Unfortunately, I came across the Instagram post yesterday and it had no warning of graphic content. I’ve thought of those photos at least 20 times since. Having suffered from a serious eye illness condition not long ago*, I wish I was given a choice to not see them. Just as I wish I had the choice to not see things online that are closely related to animal cruelty or rape, sometimes too painful, sometimes too graphic, sometimes too ignorant.
It seems like the internet has a huge online wellbeing and safety win one minute and a huge loss in the other. Many people using trigger warnings in their posts,** which got me thinking.
I wish people came with warnings, instructions, disclaimers.
“I’ve been hurt and I might hurt you.”
“My inability to talk about my feelings will drive you nuts.”
“I suck in bed.”
“Charlotte is my favorite Sex and the City character.”
Pick your poison.
“People call these things imperfections. But they’re not. Oh, that’s the good stuff, and then we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds. You’re not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense. This girl you met? She isn’t perfect, either. But the question is whether or not you’re perfect for each other. That’s the whole deal. That’s what intimacy is all about.”Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting”
Fun fact if you saw this video or have watched the movie: the mention of Williams wife’s farts was unscripted, hence the shaky recording since the camera crew trying to hold it together and not laugh their asses off.
Hopefully, you’re no longer trying to find someone who’s perfect, but someone who’s perfect for you.
Everyone has flaws. Do you see yourself as growing to love them, or hate them, though, a year or 10?
“People do come with disclaimers,” you might argue. “The things they say about themselves when you’re getting to know them? Yeah, that’s it. They’re telling you who they are.”
But as you grow up, you start to realize what a sack of bullshit a lot of it is. By now, I’m sure you’ve met people who weren’t who they said they were.
It’s human nature to want to make a good impression. After their acting is done, it’s human nature for the rest of us to want to “stick it out.” After all, they were so good to us in the beginning.
“Sunk cost fallacy happens when people continue a behavior, because of the resources they have invested in that endeavor. The behavior itself is irrational, but it aligns with earlier actions/decisions and so it goes…”Break up With Your Boyfriend (Because of Sunk Cost Fallacy), me
Since we’ve established that people don’t come with warnings and disclaimers, what’s a quick way to find out who people truly are and who they will be after the honeymoon phase?
By setting a boundary!
What are boundaries?
A boundary is “the limit of what someone considers to be acceptable behavior.” Mark Manson explained it beautifully:
Healthy Personal Boundaries = Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.
We start setting boundaries before we start speaking or walking. As kids, we might protest against being touched, dressed, kissed, fed broccoli.
Our primary caregivers (usually our parents) are the ones that teach us how to navigate the world as individuals and that includes setting boundaries.
But as Dr. Shefali Tsabary argues in her book The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting:
“Since conflict is a normal part of human interaction, those of us with an emotional blueprint that causes us to avoid conflict find we are ill-equipped to help our children deal with it.
Because we are so activated by conflict, we lack the competence to help them deal with important elements of childhood such as honoring boundaries, dealing with sibling rivalry, and coping with the inevitable ebb and flow of life.”
If our grandparents didn’t teach our parents how to express and protect their boundaries, and if our parents never bothered or had to learn themselves, we might not possess the skills needed to assertively express where our limits are in relationships.
When that’s the case, you probably weren’t taught about boundaries, like you were about the birds and the bees (that means sex).
How to talk to kids about boundaries
What would a talk about boundaries look like as a kid?
- “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to let your cousin hug you or kiss you.”
- “This is your brother’s room, his space, and you need to knock before you enter it. It’s his choice if he lets you in or not.”
- “I will never read your diary. It’s your personal self-expression and no one is allowed to invade that space.”
- “You’re very upset that you can’t have ice cream for breakfast every day. But that’s not a healthy daily choice. You’re growing, you need nutrients and a varied diet.”
Here’s Dr. Shefali again, in The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting:
“They raise their children without clear boundaries or limits. Unable to say “no,” these parents equate love with being “nice,” which means never allowing their children to feel uncomfortable.”
Boundaries mean not equating love with being “nice.”
Setting boundaries at work and in relationships
More times than I can count, I’ve witnessed “good people” turn “bad” and abuse their power when dealing with people who have weak personal boundaries. Something about someone who can’t speak up for themself that brings the nastiness out of “good people.” Sure, my understanding of good and bad is more complex now, but in many ways, this remains true. In work, friendships, and relationships, “pushovers” remain at the mercy of others. That is not a good place to be.
This guide by Mark Manson has everything I would hope for in a guide about boundaries. I would highly, highly recommend reading it. Not just that, I would recommend you stop reading this article and go read that one, and then come back here.
Now, back to the main premise of this article- what’s the quickest way to understand how someone will treat you?
Set a boundary. Roughly speaking, after stating a boundary, the right people will either respect you as much as they did before or more.
When I say “the right people,” I refer to people that are honest, positive, rational, interesting, and interested, who care for others and especially for those who aren’t their equals or superiors.
The right people understand that strong boundaries are what make communication and bonding with other people possible. If we don’t know what to expect when hanging out with people, if we’re scared they’ll call us names, ask us loaded questions, or shoot us backhanded compliments, we’re not communicating, that’s obviously not a safe environment to bond with other people.
“Or they say, “I know you don’t like hugs, but I’m going to hug you anyway,” and I have to dodge their incoming bodies as politely as I can. Why do we view the boundaries people create for themselves as challenges?”Hunger, Roxane Gay
“The right people” will not challenge your boundaries after you’ve stated them. They won’t feel the need to prove you wrong or explain how this rule of yours shouldn’t apply to them.
But tell someone with sociopathic tendencies or a fuckboy not to act a certain way with you, and all hell breaks loose.
Here’s a story for you.
Years ago, I was interviewing at a local news station for a media role.
My potential colleague showed me around the office. We sat down at what I thought was the interview room, but apparently was the conference room and we were asked to leave.
We went somewhere else, then the hiring manager finally arrived, even though not on time.
Surprisingly, she skipped all the pleasantries. She asked some brief questions about my experience, and then… about my age?
Just as I was finishing my answer, she asked: “Are you engaged?” I burst out laughing. “What kind of question is that?”
Immediately, she got defensive and hostile. “Well, I decide what questions I ask. I may have reasons for asking these questions that I don’t have to explain to you or anyone.”
“I don’t see how that question is relevant to this job position.”
She continued explaining that she didn’t, in fact, need to explain to me her line of reasoning and that she couldn’t believe my reaction.
This didn’t fit in my Three Lot-s Framework at all (I’d asked my potential colleague what the most challenging aspect of the job was. She chuckled nervously, “Nothing. There’s nothing challenging about it, really.” Well, why would I want to do it then?!)
I can’t imagine how not fun working with these people would be.
Luckily, since I know what I expect from myself and others, in friendships, relationships, at work, and everywhere else, I didn’t have to imagine. They showed me right then and there.
In this case, here are some of my boundaries that the hiring manager pushed:
Crossing the line between personal and professional.
This is a red flag for me as someone who considers the clear distinction between the two almost sacred.
If I’ve established a rapport with someone at work, I don’t mind talking about my personal life. Now, to be honest, I don’t usually mix the two.
Hearing coworkers complain about their family members or significant others always made me feel uncomfortable, especially since it happened at work and was often veiled with the problematic “You’re a psychologist so you like hearing about people’s problems.” But inquiring about my relationship status two minutes after you’ve met me is crossing a boundary with me. You don’t know me and that’s an unwarranted question.
Difficulty handling conflict
Shit goes wrong at work all the time. People need to be able to explain themselves and their decisions under pressure. If this was the manager’s approach, I can’t imagine what my colleagues were doing and how they were avoiding confrontation or responsibility. Getting defensive or offensive if I ask you a question won’t get either of us anywhere.
I’m sure HR had a valid-ish reason. It’s also true that she didn’t have to explain that reason to me. However, she could’ve said that the role was demanding, and as a news station, they needed someone flexible, who would show up at 2am if need be. A new parent might not be willing to do that, for example. In the US, it’s illegal to ask about marital status, plans to marry, plans to have kids, or child care arrangements. We weren’t in New York, though, but in Tirana, so she could’ve explained her reasoning without giving away too much detail or getting angry.
Set clear boundaries, state them loud and clearly, and see where that takes you. Only “the wrong people” will try to push you, belittle you, or prove you wrong.
To end, here’s a good one from Mark Manson about his dating boundaries:
“My boundary is established: I value curiosity, education, intelligence and authenticity. I also don’t value “fake” looks such as pounds of make-up, bronzer, hair extensions or super tight skirts. OK, maybe I do value the tight skirts.”Models: Attract Women Through Honesty by Mark Manson
Setting your boundaries will spare you a lot of headaches, heartaches, and time. In the workplace, in dating apps, and in life generally, there’s nothing hotter than someone who knows what they want, whether that’s honesty, intelligence, having ice cream for breakfast every day, or tight skirts.
*/** About warnings
I wrote the beginning of this article years ago, hence the corneal ulcer reference. Then, I desperately wished people came with warnings. I wish I hadn’t missed the signs. I wish I’d focused on what people showed me rather than what they told me.
Ironically, since then, I’ve learned that there’s little evidence that trigger warnings work. According to Richard McNally, psychology professor and director of clinical training at Harvard, “Trigger warnings don’t seem to help, and they can produce temporary anxiety. The take-home message is that people underestimate their resilience.”
I no longer wish people came with disclaimers, warnings, trailers and I no longer underestimate my resilience.