I was chatting with a client recently about her struggle to set boundaries. As she recounted a recent interaction that felt icky and discombobulating, I was struck by her clarity.
From the very beginning, her body was sending her loud and clear signals: constriction in her gut, blocked energy, overall aversion. When I pointed this out and asked why she chose to continue to engage this person, she sighed, and said, “I just wanted to be nice.” And I could certainly relate – being tempted to give more than I want, saying yes when I wanted to say no, letting others into spaces I want to keep clear – all because I believed it was the kind and nonjudgmental thing to do. But as I’ve come to understand, discernment is a different thing than judgment.
Deciding what’s right for me is not the same as declaring what’s wrong with others. And trusting myself does not mean I’m saying that mine is the only and absolute truth. Does there have to be a grand reason to say no other than not wanting to say yes? Are our preferences, desires, and intuitions reason enough? Do we need to justify or explain our boundaries? Do we even need to understand them perfectly ourselves?
I hope for a culture grounded in consent and personal autonomy, and I want to contribute to its formation. This starts with me. This starts with me setting and respecting my own boundaries and holding to the truth that no one is entitled to my time, energy, presence, and attention. Those things are limited, and I get to decide how to spend them. And yes, I have responsibilities to others too, but this does not mean slackening my boundaries for their benefit. It means honoring their boundaries in the same way I want mine honored. It means asking for permission instead of making assumptions. It means not making demands their energy or emotional labor. It means not entering spaces or conversations that are not for me.
In my own quest to strengthen my boundary-setting muscles, these are some of the practices I have found helpful:
Since we experience reality and receive information through our bodies, our embodied sensations and visceral cues hold and communicate a lot of essential information. When you’re considering a boundary and weighing your options, notice: How do I feel in my body when I’m around this person? Do I feel clenched, heavy, or queasy when I consider letting them into my space? What would make me feel open, relaxed, light, and free?
Our souls and intuitions speak to us through our emotions. Anger, resentment, and fear often point to a need and desire for space, voice, and stronger, clearer boundaries.
Since the messages from our bodies and emotions are often subtle, it’s important to tend to the basics – taking bathroom breaks when we’d prefer to keep working, remembering to drink water, allowing anger rather than stuffing it down, taking five minutes to cry – in order to hear them. The more we acknowledge the obvious and follow basic instructions, the more we’re able to hear and use this information to set boundaries when we need to, even when it’s hard.
We absorb so many messages and internalize so many expectations from the culture(s) around us. Setting boundaries and saying no may very well violate social expectation. Systems of oppression (like patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism, etc.) are especially challenging, as they try to convince us that our worthiness must be achieved through privilege, productivity, and/or adherence to their standards of beauty and respectability.
Dismantling these lies is an important step toward reclaiming our personal autonomy, as well as an act of profound political resistance. Being willing to say no and disappoint others, claiming our time and space, and spending our attention and energies in ways that are right for us are all important skills in creating a life of intention, meaning, and grounded-ness. And in the end, it all starts with and comes down to this: hearing our inner wisdom, believing our truths, and trusting ourselves.