I am constantly learning how to draw boundaries better.
A friend said to me,
“I would like a heads up before you communicate your abuses to me graphically.”
It stung, I’ll admit. I’ve been culturally conditioned to see the drawing of boundaries as a personal attack. We are a communal society after all and nothing is more individualistic than establishing a boundary. But I let it sit in my being for a minute. I realised that she was right. I had done what I accuse a lot of people in my life of doing to me – taking the space of listening for granted. It bothers me when people spew with no recognition of the fact that their words affect the people listening. This is emotional dumping, it’s not sharing. When people don’t register that how they say things affects the listener, that inconsideration lingers. Calling it out often results in angry retaliation, itself such a violent thing to inflict on someone who isn’t duty-bound to listen to you. I’ve heard the term ‘tone policing’ aimed at me like an arrow (demonstrating how the intent behind the words makes all the difference in their meaning). Using it that way misses the difference between the right to speak up and entitlement over someone’s listening. Shouting out into the ether (which has its benefits but also its shortcomings) is different from sharing what’s personal to you with someone who has invited that confidence. Listening is that personal, that rich and hence must be nurtured by both people partaking of it. It should not make the listener feel brutalised by the friendly fire called lashing out.
My friend & I had been talking about public transport and I mentioned some decisions taken due to street harassment. Now why didn’t I just say that? Because my experiences said the listener would say “Who did that?”, “Where did that happen?”. These questions are not actually saying ‘Tell me more’, they’re saying ‘Prove it’. I would have to make a case which would be sure to be thrown out of the court of the other person’s empathy. Most people in my culture don’t listen for sympathy. We listen because we think we are supposed to and it makes us resentful, stingy & unpleasant. It’s our own awkward way of boundary drawing, of saying enough, I am having a hard life and I can’t bear to process this as well. Except we don’t know we can say that so instead we show it by making the other person feel bad for ‘making us listen’.
But that is a generalization from a past before this friend. Like me, she has been observing, adapting, pausing, reflecting, open to my critique, articulating her thoughts. We are each learning how to be healthier, better with ourselves and with other people. We are also learning how to draw good boundaries. We have navigated some tumultuous conversations together, melding clashing temperaments into a place of warmth & strength. It is a good relationship. ‘Most people behave like this..’. may explain why I spoke as I did but it does not justify my speaking that way to her. A relationship that is special, deserves that extra recognition of the other’s unique personhood.
I tasted the sentence that I should have said instead.
“I chose this mode of public transport after I faced some street harassment on the other.”
It was a wonder how different it made me feel. I think we tend to dig at old wounds when we describe them in graphic detail. It’s a realisation I had about my 2000s trauma poetry blog. ‘Behind Cobwebs‘ wasn’t healing, it was catharsis. And while catharsis has its own merits, it is akin to vomiting. Doing it over & over is not healthy. The new sentence does the job just as well but it doesn’t feel bloody. It reframes my story without glossing over the truth. Consideration for my friend (had I expressed it that way) would have been a healing moment for me. Maybe empathy is an even richer quality than I realised. It heals you first.
Right now, I only accuse other people my own mind, seething, fretting, scripting speeches that defensively justify my right to say what I’m saying. But I look at what my friend said to me. She didn’t attack me or demand reparations for a ruined mood (“See how you wrecked everything!”). She didn’t assume that I would read her mind and just ‘know’ what she needed. She told me exactly what she needed me to do and she expressed it without cajoling, threatening or negotiating. She taught me how a boundary can be drawn with mutual respect. The Songbird sings pure and true.