So I’m trying to explain boundaries to someone who doesn’t understand what they are.
We know this because she keeps getting exploited.
She tells me several stories to illustrate this. Mostly about men who take advantage of her.
“I don’t know why it keeps happening,” she says. “Do I have a sign on my forehead or something?”
“Maybe,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“Some people — let’s call them predators — are good at noticing when other people lack strong boundaries. They sense when they can impose on you and get away with it.”
“What, they read minds?”
“No. But they’re observant, and they test you. They notice things like how comfortable you are expressing feelings or opinions or preferences. Are you comfortable doing that?”
She shakes her head.
“And I’m guessing you’re also what’s called conflict averse. Do you avoid arguments? Disagreeing with others? Saying No?”
“Well, predators pick up on that. And over time they use it against you. Keep crossing your boundary until they get what they want.”
“Sure, but not just sex. They chip away at your ability to be yourself in all sorts of ways. They teach you — often in very subtle, nonverbal ways — what they like and dislike, what pleases and annoys them. And they reward the former and discourage the latter. At the time you may not even notice it’s happening. But eventually you find you’ve adapted to them so completely that you’ve lost yourself. And you feel like a hostage, like…”
“A kid,” she says.
“So you know what I’m talking about.”
“Yes, and I’m sick of it,” she says. “So what’s a boundary?”
A boundary, I tell her, is an imaginary line between us that defines where I end and you begin.
“On this side of the line are my thoughts, feelings and problems, and yours are on the other side. And when the line gets blurred it gets terribly confusing. You pay more attention to my emotional life than to your own.”
“How can I tell where the line is?”
“By listening to yourself. Your feelings, mainly. They act as a sort of radar.”
“I bet they do. Remember that first guy you told me about? How long were you with him before what he began making you uncomfortable?”
“Our first date,” she frowns. “At dinner he was nasty to our waitress. It made me nervous.”
“That’s good. Your radar kicked in quickly. How did you react to the nervous feeling?”
“Pushed it away. I wanted him to like me.”
“Right. So you ignored your radar, and I bet he noticed.”
“You think he was testing me?”
“I think predators are always looking to see what they can get away with.”
She shakes her head angrily. “How do I protect myself from people like that?”
“You’re doing it now,” I say. “You’re in therapy, and you’re learning how to listen to your feelings. And the more you do, the better you’ll get at trusting your radar and finding ways to avoid danger or escape it.”
“Like self-defense training,” she smiles.
“Exactly like that.”