Tag Archives: boundaries

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.


Unpicking the double standards

Part of the work I’ve been doing in recent weeks has been to try and unpick the logic holding together my personal reality. Without understanding the mechanics, it is difficult to make conscious and deliberate changes (but not, it should be noted, impossible.) There is history here, and lots of it, and I could tell stories of how I got to be where I am – but they are long and dull, and the stories underpinning your reality will be very different anyway.

I don’t know if it’s a bottom line, but the issue of double standards is a large and serious part of why I see things as I do. Being trained to accept and uphold a double standard underpins a reality of twisted logic and inherent unfairness. Perhaps it is because of the double standard that I do not protect my boundaries well and have on a number of occasions ended up far more involved with unreasonable people than was good for me. They are allowed to get angry about things, I am not. They are right, and I am wrong (always) they are good and I am unreasonable, they are perfectly acceptable as they are, I must work very hard and make lots of changes. And so on. Endlessly. It’s impossible to be happy if I don’t spot this early and step away from it.

My acceptance of the double standard has been absolute. In my toughest patches, ingesting the double standard further has left me feeling sub-human, made of straw, not a real person. Of course they would react this way. Of course they would treat me like this. And so I don’t stand up for myself, protect my boundaries or ask for what I need all too often, and I perpetuate the double standard still further and accept it as who I am. It becomes ok to hurt me, to ignore me, blow hot and cold, get cross with me, mess me about in any number of ways, make impossible demands.

There’s very little I can do about other people’s attitudes to me, current or historical. What I can do, and have done, is to question my own beliefs and choices. It hasn’t been easy, letting go of the idea that there is something about me which makes any kind of unkindness or lack of care make perfect sense. I’ve kept this story because it has allowed me to think well of people who I otherwise cannot think well of. It allows me to function in situations where otherwise I might quit and run away. I have come to the conclusion that this is not a good thing.

Habits and beliefs of a lifetime do not fall away overnight. To change this I am going to have to pay a lot of attention to my own emotional responses, to spot what I genuinely feel before I slip into suppression and co-operation mode. I have to watch my own thinking, alert to signs that I am letting someone else get away with something that would be totally unacceptable if I did it. I have to check my actions and make sure I’m not doing things that keep me in these loops. None of this will resolve quickly, but habits of thought can be changed.

I need to draw up some new lines about what is acceptable and what isn’t. I need to work out what is intolerable to me, draw a line, and hold it. Without these things, proper boundaries and a sense of self are just not available, and to go forward, I need to relate to myself as being as much a person as anyone else.


The revealing powers of anger

When and why a person becomes angry is incredibly revealing, as is what they feel entitled to do, and to whom, once anger has taken hold. It’s a very exposed emotion, often defensive in nature and as likely to make apparent a vulnerability as to protect.

It’s not unusual for anger to confer a sense of entitlement. The experience of the emotion justifies lashing out, with words, or physically. How responsible the whipping post was, can vary greatly but I often observe angry people taking it out on whoever is nearest, shooting the messenger, or picking an easier, less threatening target than the source of the problem. Domestic violence increases around sporting events as (usually) men feel moved to beat up their women because their team lost.

If we say ‘they made me angry’ and act on that, we’ve lost a degree of self determination, lost power over ourselves. Someone else can provoke us into acting in ways we do not wish to act. Rather than seeing it as a justification, we might equally see being made to do something by an angry response as a loss of power and identity.

Most of my anger has been going inwards. I’ve started watching for this, seeing how I collude with anyone else who is angry with me, and take that inside. I blame myself and judge harshly for shortcomings and I allow the loss of control into rage to be an excuse for violence towards myself. This is a pattern I am trying to break. I’m trying to notice when anger begins in me, and to see what triggers it, and there’s an interesting list.

My own powerlessness is certainly an issue. I get angry in the face of authority. Good leadership is fine, and welcome, but when someone tries to force their authority onto me to make me do things their way or submit to their worldview, I get angry. Until recently there was just a tiny window of perhaps a few minutes when I’d be capable of feeling anger with the other person but then I would rapidly start to collude, accepting their right to push me around, tell me off, put me down or whatever else it turned out to be. I’d ingest the bile until it made me ill.

I’m learning how to hang on to that initial anger, and to hold it as gently as I can inside me so that I can see what it is and where it comes from. I get angry about double standards, and being asked to do impossible things. I get angry when people are careless with my time, energy and other resources. I get angry when people are unkind, unreasonable, unfair. As a list, it seems a reasonably fair set of things to get cross about. I should be as entitled to that as anyone else is. What I have to disconnect from that process, is the idea that how I am treated is a fair measure of what I deserve. I have to recognise that not everyone gets angry fairly, and that it is not proof of wrongdoing or failure on my part. I do not have to default to taking it inside.

Some people get angry because they feel vulnerable. They take something personally that was not personal. They are too aware of their own shortcomings and trying to mask them. They need to be big and important and taken seriously and failure to do so elicits a really vulnerable kind of rage. They have poor boundaries, a lack of perspective, no self control, and a hundred other things that are wounds in their sense of self, bleeding out as anger into a world that probably isn’t as kind as they would like it to be.

Not my circus. Not my monkeys. I can be sympathetic, but I don’t have to be responsible.

Perhaps if I can learn to not take these situations personally, not assuming guilt and responsibility, I can do something better for myself. I think I can learn to hold my own boundaries and not get so damaged by other people’s anger. It is my hope, that by stepping back and holding these experiences in a different way, I can also be something that does not co-operate with other people’s stories about why they need to be so angry and why they are so entitled to express that in unpleasant ways. It’s worth a try, at any rate.


Walking the borderlands

Edges and margins are always productive places. In a field, it’s the hedge and strip to either side of it that hold the most life and diversity. In a woodland, the edges, and the margins of glades are where life thrives. In terms of humans, being out at the edges is often where we have most scope to grow and learn, but edges are also scary places.

We have our boundaries for reasons. Inside them, we feel safe and we know what we’re doing. There’s a lot to be said for being comfortable, and the more time you spend uncomfortable and out of your depth, the more you come to value the calm, safer waters. Or at least, that has been my experience. Growth happens when we push our boundaries, but we don’t always want to grow. Indeed, sometimes we find that we can’t. We are finite creatures, and when we get excited about pushing the limits and growing, we easily forget that.

A casual acquaintance from a few years back told me that no matter what she did, she could not run more than ten miles without making herself really ill. We speculated that her body just wouldn’t store enough glycogen to carry her beyond that point. We are limited beings, and as John Michael Greer points out in his Mystery Teachings book, this is a good thing. Without limits and boundaries, we would be little piles of squidge! It is our physical limitations that allow us to be who and what we are.

There are limits in all things. Earlier this week I hit a brain burn-out. In the space of a couple of weeks I had written four stories, each about 5k, each with different settings and setups. I’d studied changing thinking on airport emissions and Staverton airport, and put together a piece (It’ll be on http://www.ruscombegreen.blogspot.com in a week or so) and I studied Green policies on housing and land use with a view to writing a report. I also read most of Glennie Kindred’s Earth Alchemy book for review, and read and reviewed some of Jay Ramsay’s lovely poetry. All of that whilst trying to juggle family demands over the festive period, put up a daily blog, manage my online teaching work and deal with the rest of life. There is only so much you can do with a brain before it hurts, and I hit it. I could have pushed beyond those edges, I have before. What it gets me is tired, ill, depressed and ever less able to think clearly, process new information or make good judgements. As this is entirely counter-productive, I took a break.

I can run my mind harder and faster than I could ten or twenty years ago. This whole slowing down as you age thing is bollocks. It’s a matter of use and intent. I’ve had exactly the same experience with my awkward body – I am in better shape than I was ten or twenty years ago, even. Regularly pushing the edges with both things has allowed me to keep growing. However, pushing continually beyond my boundaries just makes me ill. There are balances to strike.

For me the hardest area in which to deal with the boundaries has always been around the darker emotions. Pain and shame, guilt, loss, grief, fear, anger… these are not things I like feeling, and when I get beyond what I can cope with, I tend to switch off, plunging into the safe, numb waters of depression until I don’t feel so overwhelmed. It leaves me with a lot of things I have not entirely faced, and edges I have not explored. Push too hard into those and my whole body shuts down defensively, so it’s got to be baby steps, taken when everything else is calm, and when I know I can retreat safely at need.

Boundaries are good things. They hold us together. Edges are places of vitality and possibility. I get very tired of New Age books that invite us to explore boundless, limitless freedom because that way lies the pile of squidge, the formless, incapable amoeba self. There may be people for whom being limitless squidge would feel like joyful liberation. On the whole, I find learning to manage the limits of my body and mind a good deal more interesting than that kind of amorphous freedom.


Intimacy and freedom

Depending on how you know me, I’m either quite a standoffish sort of person, or a very physically affectionate sort of person. I’m not keen on making any kind of bodily contact with people I don’t know well. This is partly because I don’t do much casually or lightly, and I don’t make gestures that are not meant.

I’ve commented before that I am uneasy about the culture of physical contact in the Pagan community. Being a fellow Pagan does not mean that I welcome your hands on my body, or your lips on any part of my face. We need to respect each other’s boundaries, not assume we’re all equally loved up and available, and not create a culture in which body contact becomes necessary social currency. There are few things I find more abhorrent around physical contact than people doing it because they feel like they have to, in order to fit in.

I’m not offended by physical contact, if it is meant. By this, I mean contact inspired by care, affection or desire. There is something very real and human about reaching out to someone from that sort of emotion. We don’t always judge perfectly how the other person will take it. I don’t measure people at all by the mistakes they make. I measure people by what they do when they find out they’ve got it wrong. The person who genuinely likes me, cares for me or finds me attractive, will respect my boundaries if I need to gently assert them. I’ve had rounds of that along the way. There may be some awkwardness, some embarrassment, but desire, affection and attraction are all underpinned by care, and that always wins through. I’m an odd and damaged person, the people who care about me care enough to work around that and to find out what I need.

Then there’s that other thing. People who put hands and lips on, not out of love or desire, but for some other reason. For power and control. To assert themselves over my body, space and mind. To demonstrate that they are flamboyant, exuberant types. Because they think the culture requires it of them. I am unsure, but these are my best guesses. That contact isn’t meant, and it feels very different.

A while ago, there was someone in my life in the habit of pouncing on me and kissing my cheeks. I don’t kiss unless I mean it and very few people kiss me, and I prefer it that way. I found this habit of cheek kissing unsettling, and I eventually found the confidence to say so. The response was to be told that it meant nothing, and said person kisses everyone. That was actually worse. Not just an invasion into my space, but a misuse of an intimacy. The person in question could not understand what was so unsettling to me, and I have come to realise what an impoverished emotional experience that represents.

Kissing is an intimacy. When you turn it into common currency, you devalue it. Like anything else, if you do it carelessly, meaninglessly, you make it that bit harder to have the depth when it is intended. If you say ‘I love’ over the slightest trivia that amuses you, what do you have left when you find your soul-mate?

Boundaries are not just about keeping people out. They are also about what you hold on the inside. The line between intimacy and casual acquaintance holds so much inside of it. Within the boundary, there is trust and openness, emotional honesty, there is meaningful affection. Your body, your kisses, your embraces are far more meaningful gifts if they are only given carefully and deliberately. That which is not given with care tends not to elicit care, either. The better I get at asserting my boundaries, the more able I am to see the treasures that can be kept on the inside of those lines. There is incredible power in deliberate limitation, in the consciousness that goes with choosing a limit. All too often we mistake freedom for being without boundaries, but I think increasingly that freedom is more readily found on the inside of the most carefully drawn lines.