There’s a question I’ve wrestled with since some of my earliest memories, though I can’t pinpoint exactly the first time it rose in my mind. I know it was before I was ten because that was the year I wrote a novella with this question at the heart of it:
Where do my rights end and yours begin?
Wait—did you just wrinkle your nose when you read that? I did after I typed it. Something about it seems off, right? Let me try again.
Where do your rights end and mine begin?
But wait—isn’t that the same thing? Yes and no. It’s the same in the sense of two sides of the same coin. But those two sides are not the same. And how this question is phrased matters because it changes what subject is the focus of the question. It’s subtle on the surface, but it’s actually a fairly significant difference.
Imagine you are a homeowner. You own a cute little house or enormous mansion or whatever suits your fancy as well as the land it’s sitting on—whatever size yard is your cup of tea. You’ve paid for it, or you’re making payments every month for it, but it’s yours. Not your neighbor’s, not your friend’s, not your cousin’s, not a landlord’s, not anyone else’s. Yours.
You notice there’s a stranger who’s started cutting through your yard every day. You know if they keep doing it, it’s going to wear a dirt path through your lush grass and kill all the plants they’re trampling in your garden, so you decide to ask them politely to stop walking across your property.
Stepping outside when you see them approaching, you say, “Excuse me. This is my property you’ve started walking through every day. I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t do that anymore.”
Incredulity colors their features as if you’ve suddenly sprouted an extra head. “But if I don’t, I have to follow the sidewalk and it takes me an extra ten minutes to get where I need to go.”
You indicate that you understand, but that it’s still your property and you would like them to stop walking through it. Then, they demand to know why.
What are you thinking at this point? Are you wondering why you have to justify yourself to someone who’s trespassing on your property? If it wasn’t a stranger, but someone you knew, maybe even a friend or family member, how would you react to seeing your lawn and garden trampled? Is there a scenario that gives this person a right to traipse through your property, every day, against your wishes?
That was pretty clear cut, so here’s another scenario.
You’re at a get-together of some sort with friends or family, or both. Everyone has been jolly and enjoyed themselves, but it’s now time to leave. You gather your toddler and start your rounds of good-byes. The first person you bid farewell to is a favorite of your son, so he launches himself into that person’s arms for a bear hug and showers them with kisses. The next person is someone your child doesn’t like or isn’t comfortable around, and your son just stands next to you this time. The person squats down and opens their arms and tells your child to give them a hug and a kiss good-bye while your child steadfastly refuses to do so.
Do you say it’s okay if your son doesn’t want to hug them, or do you tell your child to do it immediately, embarrassed because he was so affectionate with the last person? What if you have two children and they both refuse, or one refuses while the other doesn’t? What do you do?
Would it change your opinion if your toddler child was a daughter instead of a son?
What if your children were older and said “bye,” but wouldn’t engage in any sort of touch?
If in any of these scenarios you would tell your child they have to do it anyway, how would you feel about your child being forced to do the same thing as an adult?
How would you feel, for that matter, if you were told you didn’t have a choice, that you needed to hug and kiss people goodbye, even when you didn’t like them or were uncomfortable around them?
Maybe it’s not other people—maybe it’s you and your spouse to whom your children are suddenly refusing to show physical affection. Maybe they’re angry with you for some reason and you want to give them a hug, but they don’t want to hug you. Do you force them to do it anyway? And if you do, how would you feel about them one day growing up and having a significant other do that to them—would that change anything for you?
If you would coerce someone via physical force (including hugging them against their wishes) or with threats or punishment or shaming, you are teaching them that their rights only begin once someone else has determined that their rights have ended. You are teaching them that they may only have boundaries if those boundaries aren’t inconvenient for another person. And then you are teaching those other people that they don’t have to respect the boundaries of others.
So where do your rights end and mine begin?
Earlier in my healing journey (as well as my husband’s), I was shaving my legs during a shower when he came into the bathroom. I wasn’t aware at first that he was there, watching me through the glass walls of the shower, until he made a small sound of approval, breaking my concentration and making his presence known.
My stomach dropped, then lurched. I was still wading through and clearing away years of memories of sexual abuse and sexual assault that I’d been running from my whole life. A bucket of thick, sticky, slimy self-disgust had just been poured over my head and was coating every inch of me. This feeling wasn’t new—it’s one I’ve experienced as the result of nearly every sexual innuendo, every overtly sexual come-on, just about anything sexual, really, for decades. What was different was that I recently realized that just because someone else likes it or wants it, it’s my body… I can say no. I can set boundaries.
That didn’t mean it was easy. Boundaries aren’t something anyone was accustomed to me enforcing because I’ve never really had them related to anything (learn more about why in my memoir, resilient). And enforcing a boundary at this stage in my life was only made more difficult by the less-than-enthusiastic responses I kept getting from my husband when I tried to construct those boundaries in relation to my body. In fact, I’d failed quite a few times, setting my boundary, insisting on it at first, and then allowing myself to be bulldozed when the boundary wasn’t taken seriously instead of planting my feet in the ground and refusing to cave.
Not this time, though. I was sick of caving. Sick of hating myself afterwards for not standing up for how I felt. Sick of being ignored when I stated my boundaries as if I wasn’t being serious and then being told if I got angry afterwards that I should have said something. Sick of feeling like my main virtue was sexual satisfaction and that someone else has a right to my body while I don’t.
What was I doing when I said no? I’d think. Apparently my “no” wasn’t strong enough or clear enough. I have no idea how to be any clearer than those two little letters, but apparently there is a way? It’s my fault—I can’t be mad. Just suck it up and let it go.
But this time I didn’t say that to myself. Instead, I planted my feet on the shower floor and squared my shoulders as I crossed my arms across the front of my body and told him I’d like some privacy. When he laughed and refused as if I was joking, I insisted. When he said he wasn’t hurting anything, was only looking, I insisted again. And when he demanded to know why, I explained that I don’t have to justify myself for wanting privacy, that he should respect what I was asking of him.
His eyes finally looked up at mine at that point, but they were hard and angry. He stared at me for a moment, turned on his heel, and left the bathroom without another word.
The rest of the day sucked. Big time. He was edgy and testy with both the kids and me. He resumed a behavior he’s always employed anytime I managed to stick to my guns about not wanting the sexual attention where he skirts wide circles around me. (I don’t think he realizes it, but still, I find it disrespectful and passive aggressive, sending a clear message of, “look, I’m not touching you, I won’t get anywhere near you.”)
My knee-jerk response was guilt—no, not guilt. Shame. Deep, thick, insidious shame. Okay, maybe some misguided guilt, too, because I felt like I didn’t have a right to say “no” or set boundaries, that I’d taken away something that belongs to someone else, a message that is reinforced by his behavior. But this time, in addition to that lethal cocktail that had me in tears all morning, I felt some anger.
Why do I have to fight so hard to set boundaries about my own body? Why isn’t that allowed?
Another thing I struggle with is confrontation, so I didn’t bring it up with him after he stormed out of the bathroom and began his passive-aggressive dance. I just wanted things to go back to being more comfortable in the house, for the kids to not set him off for no good reason. As he mellowed back into his normal self, I was sure that the anger had really been toward himself for having pushed me too far, for having ignored what I was asking, and embarrassment for having been rebuffed after he was so insistent. I knew my husband loved me, and I convinced myself that if he was feeling bad about how he’d behaved toward me, there was nothing to be gained from discussing it.
A few days later, my husband and I went for a walk to break up the day of working from home in front of our computers for hours on end. I don’t remember how the conversation shifted to my progress healing from my past, but it did. We began talking about me setting boundaries and the shower incident from a few days before came up.
He told me that I had as much a right as anyone to set boundaries in relation to my body, that I had a right to always feel safe and comfortable and communicate if I didn’t. As he spoke, my heart was melting because he understood. Articulating all these things—especially when they’re so new—is more difficult than it often seems to those watching it happen. It’s an incredible relief when someone gets it when you’re still struggling to find the words.
Everything was going well in my mind as I listened, and then suddenly, that joyous relief went off the rails. The pleasant melting sensation in my chest ceased and everything immediately hardened, but it was too late to stop the hurt from getting in.
“I get that you need to practice setting boundaries for a while until you feel comfortable again and don’t need them anymore, but when you said that to me last week, I was pissed. I was like, what the hell? Why am I being punished for what other people did to you?”
He didn’t get it. Not even a little bit. And while I kept myself from flying off the handle like I wanted to do in self-preservation, I was completely locked up inside, feeling like that metaphorical rug had been pulled out from under me.
I kept repeating, “You’re not being punished for anything. It has nothing to do with you.”
“I know it shouldn’t, but it does, because I’m the one who’s here right now—not them. So instead of them being punished, I am.”
Wrong again. It had nothing to do with punishing people; having boundaries isn’t ever a punishment.
“I’m your husband, I shouldn’t even have boundaries.”
And still wrong. But I couldn’t find the words and only repeated myself. Eventually, I said I needed some time to think about how to better articulate what I was trying to explain, because when I started down the road of that being a very self-centered view, he got defensive and I thought maybe I was mistaken.
But I wasn’t wrong then, and I’m not wrong now. When we—survivors—are healing, learning that it’s healthy to set boundaries where none have previously existed… that’s growth. A painful, beautiful, healthy growth. It’s not a punishment to anyone; not the people responsible for the trauma or anyone else. And thinking otherwise is a very self-centered way to view what’s happened. (Self-centered, meaning what’s occurring is filtered first and foremost through the lens of how it impacts you. This isn’t necessarily selfish, though it can be.)
You’re not getting something you’d like or are unable to do something the way you want to, whether it’s a new desire/activity or one you’ve been doing for decades, and you don’t like that. That is completely understandable. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very self-centered view.
Especially those of us who have been through trauma tend to think of everything through the lens of how it will impact others, an other-centered view (we’re far from the only ones, but I do believe it has a higher rate of occurrence among us).
If I say no, is it going to hurt his feelings?
Is he going to think I don’t love him anymore?
A normal person would want to do this right now, so I need to just suck it up.
A normal person wouldn’t mind this, so I need to keep my mouth shut.
I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or make them think there’s something wrong with them.
I’d rather be the one hurting inside than my loved one. I can’t risk saying something that might upset them.
If this isn’t the bucket you already fall into, imagine for a moment this inner dialogue is your reality. It’s likely hard to do because you’re more accustomed to putting boundaries around yourself, at least in certain respects—you can’t imagine not wanting something to the point you feel nauseous and then smiling and going along with it anyway. Or saying “no” and being ignored as if you were joking, then going along with it at that point because you’re afraid to say “no” again.
But we survivors do that all the time. Our bodies and brains were rewired through trauma to behave this way out of self-preservation because at some point that was the only way to keep us safe. This isn’t healthy, though. Saying “no” when we don’t want something or “stop” when we don’t like something… that IS healthy. And it’s difficult. So difficult. We finally do it, then we are wracked with guilt for having done so, terrified of how someone might react.
And when that reaction is poor—ignoring us or becoming indignant or angry—it destroys us a little bit inside. It’s like emotionally being slammed down with a baseball bat. We’re now being punished for trying to do something we should naturally be able to do, something that every human being is entitled to do..
In that way, our healing has nothing to do with you. It’s about us. Learning to respect and protect ourselves, learning to voice when we are uncomfortable or scared or upset. Learning to communicate when we don’t like something, learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries in all facets of our lives. Understanding that setting boundaries for ourselves isn’t a punishment for someone else.
And figuring out where our rights end and yours begin.
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.