On boundaries

Trigger warning: some discussion of emotional abuse and threats of violence

This is going to be a bit of a rambling post that doesn’t really come to a solid conclusion because I haven’t quite figured it all out yet.

See, boundaries are hard for me to write about because I don’t really understand them. I get that they exist and what they’re there for, don’t get me wrong, and I have no problem respecting the boundaries of others. What I have difficulty with is establishing and enforcing my own boundaries.

Why? Well, I guess to best explain that, I’d better paint you a picture of how I grew up.

My parents would only let me shut my bedroom door while I was getting changed. The rest of the time, it had to be open. If they thought it had been closed for too long, they would barge in.

Nobody in the family would respect that my space was mine and nobody else’s. They would just walk in. And I would be the bad one for getting angry at them when everyone else in the house – literally everyone, even toddlers when they were living there – had their own space that they could go to in order to be alone and that everyone, even the parents, would respect by knocking before entering. But I was the eldest and therefore supposed to not have privacy for some reason? I don’t get it.

My mother threatened to call the cops on me once because I got so sick of having people barge in that I arranged furniture across the room to jam the door shut and just stayed there for a day and a half. For no reason other than to send the message that my room is mine and if I really want you out, you’re staying out.

Even though I had a desk in my room where I could work, my parents would make me do homework on the dinner table because they couldn’t stand over my shoulder and nitpick every little thing and make me feel ridiculously self-conscious if I was doing it in my room.

(They wondered why I started lying about whether I had homework and chalked it up to being lazy. No, I wasn’t lazy, I just can’t work when I know someone is watching for my slightest mistake so they can gleefully pounce on it, destroy an hour’s work and command that I start again. Which they did. Because from me, they demanded perfection. They didn’t demand it from my siblings, but I was the eldest and therefore I had to “set a good example” which apparently means doing everything perfectly on the first try.)

Any argument I had with my siblings, I would be punished for. As the eldest, I was supposed to be the “mature” one, with the skill to “defuse” a situation before it got to shouting, and so even if my sibling charged into my room and started hauling me around by my hair – which happened once – I would be the one punished for it. Because I should’ve defused her attempts to grab me by my hair and haul me around somehow. Which amounted to punishing me for having social trouble.

My parents would relay personal information about me to strangers and friends of the family, and not in an appropriate parental way. In a “We’re humiliating our kid for shits and giggles” way, and then they’d punish me if I protested. For example, we’re visiting friends of the family and a toddler gets sick from too much rich food. My parents, rather than help clean up the toddler or what have you, proceed to go into a long story about how when I was 8, I got food poisoning while on a cross-country trip and [insert graphic details played for laughs here].

If I protested them relaying this story and playing it up for laughs, I was informed that everyone gets sick now and then and that I should have more of a sense of humor. When I continued to protest, they grounded me. When I protested their grounding since I thought I should have a right to protest when someone was humiliating me, they threatened to strip me nude and spank me in public and asked how embarrassed I would be then. So I shut up. What I didn’t realize at the time but I do now is that, yes, everyone does get sick now and then, but not everyone has their relatives relay in great graphic detail about times they got sick to complete strangers. Not okay. And I was right to protest. Privacy and dignity are things that should be respected, even by parents of their kids.

Basically, my parents socialized abused me into never standing up for myself and not having any boundaries. Which they then used, when I went off to university, as an excuse to demand that I ask them for permission for everything when I was a legal adult living in my own space over 1000km away. Oh, and they wanted me to follow a curfew, and fax them all my assignments before I handed them in.

Sometime in my first month, one of the people I met said, “You don’t have to ask their permission for everything. You’re an adult and they’re a province away. What are they going to do, ground you?”


So I first started just telling them I was going to do stuff, and got into fights with them where they would browbeat me into submission, until I figured out, wait a minute, I don’t have to tell them!

So I stopped telling them.

This has become my strategy for dealing with people like my parents.

My father is easier to deal with than my mother. He is verbally abusive and physically aggressive, yes, but in a straightforward kind of way. I know what to expect from him.

My mother, not so much. She is devious, passive aggressive, and very manipulative. You will be arguing with her about something you want to do, and think you’ve won the argument, and then when the day shows up, she provokes you into a fight or provokes your sibling to pick a fight with you or something, and the next thing you know, you’re delayed so long that you can’t do it, and it all works out exactly as she wanted in the first place.

She’s hard to deal with because I never know what to expect.

However, I recently discovered that I can beat her at her game simply by refusing to play by her rules. Because her rules are, “Mom wins always.” Stacked against me, not fair. Not going to play by those rules.

So, what does this look like in practice? Well, case in point: Trips home. I visit home a couple times a year. It used to be that getting on the bus back was a huge struggle if I wanted to be here on time, and I’d have to plan a few extra days in case my mother decided she wanted me to stay a bit longer. Because I’d take the bus, and it would stop an hour’s drive from my parents’ place. They’d get to the bus stop to pick me up, then drive me home. Later, they’d drive me to the bus stop.

My mother chronically runs an hour late when she doesn’t care about something. When she doesn’t want something to happen, she chronically runs just late enough that she can put on a show of trying to get there on time but still miss it. It used to be a huge fight to get there in time for the bus, and if she wanted me to miss the bus, I’d miss the bus. The pattern here was that the situation always conveniently turned out exactly the way she wanted it.

Last year, I turned 25 and was finally old enough to rent a car without paying a huge surcharge for the crime of being young. So, I decided, “Know what? I’m not going to play by your rules. I’m going to rent a car instead, and then I don’t have to depend on you to get me there in time.” So I did, and it worked.

Last time I visited, she tried parking me in and then “forgetting” where she put her car keys until after dark in order to convince me to stay an extra day. I said, no, I have to be at work tomorrow, so I guess I’m driving after dark. Goodbye.

But the beauty of it was that I didn’t have to get angry or frustrated or shout about it. There was no fight. There was just. “I have to do X because Y. So, I’m going to do X now. Goodbye.”

She tried to turn it into a fight by picking at me about my driving, my age, the fact that my rental would be late anyway (no, because I planned for her making me late to leave and rented it for an extra day, not that I told her that), but in the end it was me saying, “I’m not going to play by your rules on this.” Fighting with her would’ve been playing by her rules, because it would’ve opened things up to her guilt-tripping, emotional blackmail and other verbal abuse techniques.

Maybe that realization – I don’t have to play by her rules – is all there is to setting boundaries. Refusing to play by rules that are stacked against me, and refusing to enter situations that are set up for my failure might be all there is to it. Or a lot of it. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about this more.

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