By Cristien Storm and Christina Malecka
Boundaries are personal, subjective, and at times messy and confusing. What works for one person may not be an option, – or even accessible – for someone else. We will use different boundaries at different times depending on who and how we are in the world. While people set boundaries differently, we both have noticed that sometimes people confuse avoidance with boundary-setting.
People often state they have “set a boundary: when they have actually just avoided a person or a conversation. We suggest that avoiding a conversation or a person is not a boundary. Boundaries are empowered, intentional, and a response to something or someone. Avoidance is (most often) passive and reactive. Avoidance can be part of a boundary setting strategy, however, avoidance in and of itself is not a boundary.
Of course there are boundaries that get established or set out of fear, or being overwhelmed or un/under-resourced that are not inherently empowered. These are generally reactions to circumstances. We believe that these kinds of boundaries are survival strategies and/or coping mechanisms. This does not make them bad or wrong. In fact, sometimes our reactive survival strategy or a learned coping strategy can be amazing and effective. For example, an automatic response of walking away when being harassed by a stranger, punching someone who is trying to grab you, yelling in fright, shaking or withdrawing when feeling vulnerable, or asking for a hug in response to feeling hurt.
Because we are both anti-racists and politicized healers it is important for us to address how privilege plays into the capacity of avoidance. When we have privilege we can choose to avoid difficult conversations or contexts. For example white people often choose out of fear, being uncomfortable or unskilled and under resourced to avoid having conversations about race; men can choose to not talk about sexism, patriarchy or misogyny; people with differing abilities are forced to navigate spaces that are often hostile to them and their needs. In order for any of us to be able to show up for social justice we have to have the skills, resources and capacity to directly address what we might have an impulse to avoid.
Avoidance is emotionally messy and ultimately unaccountable relationally. We feel that relational accountability is important. While it may seem like no big deal if we avoid a conversation with someone we don’t know that well, or “ghost” on a stranger, avoidance can become an interpersonal pattern. We are not suggesting that people have to be accountable and kind to everyone. Or, that you have to always choose to engage in difficult conversations. What we are suggesting is that accountability and kindness are important and we encourage people to learn and use interpersonal skills and tools that help them lean into difficult conversations and situations rather than avoid them.
Setting boundaries can be difficult. If we have learned to avoid as a survival or coping strategy, empowered boundary setting can be scary and at times impossible. We encourage people to practice identifying the things (people, situations, feelings, sensations thoughts, stories or interpretations, or activities) that activate an urge to avoid and find ways to address, heal or tend to them. This is not about moving into unsafe places, or pushing past their limits (unless one chooses to do so). There is a difference between being unsafe and uncomfortable. Learning to step towards things that we have an urge to avoid involves having the skill and capacity to tolerate some level of discomfort or distress (otherwise we wouldn’t want to avoid it). It does not mean putting ourselves in danger. Distinguishing between feeling uncomfortable and unsafe is important. Often people with privilege have learned to conflate feeling uncomfortable with feeling unsafe. This is why men can feel threatened by conversations about sexism or toxic masculinity, or why white people feel afraid and take it personally when people of color talk about racism and white supremacy.
We encourage people to explore ways to learn how to distinguish between feeling uncomfortable and being unsafe. You can do this with a therapist, mentor, support group, reading or study group, faith community, or community of healers. We also encourage people to explore their avoidance and present some questions below to get you started. The more we can be curious and inquisitive about our impulse to avoid, the more we can develop empowered boundary strategies which means having more spaciousness for more options on how to respond in challenging contexts.
Some questions to consider about avoidance:
- What is the goal of avoidance?
- Is avoidance meeting you needs? Are there other ways to meet you needs?
- Is avoidance about safety? Or being uncomfortable? Or un/under resourced?
- If avoidance is the goal, are there other strategies that support meeting it?
- Are you really protecting yourself from danger or harm or are you avoiding discomfort?
Christina Malecka is a queer psychotherapist practicing in Seattle. She works from an intersectional, politicized framework and offers training and workshops as well as providing therapy. Christina is also the founder of Screen Time Lifeline
Cristien Storm is a white anti-racist healer, writer, and co-founder of If You Don’t They Will