We live in a world where women’s wishes aren’t respected as easily or as often as they ought to be. I’m not necessarily talking about physical or extreme situations (although those are tragically prevalent). I’m talking about those little moments in conversation, at work, or at a party, where someone starts to cross over that fine line of what’s appropriate and what’s not, what’s funny and what’s offensive. It’s when someone does anything in regards to their relationship with you that makes you feel uncomfortable or upset. It can come from friends, casual acquaintances, coworkers, lovers, family, anyone.
I’m not trying to paint a picture of an overtly hostile world that’s just waiting to pounce on you. But something I’ve been learning in my adult life is how to set, and keep, my own personal boundaries. It’s not a concept I was raised to understand, and I have watched a lot of my friends struggle through this, too. There’s a lot of pressure on women to be nice and likeable and while those are fine things to be, there are times when a backbone of steel is required. Half the battle is learning how to be your own advocate, and that means figuring out what’s best for you and articulating it when necessary.
The first step to setting boundaries is figuring out where your lines lie. An example of this, for me: I don’t do debates on Facebook. Or on Twitter, or anywhere else, really. I used to get into it in the comments section, like anyone with an opinion and Internet access. Eventually, I learned that this kind of engagement just wasn’t worth it to me, and so I decided to stop. That’s a practice that, for me, makes the Internet much more fun and less stressful. Lots of people don’t live this way (and that’s fine if you’re one of them!), and some of them therefore feel a need to try and engage with me on more controversial topics I write about. I have taken to clearly stating “I respect that you have an opinion on this, but I don’t debate on my personal page” or some variant of that, and if they object and continue to hammer away, I simply block.
That seems like a really easy concept, and maybe it is for some people. But for a really long time I felt the need to placate everyone’s feelings, to respond to each criticism of my ideas, and it was exhausting to keep up. It took me years (literally) to figure out a way to exist on the Internet without draining my mental fortitude and self-esteem. Creating that boundary, and sticking to it, has helped me so much.
Now, you might be thinking “Okay, it’s way easier to tune someone out online than it is in person,” and you’re totally right. There’s no set rule for how you want to conduct your day-to-day interactions with people, except for this one: you, and you alone, get to decide what you are and are not comfortable with. You have the right to make your mind up, and to change it, and to enforce your boundaries when someone’s dragged themselves miles over the border. This is a principle that carries into every aspect of life. When a coworker says something derogatory; when a friend makes a habit of never listening to your problems and only wanting to talk about their own; when a potential love interest expresses displeasure when you ask that things slow down. These are moments that we have all weathered. Your right to decide how you want to be treated, and what you will and won’t do, is the foundation, and the way you decide to enact those decisions is what is built upon it.
When you first begin to tentatively stake your ground in an area, it can definitely be uncomfortable. There will be people who attempt to make you feel like you’re being unreasonable. I once worked in an office where a male coworker referred to me as “girl,” repeatedly and often, and was irritated when I requested that he speak to me using my name, as he spoke to everyone else in the office. In that instance, I was tempted to back down and not make an issue of it the next time he slipped, but I decided that it was an issue worth making known, and eventually, he begrudgingly learned to not call me “girl.”
As you grow more rooted in your sense of self, these things become easier. Now, at twenty-three, I have no qualms about informing coworkers that my name is not “darling,” “sweetie,” or “baby.” But that was a big deal for me when I was younger, and learning how to stand up for myself then has built onto the confidence I have now.
There are harder boundaries we have to draw, too. Some people have an inability to treat others well. This doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, it just means they’re a bad person for you. Telling an ex you don’t want anymore contact, or cutting off a friendship that’s left you feeling small more often than not, isn’t an easy thing to do. Practicing standing up for ourselves in smaller matters can help when a major issue comes along. No matter what you decide when you’re in a tough spot, just remember that you’re the boss of you, and therefore, you get to decide when to walk away, shut the door, and lock it. This is something I think we’ll always be in the process of learning, and that’s okay. What matters is that you feel empowered to choose your own life and the boundaries that help define it.