The Boundaries Paradox

As I continue into “middle-aged womanhood,” I appreciate the freedom to view the world from different viewpoints and not feel compelled to always have to choose a side. At the same time, I’m learning the importance of establishing boundaries for my body, mind, and soul in order to safely approach the world this way. Teaching this paradox to our kids is tricky with words so my hope is they will witness my example.

In my younger years, I imagined a clearly perceptible line dividing good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. Over the years, I’ve come to see that the line is simply not straight nor do I even have to choose a side in every situation. And I’m now wise enough to know that those who do not see the world in strictly black and white are the ones who continue to grow, learn, connect, and build the framework of love and compassion for others to cling to when they eventually come to see that the world is not as clear-cut and stringent as they once believed it to be. I can tell you with certainty that there will come a time in your life when you find yourself torn between opposing views or do not know where the line is or if there even is one at all. And this will be OK. But, for most of us, even with this open-minded approach to life, there are still some hills we will die on. Just because you’re open-minded doesn’t mean you don’t have values or expectations of humanity. It just means you appreciate the fact that life is complicated and messy.

Anyone with children can relate to this. If you can’t, I’ll lend or trade you my kids for a week. When you tell the little one to stop kicking her brother and she looks right at you and pushes him instead, you’ll know what I’m talking about. You thought you knew where the line was, right?

A friend and I were sharing stories of sexual harassment today. (Aside: Hey, men… Out of curiosity, how often do your conversations with other men turn to stories of unwanted touching, kissing, or comments about your body?) I shared how one of the most important things I’ve learned from my firsthand experiences with harassment is how wide that gray swath is. Before life happened, it was my understanding that everything on this side of the line was good and everything on the other side was bad. And I believed that when someone crossed the line, you’d say, “You’ve crossed the line. Don’t do that again.” The transgressor would either step back onto the good side of the line and behave or they wouldn’t. I wasn’t naïve to think everything always worked out for the best, but I always thought the line would be clear and I’d know where we each stood.

At one point in my life, it was so easy for me to hear stories of women being harassed (or worse) and throw in my own two cents. “Oh, what a jerk. I’m so glad she reported him,” or “He deserves to go to jail.” Equally, I’ve passed judgement on situations when a woman did not report a man or address it or leave a dangerous situation. “How could she put up with that shit?” That was when I thought everything was clear-cut. But when it happened to me, I found myself confused. Then I was confused by the fact that I was confused!

Even for strong women with a low tolerance for bullshit, when you’re in the middle, the gray area seems to expand beyond the horizon in all directions. You’re looking for the line, thinking, “I thought I knew where it was. Did he cross it? I feel like he crossed it, but maybe I’m just overreacting.” The gray area is unclear because it’s muddied with all the various emotions, your own history, the history and dynamics of your relationship with the person, your doubts and messages that society tells us, and the fear of retaliation from poking the bear or simply rocking the boat.

The thing is, there is a line. And I will die on this hill. It’s so easy to dangerously oversimplify this so I will stick to my most recent experience only. The line was crossed. I wouldn’t have felt so uneasy if it hadn’t. In hindsight, I can’t believe I ever questioned it. While telling the story today (the kiss, the intrusive aggressive hugs, the comments, the unwanted touches, the looks…), I was still amazed I couldn’t clearly see it for what it was at the time. My husband could see it. My friends could see it. I saw excuses. But when my words failed me and my mind was filled with all the noise and doubt, my gut was telling me. But that’s what doubt does. It drowns out your own Spirit. So one day when I was lost in the gray area, it occurred to me I could simply draw a new damn line! Fueled by my own realization I suddenly took back my power and I drew a new line with the biggest, fattest figurative paint brush there ever was and established a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. And it worked!

I’m sharing this because it’s so important to me for women to accept it’s normal to suddenly realize there’s a gray area when shit gets real. It’s so important to not judge ourselves for getting lost and to not judge others because they’re in the gray. Things are not always cut and dry. This applies to all sort of struggles in life, and certainly not just for women. Life is full of difficult choices and we won’t always know what to do or what to believe or what to think or how to choose. The beauty of it is we don’t always have to, but in the times we do – when our body, mind, soul, and dignity are in jeopardy, our Spirit will remind us to draw a new line.

You can be open-minded while establishing clear boundaries.

For those of you who are stuck in the gray and it’s too dangerous to leave, my prayer is that opportunity will be presented. And when the opportunity presents itself, I pray the resources, courage and resilience follow. I wish you piece and dignity and hope that you rest in the reassurance that there is good and safety in your future.


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