setting boundaries, even if it means losing people I love

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(The following is a post I’ve had sitting around in a file on my computer for ages now unposted – the situation it refers to is old concern, not a current one, but I thought in light of the hashtag #yesallwomen I would post it.)

If you’ve said no, you won’t do a favor for someone and they continue to ask over and over, sending you more and more aggressive messages, is that just social awkwardness on the other person’s part?

If your sitting at a table talking with friends and someone who you’ve already asked not to talk to you sits down, and you ask again for the person to leave you alone, but the person refuses to, is that just a sign the person is socially awkward?

If you’re standing talking to friends and he moves into the circle to stand next to you, and you leave and go talk to other friends and he follows you there, is that just social awkwardness? What if the person is mentally ill? Is that justification?

What if the same person posted public messages calling you out by name in your local newspaper comment section? Brags online about physically abusing people because when he was on medication earlier he “couldn’t control himself when he got angry”? Posts sexist facebook pictures?

And finally if this sort of thing was happening to one of your friends – if one friend was disrespecting another’s boundaries like that – would you make a point of keeping inviting the disrespectful friend to social events with the other person because how else will the disrespectful person learn? And because well, he needs to have a social life too? Would you take the growing list of people who express discomfort with the person as a sign that everyone should make even more of an effort to include him, because after all, he’s being isolated and kicked out of so many other settings?

I’ve been reflecting a lot on boundaries recently – where my own boundaries are, the times I let my children or other people cross boundaries I’m not comfortable with, why it is I want to completely defend certain boundaries and how far am I willing to go to defend boundaries I feel are important?

There is one person who used to routinely cross boundaries. I did everything I could to cut him from my life even risking losing some social connections that are incredibly important to me. The process of doing that was incredibly hard on me, as an insecure over-thinking introvert trying to navigate a social situation where I felt like I was being being the bad guy. At the end of the process I thought the door was shut, that this person would fade from my life and I would be able to relax but now I find that there is a wedge in the door, the possibility that as long as I am involved in something I will have to excerpt energy pushing back against him trying to open that door again.

The wedge is the idea that the person is just “socially awkward,” a victim of our prejudice against the mentally ill, and that inclusivity and social justice demand being accepting. (Read a blog post I wrote about that earlier.)  It is a line of reasoning my husband rejects easily with the glib line “hasn’t anyone watched Patch Adams?” I have a harder time with it. As a Christian I was brought up with the whole love-your-enemy idea, and that we have to be willing to open ourselves and be inclusive. So in my normal struggles to understand how I want to approach the situation and what I think I turn to reading (blog posts, articles, books, etc) and writing (emails and this blog post).

One blog post that stands out for me is about Schrödinger’s Rapist and the relevant section is a part near the end talking about how a person ignoring boundaries marks themselves as a potential threat:

You see, Mr. E-mail has made it clear that he ignores what I say when he wants something from me. Now, I don’t know if he is an actual rapist, and I sincerely hope he’s not. But he is certainly Schrödinger’s Rapist, and this particular Schrödinger’s Rapist has a probability ratio greater than one in sixty. Because a man who ignores a woman’s NO in a non-sexual setting is more likely to ignore NO in a sexual setting, as well.
So if you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.

My situation was non-sexual. I wasn’t scared of him being sexually violent and though the possibility of other violence has occurred to me. I have to be honest with myself. I didn’t really expect it. The book The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker taught me the idea that violence is unlikely while a person is able to think of other alternatives, and this particularly creative person had already demonstrated an ability to think up a multitude of ways to make my life difficult without resorting to violence. At the same time De Becker’s book also stresses that people have a tendency to live in denial overlooking obvious warning signs and I can’t help thinking some of those behavioral traits I mentioned above might be warning signs. Also, I’m not willing to say that boundaries don’t matter as long as a person doesn’t express a sexual interest or turn to violence. Isn’t there a point where the pushing through boundaries (repeatedly) should be recognized as enough of a problem?

I want to add right now that I am not the only person who has had problems with this person. I can count at least ten other people – nine of them women – who have expressed problems with this person. Yet I keep hearing as well the idea that I need to look beyond his faults because he’s “well intentioned” and just suffers an inability to behave normally – from causes that aren’t his fault, of course. Expecting respectful behavior from everyone is too ablest, and doesn’t recognize that those with social problems are already discriminated against.

So I turn to a different blog post. This is from an article on why socially awkward isn’t an excuse.

One of the undertones of the “he’s socially awkward” excuse is that he’s being misunderstood. That he’s harmless. He’s really a good guy… and this is why the woman maligning him should be willing to overlook the way he’s stepped all over her boundaries. Because he didn’t mean to.

Can you imagine why this argument isn’t going to go over well with women?

Here’s what’s happening when you’re telling someone that somebody deserves a second chance or should be forgiven for being awkward: it’s reframing a woman’s right to enforce her boundaries into a discussion about why the man shouldn’t be inconvenienced.


Except it doesn’t matter. All too often women have given someone the benefit of the doubt – either because they questioned their own instincts or because of social pressure – and realized that it was a mistake to do so. Having an aversion to people who trip up against their boundaries is important because predators use boundary testing to see what they can get away with. It’s how they pick their victims – looking for people who can be pressured into going along to get along, who have a harder time making a strong objection because of the possibility that “it was an honest mistake” or because the predators are skilled at using plausible deniability to convince others to persuade their target that no, he was just being friendly!

There is so much in those paragraphs that I appreciate reading. I have had times before where I gave a person the benefit of the doubt only to end up in a situation where I was carrying a can of mace around a small university campus scared that the guy who waited outside my classes with a book I had once given him would appear in front of me when I was alone. That time too I had the person approach other people and try to convince them that I was just being mean and lacking in acceptance. When I complained to campus authorities about him I was sent to counseling to a campus councilor who said he also comes to her for help and that she knows he’s really a good person who just wants to be friends! And that time too I saw other people express discomfort with him – people who did not know I had problems with him, as well as people who warned me to be careful. I was lucky then that one of my professors had previous experience with the person and was willing to help take action to have him (eventually) removed from the campus. He still reaches out and tries to contact me online every couple of years. I add more usernames to the blocked list but never respond.

So how do I separate my experience with the person today from the different person ten years ago? How do I make sure I’m not trying to punish a person today for something someone else did ages ago? I hate writing up lists for myself of all the things this person has done wrong, trying to assure myself I’m not just reacting to past trauma – but I do that.

And I’m not imagining things. I know I need to defend my boundaries. I know that I need to do that. I don’t know how many other people I’m going to lose in my life because they want to push me to be more accepting.

Back to the article about social awkwardness not being an excuse:

See, the socially awkward want to improve. They aren’t interested in getting people to tolerate their fuck-ups, they want to not fuck up in the first place. Part of why being awkward isn’t an excuse is because, frankly, sometimes the only way you realize a line was there in the first place is because you tripped over it and landed on your face … But getting a pass on creepy behavior doesn’t help you learn, and it’s not on other people to teach you.

I have a whole file of emailed apologies from this person. He inevitably ruins them by adding such lines as “sorry for whatever you think I did wrong, even though I didn’t do anything wrong.” Once he told me that he has oppositional defiance disorder and another time he sat before a group of people and said straight up that people saying “no” never means no, because he always gets to argue his position and make his appeals as long as he wants.

Creepy? Yep.

And I know I shouldn’t write this on a place where I am no longer anonymous, where people who know him might read this. But you know what, speaking up right now matters to me. I’m tired of not speaking up, of internalizing the idea that I’m just to sensitive, not accepting enough, etc, etc.

I’m going to slowly, slowly break the ties that bind me to this person, even if doing so means losing people I care about.

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  • Radaiko

    Thank you Christy for your article,
    it was great to read.

    I find it hard to put boundaries up for myself, especially if it is with little/subtle things.
    For years I lived togheter with other students, they liked to make jokes about each other.
    At first I did not budge me, but when it became frequent it seriously affected my self-esteem.
    But a part of me thought that what they did was normal, that I was just being oversensitive (I do can be sensitive sometimes when it is not needed).
    At some point I tried to set up a boundary, but they just laughed at me and continued, reinforcing the belief that I was too sensitive.
    The only solution I saw was to move away and break all social contact with them, what I did.

    Now I feel alot better, but I’m still afraid that it is going to happen again.
    So what if you try to set boundaries but it is not taken seriously, or how do you set boundaries so that other people take them seriously? (especially if you’re not good at speech, not good at articulating what you want on the spot)

    • Christy Knockleby

      Changing group culture is a bit of a different challenge then trying to deal with a single individual crossing boundaries. I think often the best option then is to find a different group where the people’s idea of what is appropriate is closer in line with one’s own. If most people in a group enjoy the joking, it is going to be very hard to convince them not to do it. Perhaps taking up a policy of saying, “bye, it’s been fun but I’m not staying around for the joking” and leaving the room when it happens would change things, but perhaps not. One would have to be really confident of oneself to try that though – to not debate it, not care about their reactions, not let the others responses matter but simply firmly know that one doesn’t have to stay around conversations one does not like. They would likely laugh and the way around that would be to have enough confidence to know that it is ok they laugh. We can’t force others to like us. We all need to find the people who like us for who we are.

      Boundaries are taken seriously when we enforce them. We can only enforce them through our own actions (leaving a conversation, ending a relationship, etc,) and then we can’t control what the results will be – we might hope that another person will take our requests seriously and change his or her behavior and instead the person just cuts us out of their life or views us as oversensitive freaks. Boundaries work when we need the behaviour to stop more than we need the other person to like us.

      It is definitely ok to be sensitive. There are good things about being sensitive, though it is overwhelming at times.

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