I’ve received a whole lot of support from folks of all sorts since I started BraveNewLove and I am thankful for any person who takes the time to read - seriously, I’m not a big reader so I think it’s a big deal - anything that I have written. I’ve also received a fair amount of what I’m considering feedback on how to improve in terms of what I discuss and how I discuss it. I’m super thankful for those folks who have the courage to reach out with their opinions. One area has been in how I’ve portrayed coming out and boundaries which has potentially come off that I am too encouraging for folks to live openly when it isn’t safe. That is by no means my message and as someone who stayed in the closet for many years due to safety concerns, I understand the importance of setting healthy boundaries.
Through these discussions, I’ve been thinking on the topic of boundaries in the abstract and how I have implemented them in my life. I’ve noted that I haven’t ever sat down and worked them out, but that they have definitely developed organically over time sometimes protecting as they should and other times probably being too dramatic or not strong enough.
Through this process I’ve come across some thoughts that I wanted to share on the topic, but also decided to include a discussion of two things that are necessary companions of the ominous ‘boundaries’ term, and those are 'love' and also 'trust'.
We say ‘I love you’ a lot. When we are ending a call, leaving a dinner with friends, or signing our name, and the recipients can be anyone from our family by blood to our chosen family and then some in between in most cases. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this necessarily, and as an eternal optimist with a spotless mind, I would be in support of any type of love put forth in this world we’re living in these days.
That said, not all love is created equal. That’s something that most of use know whether we want to admit it or not. Love, or more broadly, acceptance, can be conditional when it is based on good grades, certain behaviors, or performance at the workplace. It can be conditional based on mood and interpreted happiness of a given situation, and in some more rare cases, it can be unconditional.
Truthfully, I believe there is positivity put forth in the world when anyone utters the words “I love you,” quite sure, but that doesn’t permit me from also acknowledging that merely saying “I love you” with no additional action is not always a desirable or acceptable form of love.
I’m not a fair weather love fan. I understand that it exists and that there are many useful expressions of it, but I don’t think that I want it anywhere near my inner circle. If folks are only likely to say “I love you” when you are altering who you are, or silencing your voice, I would consider that fair weather love.
I think that it is important to understand this distinction within the term ‘love’ when establishing and holding healthy boundaries, and that is because it is very possible that typical people you are supposed to ‘love’ could fall on the other side of those boundaries. These folks can be family, good friends that you might have even called a ‘best’ friend at a time, or environments where you tend to spend your time (workplace, school, etc). The thing to keep in mind is that you can create a boundary between yourself and those individuals if needed while still loving them. I’d go as far as to say that the love for yourself in those situations is simply outweighing a love for others if their love is coming at risk of your humanity.
So with that, let’s tackle the fun topic that is boundary setting. I feel like this one is a loaded issue because at the end of the day, it can sometimes look like compromises - if not complete shut outs - and that can make folks uncomfortable. I am by no means an expert in what makes folks uncomfortable to say the least, but as a licensed massage therapist, I have a vested interest in learning ways to make them feel relaxed and comfortable!
Joking aside, I get that the topic of boundaries can be a hot button issue, and like anything else that matters, I believe it should be approached with care. Care for yourself first which requires quite a bit of self awareness, and care for others as well. If I were going to try to explain how I have developed my approach to boundary setting, which this essay certainly is, I’d have to be very honest that much of it is an approach and not necessarily a check list that you can follow to ‘set healthy boundaries.’
Now when I take that approach, I consider these three things: who, what, time.
The Who of the matter is who is on the other end of the situation. Who is causing the issue that is causing me discomfort either physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually? I’ll be honest and say that after years of conditioning it is very difficult for me to identify anyone that I wouldn’t care whether they liked me or not. It's just not something that I think is possible, and I think it is important to be honest about that for folks who might feel similarly. That said, over time I have been able to identify the types of folks that I shouldn’t worry about their opinion of me and, after much pretending, some of it has taken.
These folks that I typically try not to care what they think of me, and in turn are the easiest to set a boundary with, are folks that I don’t know like random strangers. They might be people I come in contact with regularly but for whatever reason, we haven’t developed another connection point other than simply existing in the same spaces every once and while. Again, it is still difficult even after years of working at it at this point to fully shut off that valve that is wanting validation from these kinds of folks. It’s also not necessarily a bad thing to want that validation either sometimes, but it becomes a problem when it comes at a cost to yourself which brings us to the ‘what.’
The ‘what’ in the context of boundary setting for me is the thing that I am trying to protect against and often times it is because I am having to change or alter myself in some way that is detrimental to my mental health if it is permitted to continue. This can be a wide range of things and definitely are different for each and every person with huge privilege related differences along race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and gender identity lines for folks. We set boundaries at work, school, with extended family, personal family, and the all important connector that is social media. We set boundaries regarding religion, politics, personal lives and beyond.
The boundaries that have taught me the most leading up to, during and after the process of putting them up have been the ones pertaining to being gay. Surprisingly, that encompasses a ton of considerations like what to post on social media, what to say in family gatherings, how to interact with my boyfriend in public, and when I worked a traditional 9 to 5, it was a huge part of daily considerations. I was having to set boundaries as fast as I could realize that I needed one. I’ve set them up regarding my sexual orientation in general, my relationship, my gender nonbinary choices, and my faith. The trick was determining WHEN I needed that set one and I’ve come to associate that time being when I felt that jolt of discomfort. I used to just chalk that feeling up to homophobia, and while I know that is a part of it, I think it’s something more.
Up Jumped a Rabbit!
That’s a saying that my grandmother, who my entire family still refers to as Nana, uses when we play dominoes (chicken foot in case you’re in the market for game recommendations). It is to express surprise from something that you didn’t see coming - much like a rabbit jumping up in your freaking face. My cousins and I loved the term and have been using both in and out of the context of playing dominoes ever since we were younger, and it is the best way I can describe how to tell the ‘what’ you need to protect against.
Recently, I had a bit of a run-in on my personal Facebook page with some family. It was over a post that I had shared from Gov. Abbott regarding a tweet of his where he intentionally called out that he did not support LGBTQ+ people or businesses who were not actively working against them either. As someone who is LGBTQ+ I, understandably, took offense to the governor of my state use his platform to announce that he didn’t support people like me and said as much on my Facebook status one morning. I also was reacting extremely authentically in terms of what I was feeling - which I am getting better at with work on processing the homophobic aspects of growing up in the conservative religious south - and called the good ol’ Governor a piece of shit in the post.
I didn’t even think twice about it. I was so mad at him for being so blatantly homophobic. As stated above, I’ve only started to recently deconstruct how that aspect of my identity renders me more at risk of losing civil rights, and I hate seeing when politicians actively campaign against people like me. I hadn’t even considered the fact that I’d called Abbott a 'piece of shit' because in my mind, he was (and still is) for his communication regarding LGBTQ+ people as the Governor of my state. Unfortunately, intention doesn’t always come through on social media and the next time I checked FB, I had made some folks mad - many of which were family. While I would not have normally doubled down on calling someone a piece of shit, I considered it and decided that even if unintended, it was getting folks to care about something that often goes unchecked: homophobia.
Long story short, the dialogue that transpired after I stuck to my statement included a bit of homophobic language. It was unexpected and similar to a slap in the face. 'Up jumped a rabbit', indeed.
Reflecting on it after the fact, I saw that sudden shocked experience I felt as a testament to my ability to set healthy and strong boundaries. Much of my young adult life has been centered around setting them up with actions like moving to Austin to go to school, waiting to come out until I was financially independent, not posting on social media, or discuss certain things around certain people.
I’m now in a season of letting down some of those boundaries for a variety of reasons including feeling like I’ve developed a certain level of confidence and worth in my current self inclusive of all identities, and it is also happening based on my commitment to live in such a way that my life and experiences can be potentially seen by someone who needs to put a face to viscous name that is the “LGBT Agenda.” As a result of loosening and deconstructing some of these boundaries, I’m having some 'Up Jumped a Rabbit' moments, and that is ok.
It is in these moments that I consider who is on the other end of this issue and then look at the time associated with the issue as well. I tend to want to be on the more open, less boundaries side of things, due to that optimistic brain that I mentioned earlier, but I’ve learned that doesn’t help anyone if it is at the risk of my mental health.
So while I try to keep boundaries informal and porous in order to encourage conversation and engagement, I do create more physical blocks when needed. I think everyone should. A physical barrier between a loved one or family member does not mean that you love them less as discussed earlier, it is just that you are prioritizing the love for yourself first. I also had to learn, and am still learning, that it doesn’t mean that that person is necessarily a ‘lost cause,’ but that interactions with me aren’t going to be the way they will ultimately gain empathy. I find that homophobic thoughts can be based in fear of the ‘other’ and unknown and that just one, or multiple, conversations can’t change a person’s worldview if they aren’t open to a discussion and considering a viewpoint that is different from their own. It’s in these situations that a strong barrier can really help both parties, and it doesn’t always have to be there because there is a time for everything as we grow and change.
That brings us to trust which I think is the most important consideration and often forgotten companion to boundary setting. It is so important to acknowledge and create space for folks when you have a mutual respect and trust for one another. These are the times when I have seen the most change both in my worldview, and that of others during my lifetime so far. If you think about it, it is quite impossible to fully understand an emotion or experience when you don’t have any thing to reference it against. In the case of homophobia and the LGBTQ+ experience, there isn’t too much of that out there, and what is there hasn’t been there very long. So folks in smaller towns, with religious upbringings, or any other potential reason might not have much of a framework to compare LGBTQ+ lives with due to lack of visibility in film, business, and culture in general until very recently. That can be a huge factor in explaining why folks are resistant or at least ignorant of the LGBTQ+ experience at first, and it really is through no fault of their own.
Anyway, that is why some of my posts and offerings have a bit of a rose colored filter on them. Because my experience as a 9th generation Texan who grew up in a small conservative town and large religious family has shown that beautiful things truly can happen when you give folks space to meet you where you are at. It’s also my experience that these moments are worth pursuing.
Again, these examples of trust in boundary setting need to be carefully approached and only with someone you believe truly wants to understand where you are coming from. It is oh so easy to batten down the hatches and quickly shut out any voice that does not fully affirm and accept your LGBTQ+ identity - and as discussed above it is so needed in many instances - but I really do think there is value in those moments of trust. We have to choose light in them, and hold space for folks to wrestle with ideas and come to understand them for themselves, but they are miraculous moments.
As many folks who read my essays know, I’m hesitant to use religious language even though I consider myself to be a spiritual person. I’m hesitant because of the emotional baggage, and weight that this type of language can have with others. Because of the fact that many folks in the LGBTQ+ community, a group of folks I care deeply about, have had to set strong, firm and immovable boundaries to block out any type of religious rhetoric, and that truly breaks my heart to think about. That’s why I hope folks will grant some space for me when sharing a verse from the Bible and see that my intention is to share the positive lesson it has taught me, and not to claim some type of moral religious authority.
The verse is from John 3:18 and states that we should not love in “word and tongue along, but in deed and in truth.” It is this definition of love that has always stuck with me during times of setting boundaries and choosing when to trust someone to be vulnerable with them.
This line of thinking regarding unconditional love shows up in the quote from Fred Rogers who had a gift for talking about the hardest of topics in simple ways:
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like “struggle.” To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” - Fred Rogers
That kind of unconditional love is out there, and my hope is that folks experience it so that they can let some boundaries down in certain situations and establish more textured and meaningful experiences with others. I also hope that through that experience multiple times over, we’ll grow as a society to be one that creates space for LGBTQ+ people and others through the practice and seasons of healthy boundary setting.
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