imbalances. Our dealings with large numbers of people are shaped by rules, habits, social norms. These are not easy things to think about, which is why I think it pays to focus on the most immediate and specific interactions where we have the most scope to make change.

How do we recognise and honour other people’s boundaries?

Do we have any habits of thought that might means we’re not listening? Do we assume our own rights or entitlements trump someone else’s? Do we think a certain kind of person just makes a fuss?

What do we do when our boundaries aren’t respected? Do we have choices?

How we deal with each other’s boundaries is a fundamental building block for our societies as a whole. What we normalise, or ignore. What we undertake to change. What we refuse to back down over. What we demand other people take seriously.

Are they ignoring me?

If you live with a phone that’s always on, or otherwise attached to the internet, it’s easy to expect instant responses to everything. If you think everyone should reply straight away and they don’t, stress, annoyance and misery may ensue.

There are of course lots of good reasons people don’t respond. Many of us aren’t available 24/7 – there’s no internet on my phone, and I have whole days where I’m not online. Self employed people should not be working seven day weeks – some do, of course – and the shape of their work may mean it isn’t obvious when their days off are. If I’ve worked a weekend doing an event, I take time off in the week to offset this. Around big events I can be largely out of contact for the best part of a week.

There may be something else going on. I may be on facebook because I need a conversation with a person. If you message me and I’m busy, I’ll ignore you until I have time to give you proper attention. I may be online because I’m not feeling good and I’m looking for something amusing and distracting. If that’s the case, I won’t answer work messages or queries. I am pretty confident I’m not alone in any of this. I feel strongly that just because a person appears to be around doesn’t automatically mean they have time and energy to respond to someone.

Sometimes, I don’t respond immediately because I don’t know what to say. I may need to go away and think about it. Sometimes I’ll just flag up that the message got through and I’ll get back when I can. However, if someone has made me unhappy or uncomfortable, I may need time to decide how to proceed. I give myself space to enquire as to why I’m reacting badly, whether I need to change something, or step away from a person. I’m dealing with thousands of people online, with various hats on. I can’t be everything to everyone and sometimes I have to make decisions other people don’t like.

I dropped someone entirely, early this year, who had emailed me to gripe about his life, again, and when I didn’t respond fast enough started demanding my attention on facebook instead. This is not ok. The instant nature of the internet may help us feel entitled to rapid responses. It certainly makes it easy to suck up other people’s time and energy. These days, I always ask what good that does. I try to be there for people who need my help, but if people keep having the same problems, refuse to make changes and just want me to pay attention to them (as with facebook boy) I can’t afford to indulge that. It’s very easy to make some of us feel like we should be helping, like we’re obliged to give our precious time and energy, but that doesn’t make it ok.

Of course sometimes things go astray online. Messages get lost – facebook is a terrible place to try and do anything important. If you want a serious conversation with me, ask for my email address and if I’m up for that serious conversation, we can do it by email. Sometimes emails get lost, and if something important isn’t answered, a follow through email after a few days might be appropriate. I miss things, we all miss things, and so long as you aren’t going to give me a hard time for being slow, I don’t mind being chased up on.

We need to slow down, give each other more time and space. If someone’s inbox is full of people asking, ten minutes later, why they didn’t get a reply to the first email… nothing gets done. It’s important to have boundaries, and where instant communication is possible, we need those boundaries more than ever.

Non-Patriarchal Parenting

It is my belief that traditional western parenting models are all about getting children into the system. We have taught children that the authority of the parent is based on their ability to inflict pain/punishment and their ability to withhold resources as punishment. Patriarchal parenting values obedience over all else, it teaches the child to submit to the will of the parent and not to question the will of the parent. By extension, the child learns to bow to authority and participate in systems of power-over. This causes problems around consent and exploitation.

Inevitably, when bringing up children, there is, and has to be a power imbalance. The younger a child is, the less able they are to care for themselves and the harder it is for them to make good choices because they just don’t know enough. I’ve seen a lot of media representations that suggest there are only two ways of parenting – good, responsible, disciplined parenting (patriarchy) or wet liberal ineptitude that will spoil the child entirely and leave them unable to cope with the real world. So, here are some tactics that I think help if you want to raise a child in non-patriarchal ways.

Be clear that you don’t know everything, you aren’t automatically right, you aren’t some sort of God and you don’t always know what’s best. Admit that you can make mistakes and do not ask your child to believe in the rightness and infallibility of your power.

Any chance you can, explain why you are setting rules, or boundaries, or saying no. Help them understand. Explain to them that they don’t know enough yet to make good choices and that you are helping them get to the point where they can make these choices for themselves. As they become more able to make their own choices, give them the opportunity to do that. Start them off with safe spaces where they can afford to make mistakes and learn from them.

Ask your child for their opinion, thoughts, feelings and preferences. Be clear that they won’t always get what they want, but that their opinion matters and is noted. Take their feelings and opinions seriously and make sure they can see that you do this.

Teach them to negotiate with you. Tell them that if they can make a good and reasoned case for why they want a thing, they might get it. As a bonus, this lures a child away from screaming and temper tantrums really quickly if they can see it works.

Recognise that they are capable of knowing more about something than you do (for me, it was dinosaurs very early on).

Give them opportunities to say no to you, and have that honoured. This is especially important around body contact, and establishing how consent works, and their right to say no. Create situations where it doesn’t matter if they say yes or no, and then let them decide.

I found that doing this meant I could also say ‘if I give you an order, you are to follow it without question or hesitation’ and have that be taken seriously by the child. It was understood that I would only do this in emergencies when there wasn’t time to explain or negotiate, and that I would explain afterwards if necessary.

I found that taking my child seriously and only giving orders in emergencies meant that my child trusted me, was likely to co-operate with me, and did not see what authority I needed to wield as unfair. As a consequence, he doesn’t treat power over others as something he needs as the only way of avoiding people having power over him.

Liminal encounters

Edges are places of magic. The point where one thing stops and another begins, or the place of uncertainty that is neither quite one thing nor the other. Shores and wetlands are physical exemplars of the idea. The clear edge of where one body meets another, and the liminal emotionality of that meeting.

To be able to find the edges and liminal places, we have to be able to clearly recognise that one thing is distinct and separate from another, even if they blur when they meet. We must know the land and the sea to be able to see the luminal quality of the shore.

The need to divide and label seems to be a key part of how humans make sense of the world. We break things down into subcategories and ever finer delineations. It’s not enough to be a Druid. Reconstruction or romantic? Urban or feral? Contemplative or ritualistic? As though these are all firm boundaries and a Druid is a specific thing, a member of a discreet subcategory. In practice I find that the kind of Druid I am depends a lot on factors like where I am, who I’m with, what’s expected of me, the weather and my mood at the time.

If someone asks me to write a polytheistic poem for them, I will find the means within myself to do that. In the same week someone else could just as easily take some of my essays to put in a humanist/atheist collection (this has happened). I find it hard to wear any belief orientated labels. There are days when the language of deity makes sense to me, and days when it doesn’t. There are days when wearing a warm waterproof coat makes sense to me and days when it doesn’t, and I don’t think that comparison is unfair.

The sea is always itself, but the sea on a gentle summer’s day is not the same as the sea beset by a winter storm. The land is always the land, but in a mild growing season it looks and feels very different to how it is when gripped by slippery ice. Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing is entirely separate from the whole, yet all things are most easily understood when considered in terms of what makes them separate.

The same and not the same. Connected and separate. One great unity, distinct entities. There’s a paradox here that is essential and intrinsic to everything. I am not water, and yet without water, I would be nothing. A dry dust on the wind and no more. To know something is to go beyond what seems fixed and certain. To know the land in all seasons and all weathers, to know it wet, and frozen solid, to know it putting forth life, and decaying away. In the reconciliation of apparent opposites, there is often a new kind of truth.

“Know thyself”.  What is fixed and what is transient, what is of the season and of this week’s weather. Sometimes we need to define a thing to see where its edges are, and sometimes it is the experience of edges rubbing together that tells us about the limits. Skin again skin. Sea against shore.