I have been quiet, of late. Conversations felt overwhelming, hurtful and most of all – dangerous. This is the fallout of engaging with people who are angry. Angry people are destructive people. Even self-destruction has a massive fallout radius. And anger, yes, is the most common emotion that people express, online and offline.

Many of us have never learnt how to manage our emotions. I am still learning. Disappointment is a normal occurrence in urban living because of the sped-up pace and throning numbers. And it seems to morph into fear, that emotion that triggers the primal fight/flight response. And thus, the default of living is attack, denial, withdrawal, lashing out, outrage – all aggressive acts of dealing with reality.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to survive this. I know a few people who are relocating to other cities. I don’t think this actually escapes the issue. I also know a handful that are trying to build lives in quieter, less urban spaces. But human living shifts towards the urban for several reasons and it doesn’t seem sustainable to escape it. What would I do in a place that had patchy connectivity? How do I deal with growing health issues that depend on the complex healthcare system in cities? How safe would it be for a woman who has only ever lived her life navigating urban dangers like robbery, sexual predators, corporate exploitation and white collar crime? I don’t think ‘getting away’ is an actual feasible option.

I’ve lived my whole life believing that I should not be a burden or have a negative impact on my surroundings. And that the world will function and life will be good if I do so, no matter how difficult it is. But this makes me vulnerable to those would prefer not to do so themselves. This includes people who will not take responsibility for their own responses (“I am angry/struggling/deprived/sick so it is okay for me to be destructive”). It is also people who pin the blame for their bad feelings on other people. It is those who associate justice with revenge. It is people who value rage, one-upmanship and dramatic gestures (no matter the cost) as victory. Is it possible to completely cut off people like this? I don’t know.

I’m pondering the word ‘boundaries’ that is coming up often in conversation. As with any other popular word, I see this one also being hijacked to suit the above agenda. But it feels like a powerful idea. I know it is intended not as another rage-weapon, not as another excuse to shirk responsibility from one’s responses. I think it is supposed to build your own immunity to external vagaries (whether it other people’s toxic responses or situational disappointments).

So how does one establish healthy boundaries? I feel like this means I have to examine where I am vulnerable and understand why. This is why I’ve been quieter. Going into different situations, watchful, examining what hurts and what comes up.

I realised that I already knew, even anticipated beforehand how people would hurt me. I learnt that I prefer flight response. And when I didn’t flee, I was confronted by violent responses couched in convincing justification. I was stuck here. The negative responses of people I cared for, didn’t hurt beyond a point, because I’d learnt to insulate myself in a cocoon of logic, feeling superior to those who were messy with their reactions. I did not want to do this. I did not want to feel superior (because it’s a form of distancing). I did not not want to continue hurting. And I didn’t want to cut out every close association in my life. I feared it would make me cynical and the belief that all human relationships would be that way, would take root.

I received help when a friend pointed out that I was building justifications for people’s reactions myself. I’d become adept at building coherent stories explaining (to myself) why people behave badly with me. This lesson hit me like shell-shock. I don’t want to be good at letting people hurt me.

But two writers’ meets this month brought another realisation up. I’m good at building a story. It’s silly to treat this as a weakness. I create stories and can choose the good ones. Stories that empower me, stories that keep me honest, stories that build empathy bridges between me and the world. In the past year, I’ve focused especially on keeping what I say online peaceful and positive. And it has been noticed.

But I cannot do this in isolation because even a writer is not making something out of nothing. We work with our observations and emotions. I need positive reinforcement and I need reminders of where I do not need to expend my efforts. This can only happen in conversations.

I had a revelation today that I must write. Often, daily even. Writing is how I have made sense of the world, since I was 9. In my teens, when it felt unsafe to share this process, I wrote in secret diaries. And later, on my blog as an anonymous ‘IdeaSmith’. The reactions stung but I was able to distance them when I shut down my computer.

But in the recent years, I’ve come out (a decision I took under duress, preferring to own my narrative rather than be outed). It’s easier for external things to disrupt and poison my process of making sense of the world. But I must believe that the years have also brought me strength and sense. When I refused to flee, I found people’s monstrous reactions were just that – monstrous reactions. These did not have to do with me.

I’m holding on to that thought to find my way now. Maybe the first lesson of healthy boundaries is choosing not to fight or flee. If that works (and it has so far), the next step is disregarding the temptation to engage. This means not attack, not freeze out but detach in a peaceful, non-dramatic way. I do this online by muting trolls or simply stepping away from conversations where the other person is clearly not listening. Because I have decided rage reactions are not my world and so that is not about me.

My physical health has always mirrored my emotional state. I’m still struggling with allergies (which I know now are hypersensitivity to upsetting things). I wake up every morning barely able to breathe. And the company of some people, being in certain places brings on a new bout. But I’ve been taking a few minutes away to focus on my breathing and get it back to normal. It has a way of calming me. In the worst of those attacks, I’ve also had to take the next day off and stay in bed. But I’ve allowed myself to admit that these have been misbehaviours on people’s part and it is not for me to build a justification. I get better after that. And I think I’m getting better at doing this too.

At my writers’ meet yesterday, I spoke about how I felt stuck in a rut and wondered if I had anything new to say. But I think not writing is not a choice for me, which must mean I still have things to say. I’ll figure it out, one word at a time.

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