To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.

– Criss Jami

Jo has written about boundaries before, and I think it’s so cool that since there are two of us writing posts for this blog, you often get two different perspectives (though not necessarily different opinions) on a variety of subjects. We share similar moral values and our opinions are generally the same, but aside from the obvious differences (age, upbringing, hometown, etc) we also have each had our own myriad of life experiences that have given us our views on things now. Boundaries are something we’ve spoken about at lengths, even before we started this blog because, well, frankly — I didn’t have any. Boundaries are generally described as brick walls or barbed wire fences, almost impenetrable save for a certain special someone / something, if they have the will, curiosity and charm behind them to climb the wall, or cut a hole in the fence. My boundaries fall more into the “badly made sandcastle moat” category; you dig for a while and try to carve out a line (or body of water) to separate you from the rest of the world, with the aim of allowing a very select few into your castle, only when you feel like lowering the bridge.

But then something happens; the tide rolls in. You get excited because your moat is full of water! Nobody can get through to you unless you let them in! You’ve created this boundary and the idea seems solid and it feels so good; you’re determined to share yourself and your castle (think of your castle however you please — your body, your time, your heart) only with the people you selectively pick, the people who are worthy. 

Your boundary holds for a while. You have to fill up the moat occasionally as the water sinks into the sand, but a bucket at a time isn’t a big deal. You can refill that bucket every 15 minutes or so, no problem. 

But the sand underneath starts to soften. The water seeps in so deep that it turns that solid sand moat wall into a wet, soft, muddy pile. You don’t notice at first, you can’t see it happening, but eventually, the sides of your moat start to droop, and chunks of sand begin to fall off the walls and into the water and before you know it your moat is dry, and you see there’s a path leading straight to your castle’s front door. Do you start digging and refill your moat? Do you come up with a different plan? Do you give up?

My moat was never full. It didn’t matter how often I went and refilled my bucket, the minute I came back, the water was already soaking into the sand. This is how my boundaries worked. I would (shakily) develop one and tell myself that no one was going to cross it unless they were worthy of my time, effort, space, heart. The problem was, few of the people I had to instate these boundaries with, were worth it, and, regardless, my determination to following through on those boundaries was non-existent. These boundaries were flexible, unsupported and, worst of all, up for discussion. I have been trying to change that. 

I had a lot of my boundaries challenged this weekend, my buttons pushed. It was Broseidon’s 8th birthday party on Sunday and I’d been anxious about it for about a week. His party was priced a little high, but it was exactly what he wanted to do and had been trying to plan it on his own (to the best of his ability) for about a month. We invited his group of 10 friends (have I mentioned I have a really hard time being around children?), my mother and his grandparents from my ex’s side. His dad was away this week, so wasn’t around, and we thought it would be nice to have J-dog’s grandparents there, even if only to represent that side. I have had my fair share of quarrels with this family (as have most separated parents, I imagine) but for the most part, we get along pretty well. Things are amicable as long as I don’t rock the boat, which I don’t like to do anyway, and they are relatively decent towards Jo. 

Where do you draw the line on boundaries with your ex-family (if you have one)? My mother and step-father often had my dad over for dinner when I was younger — an unusual occurrence, I know — so I had a bit of a unique view of what blended families could look like. It was baffling to me that people had separated parents who didn’t get along. I found out as I got older that it turns out my mom and dad were just much better friends than partners, but being able to have the three of them under one roof was both awesome and confusing. 

I don’t necessarily want this for Duder. His father and I made an effort for a little while to try and take him out, the three of us, to do something fun on occasion after his dad and I split up. I wanted to teach him that adults could be amicable regardless of the situation, and that his dad and I both loved him endlessly and even if we weren’t in love with each other any more, we could still be civil enough to do things with him that he enjoyed. Granted, I think his dad and I were both also incredibly lonely and bored at the time, but our intentions in the end were nothing but good. These were organized, civilized outings that were planned in advance; and if I got the slightest impression things may go south, I cancelled.

So how do you feel when people insist on taking more than you’re offering? Duder’s birthday party was our day to celebrate him and give him a couple of hours outside of school to really hang out with his pals; he also had a birthday dinner planned on the day with some family (and friends that had been like family) that kind of decided, very quickly, that they had no interest in me — so, for his sake, we gave up keeping him home for his birthday Monday night, sent him off to a “family” dinner that didn’t include his mother or step parent; so the Sunday party was all we got. He ended up having a lot of fun, but the day and the decisions made by the adults in his life turned it into a very stressful endeavour, for him especially.

I am generally the “stop by any time!” type of friend. If I have a space in my heart for you (which I almost always do), my door is open to you 24/7. Need a couch to sleep on? We’ve got two pull outs. Need to vent about something? Call or come over, I’ll be here. If it’s something as simple as you not having had a home-cooked meal in two weeks — I’ve got you covered. I love taking care of the people I care about, but there is a very fine line you have to cross to get into the “stop by any time” group of folks. 

When people invade my space, I don’t know what to do. Don’t get me wrong — anybody who aggressively and violently invades my space gets a few choice words and a swift smackaroo, if that doesn’t work, but with people I have to deal with regularly, people I love, people I respect; I’m an absolute disaster when it comes to standing up for myself and saying no. Physical boundaries (people helping themselves into my house when I haven’t asked them to come in, for example) are the worst for me to enforce. Emotional and mental ones (dropping news on me, or asking me to have major conversations without any time to plan), are a close second. I’m getting better at saying “no, I can’t talk about this right now”, while “no, you can’t be here, you need to leave” still feels alien to me. When I invite you somewhere, I expect you to show up — unless you’ve asked, like a considerate human being, if I would be comfortable with extra guests. Especially on special days. 

So, when my son spends his birthday party worrying about his infant family member getting hurt by his growth-spurting friends, there’s a problem. Especially when it happens. When it didn’t have to. Because this young child (that I have absolutely 0 problem with, believe me, he’s an adorable little guy and Duder adores him) was brought to an event by parents who invited themselves (this is an exaggeration — they were told they were invited and didn’t question it, or confirm) there was no preparation, and it put a lot of people in super uncomfortable positions. Including the little guy! He got (mildly) hurt!

I have had to consider my boundaries a lot more now. When it was just Broski and I, things were different — people still didn’t respect me or my decisions as his mother, but didn’t exactly question things either. I almost felt like I didn’t need to have them because the second anything  or anyone threatened to do harm to him, I knew I could turn into a mama bear in a heartbeat. Little did I know, the boundaries weren’t so much for him as they were for me, and I accepted a shit ton of bad behaviour as a result of not having them. As I’m discovering how to create them for myself, I am trying, with tons of help and guidance from Jo, to encourage him to create his own, while he’s young and has the bold attitude to do so with conviction — he has had great conversations with his school-age friends about being uncomfortable with them touching his bum, for example, and now they don’t. It’s incredible to watch. 

So for me, being someone in a pretty openly queer relationship (I don’t mean we have an open relationship, but we are both openly gay / queer) as well as the only one in our partnership that conforms to society’s standards of what female-bodied people “should” look like, I have to throw a lot of dark glances at people who sometimes aren’t kind in the way they look at / mumble about Jo. I sometimes play bodyguard in the women’s washroom (see The Bathroom Mirror). I corrected 7 and 8 year old kids on their pronouns. I was also willing to witness the start of WW3, and battle to the death (not really) if anything even slightly derogatory or offensive was directed at them, and I can say that with confidence now. 

Do you have a harder time maintaining your boundaries or holding your ground with those close to you, or total strangers? I have been conditioned and trained to be overly assertive in my boundaries with strangers, especially, unfortunately, cisgender, heterosexual men. You know the ones — 

I did a self-defence course in high school specifically geared towards young women. We did a variety of exercises, from mixed martial arts to simple holds, and got a lot of really awesome knowledge and experience from a man whose only goal was to teach us to protect ourselves. At the beginning of the course, he stood at the front of the room and told us the main reason most women who get hurt, get abducted, get mugged, etc. don’t make it — we’re scared as HELL to hurt people!! It’s literally wired into us. We have to specifically train our brains to use force and do damage when we’re in danger (specifically at the hands of another person) because if we don’t, our natural instinct is to nurture and prevent pain. I remember thinking to myself, “If this guy thinks I’m gonna sit there like a dead fish when somebody’s trying to haul me off into the back of their van, he’s got a whole other thing coming.” But when we did our final exercise — they staged an “abduction” where you would get pulled into a cube van and had 3 minutes (I believe, this was a long time ago) to do whatever it took to get out; biting, scratching, kicking, punching, you name it — only 3 of us made it out “alive”, because we were the only ones willing to actually hurt our “attacker” (instructor) in order to survive. 

Note: This program was obviously all carried out with our consent / the consent of our parents, and really an AMAZING experience that I learned a lot from. It’s designed to teach us to be more assertive in our self defence as women in order to protect us in any potentially dangerous situations — and something that way more teen girls need to see. 

I wasn’t friends with my instructor. We spent some time together, he taught our little group of 8 things that I will carry for a long time and that may save my life someday if I ever need it (hopefully not!). But I wasn’t worried about my boundaries with him. Yes, he helped develop some specific ones: don’t ever let somebody you don’t know get close enough to grab you, don’t let someone keep you quiet if you’re in danger, don’t ever be afraid to hurt someone if their sole intention is to hurt you, if someone tries to grab your purse, throw it to them and run as fast and as far as you can in the opposite direction. Well — I’d like to let me partner touch me, or grab me, so when is too much… is there too much? What about if I’m not in danger, but somebody is trying to keep me quiet, even if that just means not allowing me to speak my truth when I’m with them? What if someone’s sole intention is to hurt me, but it won’t damage me physically? What if what they’re taking from me isn’t in my purse — what if it’s my love, patience, generosity, time? I’m not going to bite and kick and scream at my ex’s family when they cross the line, or when Jo maybe says something that hits me in a sensitive spot; so what do you do when it’s your friend, sibling, parent, partner? 

Like I said, I, admittedly, am terrible at standing up for myself to the people I hold close to my heart. I attribute this to low self-worth (emotional view of self), which is something that’s slowly improving now that I don’t struggle as much with low self-esteem (physical view of self). I’ve let a lot of people, who were not ever supposed to, treat me badly. I’ve been in abusive friendships, relationships, partnerships and have let those continue for far longer than they should have. People who said they loved me. People who let me continue loving them in the way that I do; wholly, endlessly and without expectations, while having expectations of how that should feel, how I should express it, or how deeply I should immerse myself into it — with no consideration of how it feels to simply be tossed aside when someone has gotten all the benefit they can from you. I’m still trying to figure out how to do it, day-by-day; how to heal from the people who have hurt me, how to stand my ground so it doesn’t happen again — and I’ve been practicing by taking a stronger position for the people that I love, regardless of whether or not they return the favour. Jo and I are each others’ biggest and loudest cheerleaders, and even we have had moments where each of us felt like they could have been more present for the other. 

So I’ll end this with a vulnerable story, because sharing my mistakes may help someone else avoid a similar situation and this particular occurrence had a huge effect on Jo and I as a couple, as well as on my views of who my “friends” were and whether or not they were people I wanted to be calling my friends to begin with. 

I had a super close friend, we’ll call them K. K and I had a pretty complex history — I was kind of crazy about them for 2 years — but for the most part we were beer drinking, cigarette smoking, stayin’ up late kind of buddies; we got together a few times each week, even after I left the job we both worked at, and I thought the world of them for a long time. They are an incredibly, incredibly intelligent person with a world of experience, wisdom and a shit ton to offer, but it would be like speaking with the Dalai Lama and finding out that, even with all of his wisdom, knowledge and experience, he’s a member of the KKK, or supports a Nazi agenda. How? How can you be an intelligent and thoughtful individual, but still have such close-minded, misogynistic, racist, supremacist views? This was a thought that came to mind more and more often with K as we neared the end of our friendship and, one evening, they finally showed their true colours. This is going to be extremely hard for me to write about, so please be gentle with me.

I invited K over to the apartment soon after we moved in. They and Jo had met once already, I had been super excited for them to get to know each other because, of course, I loved them both dearly and would have loved to have had another pal we both enjoyed spending time with (K being an alcoholic and Jo being pretty much sober by then, seriously I don’t know what I was thinking). K brought a few cans of beer to share, forgetting that both Jo and I are sensitive to wheat, so then proceeded to polish them off of their own. Not a big deal, maybe a little inconsiderate, but fine, right?

Now, remember the boundaries we’ve been chatting about. Because K and I were very close, spent a lot of time together, and discussed some pretty heavy shit, we would inevitably disagree. Usually, we’d cheers to our difference of opinion, and move on. The only thing we could not talk about, though, no matter how many times it came up in discussion, was politics. K is a Rob Ford boosting, Stephen Harper worshipping, Conservative. Where I generally vote for the candidate I think will do the most effective job over the party they lead, based on principle alone I lean more towards the ideals of the Liberal party. I boast an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude most of the time, and believe things should be equal and that we just need to be decent f-ing human beings. I support the forward thinkers in their legalization of cannabis, our attempts to end the stigma around mental illness and our acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities, gender neutral washrooms and the like (for obvious reasons).

K sat up and wanted to tell us all about the “great” things Rob Ford was going to do for Ontario when I got the feeling that things were about to go downhill, really fast. Reversing the plan of allowing “do not wish to disclose” and “unknown” options for Trans and GNC people on medical and official documents was one of said great things. Eliminating any possibility of public gender neutral washrooms was another. We didn’t even touch on his plan for schools, healthcare, sex-ed — K wanted to get right to the stuff that would hit a nerve, because that’s just who they are. Before I even really had a minute to figure out what was going on, K had moved into pronouns and how pointless and idiotic they thought picking your pronouns was, and…

I said nothing. 

This is where I feel vulnerable, though. I just told you that I would’ve gone to war for Jo this past weekend, but that wasn’t always the case. I didn’t always feel like I could, like I was strong / brave / big / bold enough. So I let them down, hard — and they let me know, in front of K. Embarrassing, sure, but nothing compared to the dissociation that comes with being an agender person, being constantly misgendered, or having their gender choices / preferences / identifications ridiculed by someone that I had spoken so highly of. They trusted me and my judgement of K and thus, welcomed them into our home without much question — and was, essentially, shit on. I asked K to leave, noting that things had started to feel a little tense and awkward (still such a pushover, eh?) and let them leave without really saying what I thought I should have, but couldn’t find words for until later on.

Jo and I had a long, very difficult discussion about where I fell flat and what I could have said, and I obsessed about my mistakes and what I should have done differently for days. In the spirit of being vulnerable, I will be honest and tell you that I kept in touch with K for a while after that. I think we went for coffee once and I tried to explain to them what had happened, that they’d obviously hit a soft spot and probably shouldn’t speak about gender or sexual identification / orientation if they were going to continue to be in my life, and even then, my dear readers; I look back on it now and see that even that hadn’t been enough. It wasn’t about soft spots, or opinions, or language — their morals and perspectives are so. completely. different. from mine and I was discovering that that difference, unfortunately, wasn’t something I could ignore. I could dive deeper into it and talk about the fundamentals of human rights and how that includes people of all races, denominations, genders, identities, ages, abilities etc etc etc, but I trust that you, dear readers, are good people, and we agree on these things — I still think K is a good person, but their good is exclusive and I needed friends that were inclusive; not only of my partner but of my child, my lifestyle and the fact that we are a queer as f*ck family. 

I deleted K’s number the last time we were in Stratford. Actually, I went through a deleted a lot of people’s numbers. If I hadn’t talked to them in 3 months, they were gone (with a few exceptions). It didn’t feel “good”, perse, because they were a reliable friend and I’d hoped we’d be able to stay that way, but boundaries are something I’m trying to work on, and one of them is treating my family and I with respect. If you can’t manage that — you don’t get to see my castle. 

Perhaps, the problem is not the intensity of your love, but the quality of the people you are loving.” 

– Warsan Shire

This was a long one, guys — thanks for sticking through it with me.

— Aisha

Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself.

Boundaries. What do they mean to you? Do you think your boundaries help you reflect your best self? Are your boundaries food or shopping related, exercise or financial? Do you extend your boundaries to others? Are you a boundary-building partner? Does any of this even make sense to you? If not, you may be a field bird. I am more of a … mole myself. My natural environment is a network of convoluted thought tunnels that have to exit somewhere, and boundaries help me keep a blueprint.  

Aisha read me Erynn Brook’s twitter thread on what her mother taught her about boundaries the other day. The feeling I’m left with is so incredibly unique, I don’t quite have a word for it yet. But it does seem to keep causing me to stop, place my hands on my hips, squint up at the sky and inhale a “yup,” real slow, like it means something. Her message was so clear: as an adult, she has successful boundaries.

I like it. Most adults I know have trouble instituting boundaries, so her unapologetic reflection on how hers developed is refreshing. She takes the readers through the many times her mother reinforced that calling home and leaving when she needed to, was completely okay. Erynn was able to call, and go home, whenever she wanted. No matter what.

Was that your childhood experience? Did you ever lay awake at a sleepover, wishing you could just be in your room? I don’t know if it was mine, I’m sure my sleepovers ran the gamut of boring to provocative, but I do remember the times I did call home: someone always, always came. No matter what. I’m going to ask Aisha something – hang on.

Aisha: “I think your boundaries are fair, and the ones you have [insert intense, lingering eye contact here] you don’t move on. I think they are more of a strong moral compass….” 

She didn’t answer whether she feels they limit her (being the closest person in my life), and that’s fair.

I’m realizing a lot throughout this essay. The first is, I could probably write a book on boundaries. The second, I think boundaries are really important – for everyone. Additionally, I don’t think boundaries are inherent, and I think it can be daunting to teach boundaries to anyone: your child, friend, coworker, or maybe later in life, your parent. Finally (for now), I think I had an early concept of boundaries and the confidence to enforce them; my late teens and twenties made sure my boundary-building was tested though and I failed. A lot.   

Now, I think boundaries are amazing because they help me to assure myself that I’ve “got this” since I’m a little polar in my reaction to things: I either have a depth of patience ascribed to a saint or I flash freeze with icy attitude. I have had to work on stabilizing a middle ground in order to center my thoughts, remove my feelings, and gauge whether I need more time to respond or if responding is even necessary. Because I have a memory of what they feel like, a standard. So, my newly constructed boundaries are needed and run very deep. 

I have found myself feeling cornered and completely misjudging situations without these boundaries. Combining a naturally sensitive personality (good and bad), a fight-then-flight response pattern, and OCD does not make it easy to accurately gauge impulsive or drawn-out scenarios and I found myself spiralling into a lonely space.

Help began in the form of professional advice I received from my EAP counsellor a few years ago. I was being affected at work by a guy. I don’t want to get into too many details, because I am focusing on the concept of boundaries but, I felt that he was working hard to make my job harder than it needed to be; he felt like I was getting in the way of how he had done his job for over twenty years. I learned that I was actually getting in his way and the stress that that created for him was multi-layered. Being me, I stormed into a session and was like, “But he….”, and she said, “Is that your problem?” I, of course, looked away, angry tears pricking my eyes and asserted, “Yes, it’s my problem,” to which she coolly slid her gaze over me and replied, “Is it? If x actually happened and y was the result, or B to A, whatever situation you come up with — your problem is to make sure you are good, Jo. That is your only problem.” [There was obviously content I ethically cannot provide, but the message is clear.]

So now I go through life assessing whether something can, or should, be my problem and making healthy choices for the first time because she gave me the opportunity to explore boundaries.

It’s liberating. It has helped me say no to things that make me have such a negative, physical reaction I am so uncomfortable considering them. It has allowed me to divest myself of people who I have put a lot of effort into, but who only seem to keep me around because I kept catering to their problems. 

Boundaries are the things you learn about yourself that help you always feel safe and know what direction you are pointing in. I think the only variation is on a) how much direction you need and b) how lost you tend to get. 

I have watched a lot of people learn they don’t have boundaries. Sadly, these realizations have usually dawned as the result of a situation so terrible, I won’t mention it here. I have watched others crumble on my couch, realizing they have tried sustaining friendships and family-ties, even though it was killing them. I have lost people because I have asked them to get some boundaries, if even the dollar store variety. 

I think boundaries are scary because they force you to continue rising to an occasion you determine in order to selflessly assure yourself you are okay. If you are neurotic like me, they are scary because they are hard to put down even when I want to. For real – I make a huge effort to bend the ones I know are a little ridiculous. But I also know that my boundaries have kept me going forward for a while now. They help me categorize unknown feelings, and they help me navigate pretty much every interaction I have. That is not to say that my carefree, fun-loving attitude isn’t true as well. It’s just only possible because of the tunnels underneath. 

I thought about using the adage, ‘good fences make good neighbours’, but in all seriousness, I don’t equate boundaries with walls. I don’t see boundaries as a means to keep something out per se, but instead, as guides. So, ‘don’t keep a dog and bark yourself’. Get the dog guys, build the boundaries if you – as I did – tend to lash out because you are actually hurting. It’s okay to need something so that you hurt less, are heard more and just feel good. Don’t build a wall that constrains any part of you, get the dog that explains itself. Honestly, there is so much I want to expand on in regard to walls; the U.S border wall, the walls in online communities, the ones within our families. But boundaries are best built on a solid foundation and for that, we need to make sure ours are good. 

Think about your boundaries. Are they good? Do they help you be better, or do they keep you hidden?

― Jo

“When you notice someone does something toxic the first time, don’t wait for the second time before you address it or cut them off. Many survivors are used to the “wait and see” tactic which only leaves them vulnerable to a second attack. As your boundaries get stronger, the wait time gets shorter. You never have justify your intuition.”

Shahida Arabi

(If you like this article, get ready for a deeper look into boundaries and social contracts coming next week!)