–By Shauna Aura Knight
A lot of the activism that I do is what I would call “everyday activism.” It’s things that you can do in your own life to begin to live in the world you want to be in, change the world around you, by first changing yourself and becoming the person you want to be. Some of this kind of personal transformation work can be very difficult. It’s often just as challenging, if not more challenging, than front-line activism at a protest.
One area that has taken a lot of personal work on my part is around personal boundaries. I’m not necessarily talking about energetic shielding, though that’s tangentially related; I see a lot of Pagans talk about magical shielding practices, but few Pagans who are actually doing the personal growth work to develop healthy boundaries.
What are boundaries? A lot of boundary work can be summed up in, what do you say yes to, what do you say no to…or, how ok are you with someone else’s “no.” Are you one of those people who says yes to people all the time because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or rock the boat? Are you one of those people who is really pushy and gets upset when someone says no to you? Those are both examples of poor boundaries.
I learned about the concept of boundaries at Diana’s Grove from Dr. L. Carol Scott. I had expressed that I didn’t feel comfortable offering someone negative feedback because I was afraid they’d be mad at me, and she already knew that I was in the habit of saying “yes” to too many projects, and she suggested that those were boundary issues. Later, she led a few workshops at Diana’s Grove that framed the concept.
Each of us has skin. What’s inside our skin is us, what’s not inside our skin is not us. So when someone who is touchy feely grabs us for a hug, that’s technically a violation of our boundaries, of our personal space. Or, perhaps you are the touchy feely person who doesn’t even think twice about taking someone’s hand or putting an arm around their shoulders. Similarly, imagine that your mind, your thoughts, your feelings, your drives and desires, also have a skin. There is a difference between your thoughts, and someone else’s thoughts, your desires and feelings, and someone else’s.
When any one of us pushes our thoughts, feelings, or ambitions onto someone else, we’re projecting past our own boundaries–the “edge” of ourselves–and past someone’s else’s boundaries.
From the opposite perspective, if we’re constantly worried about what other people think, what other people will say, what other people want, then we are letting people in past our edge, past our boundaries. Carol offered a visual aid of the moon through her cycles; that we don’t want to be the full moon, pressing our light out past our edges and pushing onto other people, nor do we want to be the new moon, relying only on the thoughts and feelings and decisions of others to steer our course. We want to be the gibbous moon; we want to have a firm idea of where our own boundaries are, we want to know what is me, what is you, what is my thoughts, what is your thoughts, so that we can say yes or no to what someone is asking of us without feeling the pressure of someone pushing us into something. Similarly, we want to be able to ask someone to do something without pressuring them into it.
Carol’s web site has some great articles on this and other topics of personal development, and I highly recommend signing up for her newsletter which also contains some really insightful articles.
How poor boundaries make us unhappy
Every day, I see people around me living their lives and unsatisfied in their interactions with people. A family member once said she dreaded talking to a certain guy because he would start talking politics for an hour and she found him very toxic to be around. I said, “Can’t you just interrupt and indicate that this isn’t a topic you feel comfortable discussing? Or even just say that you have other work to do?” She was horrified at the idea; it was too confrontational, too rude. She’d rather spend a miserable hour or two than politely exiting from the conversation.
I also hear people say, “I have to go visit family for the Holidays.” What does “have to” mean? Will the world end if you don’t? Typically, “have to” actually means, “I am choosing to engage in an unpleasant activity because the consequences of not doing it are more than I want to deal with.” Here, “have to” probably means, my family member has guilted me, or will guilt me, if I don’t attend. This is a simple example of how someone else’s needs and desires can spill out past their edges onto your edges.
Look at all the things you say yes to every day that you would really prefer to say no to, but you say yes for various reasons of family pressure, peer pressure, social pressure. Look at all the things you don’t do because you’re afraid of what people will think. Or maybe you’re a full-moon-er. Look at the ways you pressure and guilt people into doing what you want. Someone who’s on the really full end of the full moon spectrum isn’t even thinking that someone else might not want the thing they want.
I’ve done this one myself; when I’ve planned big events in the past, it didn’t even occur to me that other people didn’t want the event to happen as much as I did. I felt shocked, betrayed, and hurt when they would fail to do their assigned tasks. However, many of these folks “dropped the ball” because they only said yes to me in the first place because they were afraid of the consequences of saying “no.” They were afraid I’d be angry at them, that I wouldn’t like them.
Angeles Arrien has some great tools for boundary work in her book The Four Fold Way, though I don’t believe she refers to it as boundaries. She references several tribal cultures she’s observed, where saying “No” simply means, “No, I don’t have time to help you with that, good luck.” In most of the human interactions I’ve had here in this country, “No” means, “No, I don’t want to help you, I don’t support what you’re asking of me, and furthermore, I probably secretly hate you.”
How is Boundaries work, activism?
Imagine how your life would be different if you felt you could say no to people without tremendous social repercussions. If we all had good boundaries, then I could say no without risking offending you. You could say no without risking months of guilt tripping or losing a friendship. Maybe your coworkers have invited you out to drinks and what you really need is a night to get some rest. Or maybe you want to ask a friend to drive you somewhere but you’re worried they’ll get mad at you for asking, so instead you try to hint at it.
Imagine if we all had better boundaries, if we all were a little less touchy. If we got to do more of what we wanted to do in our lives, and less of the activities that drain us. Essentially, having good boundaries means better psychological health, more satisfaction in our lives. Of course, no magic fairy is going to wave her wand and give us all good boundaries, which is why having good boundaries in a culture that has crappy ones, can be a daily activism. Every time I have good boundaries with a friend, someone I’m dating, a family member, or someone I’m working with, every time I say “no,” I am risking their displeasure. My vision for what I want to do with my day/week/life may not coincide with their vision. They get disappointed when I say no.
Or in some extreme cases, when I have to look at a consistently toxic person and decide to remove them from my life, to hold the boundary of, “No, I will not engage with you.” Holding good boundaries is important when volunteering with activist groups. I have noticed that a lot of passionate activists also have really poor boundaries; they are very pushy, full-moon-er kind of people who are pressuring people to get involved with a cause and an action. And, it’s kind of a part of the job. But I also recognize the flip side, that someone who’s been full mooned into doing something, is probably eventually going to drop the ball because they didn’t really have time or desire to do it in the first place.
So how can we, as Pagan or Activist volunteers, make a reasonable assessment of what we can help out with so that we aren’t overfilling our plate and setting ourselves up to fail? You may love a particular group or cause a lot, but if you say yes to things you can’t complete, you aren’t helping, you are hurting. And how can we, as Pagan or Activist leaders, ask people to help, and work to get people excited about an activity or a cause, but also, be ok with people saying no?
When someone says “no” to you, it’s often not a criticism of your efforts, it’s not a judgment, it may have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them just not having enough time. But that brings us back to boundaries–why don’t we have enough time to volunteer for the things we believe in? What things have we said “yes” to because we feel we have to, that suck away our time and energy?
I have found that consistently assessing what I’m saying yes to, and what is taking my energy away from the things I want to do, has led me to have more energy for the work I want to do. Assessing which interactions and relationships have added a positive influence in my life, and which ones suck my energy, has led me to cut certain people out of my life. Good boundaries also allows me to discard the societal pressures and judgments that I’m not a successful adult if I don’t have a brand new car, brand new living room furniture, or any sorts of other things that people are pressured to buy. With good boundaries, I can easily resist the pressures of the advertising that inundates us every day. Healthy boundaries begins to build a less dysfunctional society. It’s one of the building blocks of a healthier world.
What will you say no to? And what will you say yes to?
Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.