Saying No, Setting Boundaries & Loving My Self
I vividly remember the first time I sucked in a deep breath, wrapped it around that word lodged somewhere deep in my throat, and forcefully expelled it from my mouth.
I was in ninth grade, on a school bus full of noisy elementary, middle, and high schoolers as it navigated country back roads to take us to the rural school I attended. Bill* climbed on the bus, sauntered down the aisle, looking my way. I tried to blend in with the other students, hoping he would just pass by, wouldn’t sit next to me. But he did, just as he had the several days prior. And just as had happened the days prior, just minutes after sitting down next to me, his hand was on my thigh, slowly creeping up it.
I didn’t want this, hadn’t wanted it any of the times it had happened, but had felt frozen in place, my words stuck. This time though, as I watched his rough hand on my denim-clad leg, some sort of strength built in me. The word that had lodged somewhere near my sternum broke loose, and with that deep breath I was able to pull it from myself.
“No,” I said. My voice was barely audible, my hands were sweaty, my body was shaking.
“What?” Bill asked, and so I repeated myself.
He looked at me, appalled, but he removed his hand from my leg.
The next day the seat next to me was gloriously empty the whole ride to school, and I beamed with the knowledge that I had found my words, and in them, I had found power. It was one of my first experiences with setting boundaries.
Silencing Our Selves
Our words do hold power, but often times when they have been disregarded repeatedly, our boundaries ignored, we become tentative to even try to assert ourselves. For many of us socialized as girls and women, we are taught to put the desires and needs of others first. We are socialized to not take up space – not with our bodies, our voices, or our desires.
And so we become quiet. We swallow our words. Between the sociocultural messages we are told, and the individual experiences we have where boundaries are ignored, we often learn that what we want or need is not important: not important enough to respect, and not even important enough to be voiced.
Researchers Judith Carr, Faith Gilroy, and Martin Sherman studied this silencing that happens among women, and have found that it has a direct correlation with elevated levels of depression. As they write in their article for Psychology of Women Quarterly, the “silencing of the self…leads to the ‘hopelessness and helplessness’ of depression as the woman realizes that she will neither be heard, listened to, nor recognized for the self she ‘really’ is.”
It is easy for me to lose my words and silence myself. In fact, it is the mode that often comes the most naturally to me. But when I do, I experience exactly what Carr, Gilroy, and Sherman found in their research: a devastating feeling of helplessness, feeling like my desires and needs (and therefore my self) don’t really matter. I feel the words that I’ve swallowed build up in my sternum, just like they did all those years ago when I was a young teen on a school bus.
Finding My Words Again…and Again
My therapist suggests I start small, with things that aren’t as scary or as hard, in situations and with people who I know will respect what I say. I think back to when I was teaching my child about consent and setting boundaries, and I’d ask them in the bathtub: “Can I wash your elbow?” They’d laugh and say yes. “Can I wash behind your ear? Your shoulder blades? Your toes?” As soon as they said no I would say okay, and we’d skip that spot. They learned the power of no (and of yes) in these little ways. And if my children can do it, can use their voice to influence the world around them, then I can do it too.
So I’m practicing, every single day, taking a deep breath, wrapping it around the words, and pulling them from my mouth. I’m working on re-learning the power I hold within me.
To draw that line in the sand, to say “This is my boundary,” to stand up for myself, what I believe in, what I deserve, what I want, and what I need.
This is quite possibly the hardest way I’ve ever loved myself.
This is quite possibly the most empowering way I’ve ever loved myself.
*name changed for anonymity