Ok, so you’ve worked on your refusal skills: you’ve practiced saying “No” or “Stop” –with a supportive friend or to random objects in your house like a pillow or the siracha bottle.
Nevertheless, you are still worried about your ability to stand your ground and say “No” to a real person, in a real situation, where you really want to lay down your boundaries. Why?
Perhaps you are afraid that this real person (I’ll call them the “seeker”) won’t respect your ‘No’. They may hassle you, call you names, or behave in some other stupid, cowardly, hurtful manner.
“Ok,” you tell yourself, “that’s gonna be unpleasant, but I can handle it. That hypothetical ‘seeker’ is obviously a freakin’ asshole. I would obviously have the high ground. I’d be able to hold and defend my ‘No’.”
But what if instead, upon hearing your refusal, the seeker says something like, “Y’know… you aren’t being reasonable here”?
Maybe it’s the fear that our “reasoning” or “fairness” will be challenged that really keeps us silent. We’re afraid we may have to defend not only our boundaries, but our very selves as sane and rational.
Sometimes it goes even deeper. Sometimes we ourselves have internalized the idea that it IS unreasonable to expect our boundaries to be respected in certain situations.
This questioning of whether our boundaries are “reasonable” or “appropriate” is far more complex and insidious than simple disrespect. Rationality, the very ground on which you stand, is being attacked. This is what I like to call a patronizing argument.
Recognizing the Patronizing Argument
A “patronizing argument” happens when someone seems to behave respectfully, yet implies that their experience/perception is objectively superior to yours. There is the suggestion that they know better—that your experience is somehow less valid than theirs. If you’ve internalized the patronizing argument, then you tell yourself that your feelings are unreasonable or less-than-valid.
Here’s a few examples of what a patronizing argument looks like:
- “You aren’t being fair here” (direct questioning of your decision’s rationality)
- “Aw…you don’t really mean that” (invalidation of your experience)
- “Haha…what you really mean is …” (not listening/putting their words in your mouth)
- “Woah! why are you over-reacting?!” (the classic attack on your rationality as an entire person)
- “I’ve been leading them on… it would be unfair to push away now” (internalized patronizing argument)
You are faced with a patronizing argument anytime the seeker attacks the legitimacy of your “No” or your authority to say it.
The patronizing argument is powerful because it resonates with our own twisted, ingrained fears that it is somehow wrong for us to have boundaries, or that asserting them is more unfair/ hurtful to others than it NOT asserting them would be to ourselves. Patronizing arguments are confusing, because we know that sometimes we ARE unreasonable. Everyone is sometimes.
But here’s the thing:
When it comes to your personal boundaries (especially sexual boundaries!), you can NEVER be unreasonable.
You decide your own boundaries. They are completely arbitrary and unique to YOU and to specific situations! You can’t be unreasonable about something that you are the sole authority on. That’s just how it works. Personal sexual boundaries can NEVER be ‘unreasonable’.
Now that we have that established, let’s look at some practical ways to deal with this bullshit.
3 Practical Ways to Deal with the Patronizing Argument
1) Set and Communicate Boundaries In Advance
Standing your ground requires building a solid foundation. Take some time to decide your boundaries before you need to assert them.
If you are unsure about where your boundaries lie, try choosing ”Conservative Starting-Boundaries” which may be a little more restrictive than what you expect to be comfortable with.
If you have already considered the possibilities and decided what you are/aren’t comfortable with before you ever leave the house, then when it’s time to actually assert your boundaries, you KNOW you are being reasonable. Why? Because you already took the time to reason through it!
Then communicate your boundaries to the seeker, and stick to them. Then if you find yourself wanting to go further, you can totally actively decide to change/lower your boundaries, and communicate that decision clearly. This should feel empowering as opposed to the disempowering experience of being pressured past loose or unclear boundaries.
Seriously, take some time to make conservative starting boundaries for different situations. Here are my some of my personal physical boundaries for a couple of situations (Note: these are only examples…not suggestions for other people or an exhaustive list of my own boundaries)
|Who||Public/Private||Conservative Starting Boundary|
|New Lover||Private||Kissing is ok once I feel comfortable.
If making out, I use the”Swimsuit Rule”: No skin to skin touching on any area that would be covered by a swim suit.
|Established Romantic Partner||Public||Small kisses, hugs, arms around shoulder/waist, hand on knee/other affectionate but mostly non-sexual touching is ok.
Making out, groping, ass-slapping, etc is not ok.
|Friend||Public or Private||Hugs, arms around shoulder/waist is ok.
Intentional touching of any area that would be covered by a swimsuit (e.g. ‘friendly’ ass-slapping) is not ok.
Of course, every situation will be a little different, but it’s helpful to generalize so that you can decide what’s right for you in ADVANCE.
You may also have some Hard Boundaries- things you are NEVER ok with ANYONE doing in ANY situation. Some of my (sexual) hard boundaries include: nude photos, telling me what to do with my body hair, and sleepy sex, to name a few.
2) Don’t Discuss “Why” Your Sexual Boundaries Are “Fair”
Many assertiveness courses (which teach general assertiveness with your family, friends, boss/coworkers, etc.) recommend giving an explanation for why you need to set a boundary. These reasons typically include restraints on time, money, energy, etc. In general situations, giving information as to “why” you can’t do something can help you find alternative solutions.
However, with sexual boundaries, there often is no reason for why you feel the way you do.
Unless explaining “why” you feel the way you do will help create clarity or prevent future problems (e.g. an experience from your past now makes certain behaviors triggering) do NOT entertain a discussion of why your sexual boundaries are appropriate.
The answer to the “why” question is “Because (I already decided) I am/am not comfortable with that”. Trying another explanation of “why”, when there is no “why” is going to sound awkward and shaky. It’s likely to end with “Golly, I guess there is no reason!” making you feel unreasonable! Plus, entertaining a discussion of “why” allows someone else to be part of the process of creating boundaries for you, when really you should be the sole authority. In other words…
Here’s an example dialogue for shutting down the “why” question:
“I’m just not comfortable with that.”
“But you were ok with XY and Z, why not this?”
“There is no ‘why’: I am comfortable with XY and Z but I am not comfortable with this: I need you to respect that.”
Let’s say the patronizing argument isn’t about the validity of your boundaries, per se, but the validity of how you express them. Let’s say you used a loud, aggressive “Dog-voice No!” to lay down your boundaries after a “Soft no” was ignored. Here’s an example dialogue:
“Whoa! that was uncalled for.”
“I had to do it that way because you didn’t respect my ‘No’ the first time.”
“But why did you have to be so loud?”
“Because I needed to make sure you would listen. Why didn’t you respect my ‘No’ the first time?”
In this case bring the conversation back to the real issue: your boundaries were not respected. Flip it and ask the seeker what they don’t understand about “No means No”.
If the seeker won’t stop pestering you about “why”, find a way to remove yourself from the conversation…its clear that this person is being pushy and will probably continue trying to overstep your boundaries.
You may decide to revisit the issue later, or just decide that this person is someone you don’t want to have in (certain areas of) your life.
3) Do NOT Accuse the Seeker of Being Manipulative
If you realize you’re being pinned with a patronizing argument, you may feel manipulated or gaslighted. While it may be important to make note of manipulation for yourself, you should NOT vocalize this concern while trying to push past a patronizing argument.
Why? well, quite simply, you have no way of knowing whether the seeker is trying to manipulate you. All that you truly know is how they behaved. So address the behavior, not whatever intention you suspect might be behind it.
This is especially relevant to the patronizing argument because if you DO accuse the seeker of something unprovable like intent to manipulate– all of the sudden you ARE being unreasonable.
Then the seeker can convincingly argue that, since you are unreasonably accusing them of being manipulative, you are also being unreasonable about your boundaries!
So don’t accuse the seeker of being manipulative, or anything else that you can’t prove. Just stick to the boundary issue, broken-record style: “Look, I need you to respect my boundaries” “Respect my boundaries” “Respect. My. Boundaries.”
So there you have it. How to recognize the insidious patronizing argument and at least a few tricks to avoid the traps that go along with them!
- You are the ONLY person who decides your boundaries
- You should ALWAYS express your boundaries
- Your boundaries are ALWAYS valid and fair
- You should ALWAYS expect your boundaries to be respected