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Let's Talk Boundaries

Having boundaries is just the recognition that you’re soft and permeable and everything you encounter has its own energy that you’re subject to and have to manage, all on your own.

At first go, "having boundaries” or “creating boundaries” or, NERP, “enforcing boundaries” feels like the worst stuff of self-help and self-actualization, like refusing to participate in the fundamental mess that is human relationships, and putting faith in that refusal instead of what’s possible in the mess.

(I’ve been using “human” lately like I’m trying to make it happen, and I wonder if it’s, like, to nicely-gently remind myself what this is all for, who is involved, that stakes is high and shit is heavy, because when you fix your whole-ass attention on what it takes to feel good and feel better and how we can DO IT, you know, TOGETHER, the problem isn’t even/entirely money and time and the yoke of actual life, but habits and attitudes and norms, so, other people. Humans: the problem; the solution.)


Stress and You

Anyway: having boundaries is just the recognition that you’re soft and permeable, a stuffie with pores and mucous membrane, and everything you encounter, human and otherwise, has its own energy that you’re subject to and have to manage, all on your own.


The worst thing that ever happens to me is when I tell someone to do something, directly, and then they do something else. It is my Yellow Wallpaper. It is my Gaslight. It is my undoing. “Do this.” “Sure.” And then they do something else. Having boundaries with other people means anticipating that they’re either not listening to what you say you need from them, or not understanding and not asking you (why!) or they don’t care—which all adds up to the same barrel of nuclear waste—and establishing, in advance, some kind of response.

The typical mistake of this kind of boundary-making is expecting someone who has already blasted through a set, stated boundary to then notice, or care, or fix it, or even like pretend to understand what just happened without you having to draw a line from the heels of their Golden Gooses (I fucking hate those shoes so I’m putting our antagonist in them, okay?) backwards in time to where they crossed your line, ripped through it like a banner of paper hearts, which it was.

So, NERP to that. Instead, you are the boundary-keeper, The Management. It’s not so much “fair” but in the emotional arts, basically nothing is. This is when you have to do what you said you’d do. Even worse, you have to keep your cool! So if your thing is that your roommate uses 16 glasses, cups, mugs, and repurposed Le Parfait jars for iced coffee and lemon waters throughout the day and leaves them out, scattered like lily pads, and never washes a dish because the water “splashes” her (in this example, I am the Golden Goose), and you told her that next time you were taking all of your contributed shit and storing it in your own room and then locking the door, you have to do it. Or if someone yells at you but you decline to be yelled at, and have clearly, at some point, communicated that you decline to be yelled at, you have to leave or hang up or log off when they start yelling, instead of asking them—again, again, again—not to yell.


(My dead ends are yelling, meanness, lying, rudeness, passive aggressiveness, all of it the scrap metal of the ego, so any conflict with me has to be conducted like the boringest two hours on C-SPAN. Y’all I’m so fun to be kind of friends with and so not fun to know really well!)

Where this gets especially real is with any kind of genuine toxicity, in which case the boundary might be moving out or stopping communication or w/e and if that’s what you’re dealing with I wish you a full charm of fairies, a gossip of mermaids, a legion of friendship-subcontractors for food delivery and support and care and communion, and a popping fuck-off fund with which to pay for rent somewhere else and a therapist you think is great.


Related: There’s this move with dog training when, if a dog is doing whatever bad thing, you just turn around. You don’t say “Bad!” Or look at them or pet them or engage with them, you just…. swivel. A cool removal; the deepest nope. It hurts their sweetie-feelings to such a maximum (without actually hurting them) that they stop doing the thing (eventually).

So take this to its natural and human extreme. (And isn’t this just what being cool in high school was like? Unless you’re a real chode, you’re not dropping mean little sizzlers on people who don’t totally get the collective project of studied indifference and hugsy hoodie-sharing, but what you are doing As Cool is squinting a little and just… swivelling.) Even if it’s a lite kind of thing, just… swivel. Silence is a boundary.



Some people’s love language is “physical touch” and that’s cute for them (I guess??? It’s the creepiest love language!) but how oppressive for everyone else??? I mean, as a kid from a reserved WASPy family I always found it wild that anyone would make use of anyone else’s body, beyond maybe a handshake, for any reason, without asking, like all those coaches slapping butts and teachers doing reassuring shoulder touches and women at stores trying to adjust your bra instead of first proffering a thick contract with detailed touching parameters, and that was all long before I was raped! Silly. Now I can’t believe that anyone would post your photo without asking and think that waving a phone around a party or a restaurant table for an unsanctioned Instagram story is the rudest biz you can do in 2019 and is going to be the thing we look back on from 2050 and go “… Yikes” and tug on the collars of our HAZMAT streetwear.

Phones Are Trash

The way we’re talking about sexual consent is great but there are other important kinds of consent and I’d like a collective safe word for hugging and touching. A fun one I’ll donate is “Cinnamon.”

That all said, when I’m happy and high on life (I hate drugs, but I sure love anxiety) with someone I love, I go after an available forearm or knee like a grabby puppy! I’m sorry!


Privacy is a natural boundary, one of thorns and sharp leaves and strings of broken, blinking lightbulbs that we can wind around ourselves in layers and however we want. Nothing feels better to me, now, than privacy.


A good thing I did when I lived a six-story waterslide away from a very busy city intersection and started walking my puppy around all the time (which I thought was going to be like endless summers with my dogs and some, I don’t know, chalk and paperclips in my pocket, but I forgot that my now-adult friends are always somewhere else in the middle of the day, which is a fucking ongoing nightmare-devastation) was to judiciously refuse interruptions, so, rather than doing the annoyed headphone removal cut-eye sideways-face or “I have headphones on I can’t hear you no I can’t hear youuu” reverberating through your own face-bones, so loud, I just smiled blithely and continued, in my silence. To be out but alone and inside a psychic pod, especially for a person from a highly monitored population, without negotiating with the usual interrupting forces, even if it’s just in very certain, specific circumstances! This is the good way to be really rude in 2019.


Understanding that your thoughts aren’t real is a boundary you have to create for yourself, with, like, a firm handshake of the mind. Believing that everything you think is factual, worth considering, meaningful or on its way to or from being true is the wildest violence any of us do to ourselves on the regular. And we do so much violence to ourselves, and we keep doing it, smiling at it, climbing into the front seat like a Rumspringing hitchhiker in short-shorts.


I like the line about how thoughts are like clouds passing in a sky. That’s nice. That’s cozy in a pink way. (Gray coziness is a blank, luxe hotel room on a rainy day in a city you don’t care about, a rare kind of cozy; navy cozy is seaside long-weekend cozy, the vicissitudes of the wind no match for the hale and hearty character or everyone involved; red cozy is Christmas, obviously.)

Knowing that your private narrative is actually not of you, and is, in an important and reassuring way, actually separate from you, or at least from the fundamental you of you, is something I would call a “self-boundary” if “self-everything” didn’t make me feel compelled to slide headfirst into a home base of self-hatred (HA) about now.


Yes, this: boundaries in a thriving, happy, creative relationship are hard because even when you’re in each other’s way, it’s still a really good time. Like you can be standing in baggage claim after a six-month backpacking trip so destabilizing that you scratch a mosquito bite and find some crust from a new, overdoing-it vacation tattoo you legitimately forgot about and would still rather shower with them, covered in sap and still sweating out the noise, than shower alone. I mean, not ME.

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Follow Kate on Twitter @KateCarraway and on Instagram @KateCarraway.