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Self-Care

How to Set and Maintain Boundaries for Sustainable Activism

Setting and maintaining better boundaries is vital to our health, safety, and wellbeing. Having firm boundaries are especially important for intersectional feminism because burnout is one of the most common perils of social justice activism.

Boundaries are the framework in which we take responsibility for our own emotions and actions and relinquish responsibility for the emotions and actions of others. They are fundamental to leading healthy and happy lives.

In Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel’s study, ‘The politics of exhaustion’, they interview women of color activists in London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, and Madrid to trace their experiences with exhaustion. They found that the activists frequently prioritize collective needs above their own and engage in unsustainable care work that leads to their burnout.

Learning to establish and maintain better boundaries in our relationships is critical to our self-care so that we can continue showing up for others. Caring for ourselves is also a cornerstone of sustainable activism, where we can sustain our passion and commitment while not succumbing to exhaustion and despair.

Why Setting Boundaries Is Important

Boundaries are the necessary spaces we maintain between ourselves and others in order to lead healthy lives. It allows us to conserve our emotional energies for what is truly meaningful and valuable to us.

Far from fixed, rigid borders, boundaries are in reality dynamic and flexible. There may be times where we feel we can relax them and other times where we need to strengthen them. We should regularly check in with ourselves and intervene with rest and care before we exhaust ourselves.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we also saw how physical boundaries could change based on outside forces like an infectious virus. While being physically close to others was acceptable before March 2020, this boundary had to change after the virus began to spread.

Sometimes we’re so swept up in the moment helping others that only afterward do we realize when we’re tired and hurt that we didn’t properly maintain our boundaries.

Signs that you haven’t maintained good boundaries include feeling drained by others. For example, you may suspect people around you take advantage of you and exploit your kindness and generosity.

For others, poor boundaries look like excessive worrying about others. You’re constantly wondering about what people think or how they feel and feeling responsible to solve their problems or ‘save’ them from an imagined catastrophic outcome.

When your boundaries are breached on a regular basis, you may feel anxious, fearful, resentful, and guilty. These feelings erode our health and wellbeing and ultimately prevent us from being good friends, parents, siblings, partners, colleagues, comrades, and allies.

Our health and wellbeing is the necessary foundation for sustainable activism.

A woman holds her hands over her face, exhausted and burnt out when she has not set and maintained her boundaries
Photograph by Anthony Tran

Types of Boundaries

There are five types of personal boundaries: emotional, mental, time/energy, physical, and material.

  1. Emotional boundaries allow us to own and name our feelings. Our emotional boundaries can be overstepped when people ‘dump’ their negative emotions onto us. For example, a friend may call you and go on an hour-long rant about how much they hate their job. After their cathartic release, they cheer up but leave you to deal with the aftershocks of pain. People can also overstep our emotional boundaries when they reject or deny our emotions. This example is commonly seen in gaslighting where we might be told our sadness or anger aren’t valid and we shouldn’t be feeling the way we do.
  2. Mental boundaries allow us to own and name our values and beliefs as well as respect others for theirs. Our mental boundaries can be violated when people impose their thoughts and opinions on us. It can also include people speaking for us, misrepresenting our own thoughts and opinions in the process. This might look like a family member or partner constantly telling you that your political opinions are “too radical” and insisting their political stances are much more realistic or reasonable.
  3. Time/energy boundaries enable us to best invest our most precious resource. Time/energy boundaries can be violated when people are regularly late or change/cancel plans at the last minute. They overlap with emotional and mental boundaries when they involve demands for free labor. One of the most common drains on our time/energy as intersectional feminists is when people expect us to educate them about sexism and racism for free. They might assume that we’d run workshops pro bono just because we’re grateful to have the opportunity to speak about our cause.
  4. Physical boundaries enable us to maintain our bodily autonomy and sense of safety. Unwanted touching or comments about our physical appearance (even those couched as compliments) are all common examples of violations of our physical boundaries.
  5. Material boundaries protect our possessions. They can be breached when people take our things without permission or break and damage the possessions they have borrowed. One of my friends keeps a record of all the books they have lent to others because they learned the hard way too many books never find their way home.

How to Respect Other People’s Boundaries

After reading the examples of the types of boundaries above, you might be guiltily wondering if you’ve overstepped any boundaries yourself. Not only are our personal boundaries very different from each other but our boundaries shift and change depending on the time, place, and person. So we’ve all likely made a few missteps and that’s perfectly normal.

When we better understand the importance of personal boundaries to our own health and wellbeing, we can also learn to be more respectful of others’ boundaries.

One way you can better respect others’ boundaries is cultivating empathic communication. Empathic communication is communication that takes into consideration what we do, the way we do it, and the impact we have on others. Developing empathic communication allows us to form more intimate, meaningful, and rewarding relationships.

Empathic communication might look like checking in with your friend or family member before you unload after a bad day. Ask them, “Do you have the bandwidth for me to share with you a challenging experience I had at work today?” If they say no, be prepared to thank them for their willingness to be open and honest with you and respect that emotional boundary they have set.

Learn to look for nonverbal cues that someone is uncomfortable around you. Do their shoulders tense up when you hug them? That might mean they do not welcome that level of physical intimacy and touch with you. Is their attention wandering, maybe they’re glancing at the clock, in your meeting that is running overtime? You may be preventing them from getting on with the tasks in their schedule.

If you believe you have violated the boundaries of someone you care about, don’t be afraid to engage in a heartfelt conversation. Apologize if they confirm the breach and let them know what you’re prepared to do differently in the future. Perhaps you could let them initiate physical intimacy when they’re ready and check in with them every now and then to make sure they are comfortable.

If someone has upset you because they said “no” to your request, critically look within yourself and ask if your relationship had become contingent on them saying “yes”. What is it from them you feel entitled to and why? Could you love and respect them if they chose to stop giving it to you?

Challenges for Women of Color

  1. Intersectional feminism requires immense sensitivity and women of color are particularly vulnerable to having our boundaries violated.
  2. Racist tropes in our culture and society work against us. Black women in our culture are characterized via the Strong Black Woman stereotype and treated as on-demand therapists with a supposedly infinite reserve of inner strength. Asian and Middle Eastern women may be seen as ‘naturally’ subservient and expected to be available at the beck and call of others’ demands.
  3. Integral to the work of setting and maintaining boundaries is recognizing the sexist and racist assumptions that set unreasonable expectations on women of color. We need to do the ongoing work of decolonizing our minds and learn to detach from these harmful assumptions both in our expectations of others and our expectations of ourselves.

In the video below, Alicia Keys reads a gorgeous excerpt from her memoir, More Myself, in which she recounts how she learned the value of setting clear boundaries in her life:

Misconceptions about Kindness

One of the core issues with why we can find it difficult to set clear boundaries in our relationships is because of a fundamental misunderstanding about kindness.

Throughout most of my life, I associated saying “yes” to others with being kind. The dangerous flip side is then I believed that saying “no” meant I was being unkind, unreasonable, or selfish.

When someone asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, shockwaves of dread and fear would course through my entire body. Even when I had the courage to utter out a “no”, I would immediately feel guilty as my mind spins a hundred reasons why I was letting them down. I’d then often immediately retract the boundary I had just set and say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s fine, I’ll help you”.

As it may be more apparent to you than it was to me, this view of kindness is false and oversimplistic.

We can say “no” with kind intentions and we can say “yes” with selfish intentions.

When a colleague seeks our feedback about their work, we may offer honest criticisms that may seem ‘harsh’ but they are genuinely intended to help our colleague grow. Giving them criticism at the developmental phase of their project may mean they get to correct their mistakes and produce a truly spectacular piece of work.

On the flip side, if we harbored some jealousy about that colleague, we might insincerely praise them for their flawed work, pretend to be a friend, all while knowing their project will fail.

What If People Hate Me?

When you make the decision to set and protect clear boundaries for yourself, you need to be prepared to let go of the reactions from others.

While I truly hope for you that the people in your life will respect your boundaries and value your emotional needs as much as they do their own, realistically you may see some pushback. People may resist and resent your new boundaries if they’ve been used to getting your time, energy, and generosity for a while.

Part of having healthy boundaries is not feeling responsible for the emotions of others. You deserve to have your needs met without being shamed as ‘selfish’ and you deserve to feel respected. We need to let go of the notion that we must ‘protect’ others from feeling hurt.

In one of my first attempts to set professional boundaries, a colleague wrote me an email accusing me of being ungiving. I rushed to defend myself, listing off a hundred examples of where I had done unpaid overtime or over-delivered on the project to prove to him (and myself) that I wasn’t a bad colleague.

The truth is that my colleague’s accusation cut me deep. It spoke with the voice of my inner critic who told me I didn’t deserve to be healthy and happy and had to work 60-hour workweeks to prove I was committed to my job.

I would do things differently now in that kind of situation. I would try to respond rather than react; acknowledging my colleague’s feelings of neglect at that moment and seeking an open discussion of our mutual duties and expectations in that relationship.

I would also engage in honest self-reflection. Do I really believe I’m a bad employee? What evidence (not emotional accusations) do I have that I’m a bad employee and what evidence might I have that I’m capable, collegial, and committed?

What does being a ‘good’ employee mean in a capitalistic corporate culture that glorifies overwork?

Is it really so terrible that I’m not conforming to that ideal?

Sometimes if you advocate for yourself when people are used to compliance from you, they will be taken aback.

We must ultimately remember that when we give and give and give without any regard for our own needs, we will burn out. When we work ourselves to exhaustion, we won’t be able to give anything to anybody.

In a beautifully tender podcast episode of Dear Sugars, hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond are joined by Oprah Winfrey to discuss the topic of saying “no”. One listener writes in to share how after they began saying “no”, their angry family members cut them off. Oprah empathized with this listener and shares her own experiences struggling to say “no” to her family.

A key takeaway from the podcast episode is to put into perspective how your relationships might be contingent on you saying “yes”. If the basis of any of your relationships is to serve someone’s needs and interests without any regard for your own, then it’s ultimately not a loss if that relationship ends with your “no”.

A woman marches across a bridge holding up a sign over her head that reads "I can't breathe", representing the importance of sustainable activism through setting boundaries in social justice work.
Photograph by Life Matters

Self-Acceptance

We will get better at setting and maintaining boundaries if we can learn to accept ourselves for who we are.

Often a reason behind why we struggle to set and maintain our personal boundaries is because deep down we believe that our boundaries are ‘wrong’.

I used to assume that to be a good person, I needed to be more extraverted. I thought that because I treasured my alone-time meant that I was a weirdo loner destined to have no friends. I denied my own boundaries and felt intense pressure to say “yes” to every social event even when I knew I needed to be alone.

I’m learning to accept myself and my need for quiet, reflection, and rest. I communicate kindly to those in my life what I need to emotionally and mentally recharge and give myself permission to be my fabulous introverted self.

That means I’ve come to accept that I cannot give people unlimited unconditional unfiltered access to me. My activism is most powerful when I use my voice through writing and scholarship, but I’m not a counselor.

When I properly care for myself, I can show up in this world as a better friend, partner, daughter, and ally.

Know what’s at stake when you ignore your own boundaries. You might think you’re giving more of yourself but it’ll come at the cost of your health and well-being.

Learn More

One of the most helpful books about saying “no” with kindness is The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness: How to Express Your Needs and Deal with Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart by Sherrie Vavrichek. Sherrie writes like a kind and gentle friend guiding you to set clear personal boundaries and change your life for the better.

Dr. Nicole LePera is a holistic psychologist based in Philadelphia. Her YouTube channel has some excellent videos on the importance of boundaries and how to set them. Nicole speaks from her own personal experience setting boundaries with her family, which makes her advice particularly relatable and practical.

Featured image by Annie Spratt

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