Welcome back to my ongoing series about boundaries! This is part two of a gazillion. To see the first post, click here.
In my last post, I introduced a basic boundary-asserting scenario, where a friendly someone is coming in for a hug but you, for whatever reason, don’t want to hug them. I spent that last post going over how, if you don’t want to hug someone, you have a right to NOT BE HUGGED. No matter who they are, or how many times you have hugged them in the past. You have a right to only be touched in ways you want to be touched.
And it’s all well and good to say that. We NEED to say it, in a culture that encourages us to ignore any boundaries other people find inconvenient. But it can be hard to put that idea into practice when you have someone coming towards you, arms outstretched, and you are feeling the weight of expectation to just give in and let them hug you.
In that moment, as the hugger approaches, you have (more or less) three options:
Option A) Decide not to enforce your boundary, and suffer through the hug with gritted teeth
Option B) Assert your boundary by dodging the hug somehow – maybe taking a step back and holding out your hand for a handshake
Option C) Assert your boundary by taking a step back and holding out your hand to shake, saying “I’m not doing hugs today. How about a handshake? It’s good to see you!”
Option A is, unfortunately, the most common. But you know you have the right to choose something else! So let’s look at our other two options.
They both accomplish the same goal, right? Option B can work perfectly well, especially if the hugger is, for instance, a friendly acquaintance who is good at reading nonverbal cues and in a headspace to pick up those cues. They see the outstretched hand and go, “Okay, handshake!” Maybe they feel a little hurt or confused. Maybe they question all the other hugs they have given you. Not the end of the world, though. Your boundary is protected, and that’s the important part.
But what if they’re not good at reading nonverbal cues? What if they’re excited to see you, and don’t take the time to process your body language? What if they’re a relative who has hugged you your whole life, so they just assume you want to hug? You’re left with either shoving the person off of you, doing a duck-and-weave, or resorting back to Option A. Using your words when asserting your boundaries brings more clarity to the situation and helps other people to understand what you need.
Obviously I’m on team “Use your words.” But let me be clear: Your right to your boundaries is not dependent on your ability to articulate them verbally. If the words get stuck in your throat and you need to use body language or just put yourself on the other side of the room from someone in order to avoid a touch you don’t want, then do that. If the only word you can get out is “No,” then do that. That is always, always your right.
Because the ugly truth is, there will always be people who disregard your boundaries on purpose. People who don’t believe you have a right to those particular boundaries, so they just ignore them. People who want to test your willingness to defend yourself, to see if you will make a good victim [TW for discussion of rape in the link]. So use whatever method you need to to make sure you stay safe, and don’t feel bad about it, because those people suck. Even in these situations, though, using your words can be really powerful. Because using your words – loudly, if need be – makes it much, much harder for those people to pretend they don’t know their actions are unwanted.
Words are also great because sometimes, people violate our boundaries out of ignorance, or confusion, or excitement. Because well-meaning people assume that just because they like hugs, you like hugs, and they just want you to be happy! (Note: because it is not on purpose does not mean it is okay. Huggers, please be mindful of your huggee’s body language and nonverbal signals!) Using your words with unintentional boundary-violators can help makes sure you keep your boundaries, and help them learn how to not violate your boundaries in the future.
The following are tips on how to use your words in situations where the boundary violation is unintentional. I will be writing a post in the near-future about how to deal with intentional or malicious boundary violators; in the meantime, if you have someone specific in your life who you would like advice on dealing with, feel free to contact me directly or in comments. Let’s strategize together!
How to use your words to assert your boundaries:
1) Be explicit about what you don’t want.
i.e. “I would rather not hug you right now/today/at all.”
This one is the most important one, and really, the only essential one. Optionally, you could also:
2) Give an alternative you feel comfortable with.
i.e. “How about a handshake?”
If you also aren’t comfortable with a handshake, obviously don’t offer it! But alternatives can be really useful in helping someone know what you want going forward. Saying what you DO want – whether it’s a handshake, a wave, or a smile – helps to clarify exactly where your boundary is.
3) Reassure the person you are asserting the boundary with that you still feel positively towards them.
i.e. “It’s good to see you!”
Again – only use this step where it feels true and/or useful for you. (Like, if it’s a friend you are happy to see, or a relative you want to keep the peace with). People can often interpret your assertion of your boundaries as a personal rejection, and this step can help them move past that.
Please note that nowhere in these steps do I encourage you to explain why you need your boundary. This is because giving explanations or justifications can make people think that your boundaries are open to negotiation. They may take your explanation and try to suggest alternatives that they think would still be “reasonable” – but you don’t have to be “reasonable” when you set the boundaries for your own body. You don’t have to include anyone’s opinions in the boundary-setting process but your own.
Does anyone else have suggestions on strategies for using your words to assert boundaries? Questions about different situations, and what the best words-strategy might be? Let’s brainstorm together!