All of us – no matter how easy-going or “low-maintenance” – have boundaries. We have boundaries around things we won’t do sexually, ways we don’t want to be spoken to, activities we don’t want to do with friends, projects we don’t have the time or energy for, tasks we don’t feel comfortable doing at work, roles we won’t take on with people.
But once a friend responded to one of my many articles about setting boundaries with a question that stumped me: What if we don’t know what our boundaries are?
Unless you’ve been through it, that might sound silly to you. Sure, setting boundaries can be hard for anyone because we all worry about being disliked or pushing people we like away. But how can you not even know where your own boundaries are?
Pretty easily – if you, like most women and many other marginalized people, were raised to never put yourself first.
When I think back to my childhood and adolescence, one of the patterns that stands out is how often I was told that I don’t feel the way I say I feel. This is a form of gaslighting because it denies someone’s own reality.
When I would say that something hurt my feelings, others – kids and adults both – would often say, “Come on, it wasn’t a big deal.” When I said that a guy made me uncomfortable, others would rush in to say, “But he’s such a nice guy.” When I said that I didn’t want to eat a certain food or play a certain game, my parents or friends would say, “But it’s good for you,” or “But you’ll have fun if you try it,” and other comments that were intended to override my own stated preferences.
Enough of that and anyone would lose track of what it is they actually want. If you’re used to your boundaries not being respected, forgetting that those boundaries ever existed can be an adaptive tactic. It’s easier than fighting every step of the way, than knowing consciously that people you love are ignoring your needs.