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About six weeks ago I wrote about this confusion around fixing boundary violations, that somehow many people have this nagging doubt, this feeling that it’s rude or impolite, even though they want to and know they’d be happier and in a better state of mind if they did. And I’m going to talk about it again, because there was this “ripped from the headlines” moment earlier this month, that seems to have dropped off the front page, but don’t worry, it’ll be back.

You may have heard that Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is said to have shown colleagues photos on his phone of nude women and bragged about his sexual exploits. But we’re not going to focus on Representative Gaetz at this moment, because this is a personal safety channel about our lives. What if, instead of this being someone far away in a different circle, this was in your workplace? Perhaps a co-worker, a colleague, an intern, or a supervisor thought nothing of showing off nude photos of their sex partners? Would you be elbowing others aside to get a better look? Would you be wanting to throw a party just to invite that person, so others would think that you too were one of the cool kids?  If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing not. Would you be uncomfortable? Would you be more uncomfortable speaking up, or staying silent? A trade-off of discomfort in the moment of speaking up, versus the long-term discomfort of feeling that you missed that an important moment.

See, this generally doesn’t come out of the blue. Other boundaries would have been crossed before, but didn’t seem important enough to risk embarrassing someone. Maybe now you’d be regretting those, too.

Most people think of bystander intervention as breaking up a fight, getting between people who are about to grab and hit and kick each other, or at least one is looking to physically obliterate the other. So they miss other, smaller opportunities. Other littler boundary pokes, where the poker is testing what they can get away with. And if they can get away with the littler stuff, well, as the great American philosopher Bruce Springsteen sang, “from small things mama, big things one day come.”

[“Bystander intervention” and “setting boundaries” have a lot of overlap.  Setting boundaries usually refers to action you take for yourself, while bystander intervention is more likely to refer to helping someone else maintain their boundaries.]

So let’s get back to your workplace. What to do? What to say? I dunno. Fixing boundary violations depends on the relationship you have with that offender, other colleagues, etc. I do suggest you lay out a plan. Get some paper and a pen, and start writing possible responses. What do you want to express? Disgust? Disappointment? Dismay? Do you want to throw in some humor? Think of several responses, work them a bit, grade them on level of aggression, run them by some trusted friends. Consider possible outcomes — what result do you want to see? Here’s a couple:

  • Uh, TMI!!!
  • Why are you showing that to me?
  • Are you OK? Showing this is repugnant, and I’ve always expected better from you.
  • Wow, are you sure you want to be broadcasting how shallow a person you really are?
  • I always thought you were a jerk, I hadn’t realized you’re also a pervert.
  • Put that away, and do not ever show me your pornography again.
  • Your sharing these images makes me sad, because I expect my (friends / colleagues / elected officials) to have more regard and respect for other people and not objectify them as personal toys. Please put that away, and don’t show them to me, or anyone, ever.

One approach is pure shaming. Another is a classic confrontation strategy: tell the person what behavior is wrong, maybe include how you feel about it, and what they should do to fix it. And a third leans more towards Marshall Rosenberg’s “Non-Violent (or Compassionate) Communication,” where you state observations, how you feel, what you need, and make a request to remedy it.

Now it’s your turn. Write stuff, and read it back out loud.  [Hint:  the reading it back out loud part is CRITICAL.]  Fixing boundary violations takes a little effort, and it can pay off big time in your peace of mind.

Stay safe, and live life.

PS – while Springsteen wrote the song, I prefer Dave Edmunds’ version.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Although many students in class already get this, a good number don’t. Or intellectually get the idea, but it isn’t yet incorporated into their lives.

Setting boundaries for morning coffee

I would rather have my coffee constrained in the boundaries of the mug, than free-form over all over the table.

“Being nice” versus setting boundaries. The two are not mutually exclusive. They do not form opposite ends of a dichotomy. This is not “Godzilla vs. King Kong.”

Being nice and setting boundaries are two completely distinct concepts.

I looked up “nice” in a thesaurus. Synonyms include: good, pleasant, agreeable, enjoyable, delightful, good-natured and charming. I didn’t see anything about being a doormat or not setting boundaries.

A boundary is a noun, an object. “Setting” a boundary is acting on that object. Nothing there refers to niceness. Nothing.

You can set firm boundaries in a nice way. You can set weak boundaries in a snarky way. You can set boundaries in many different ways. Setting boundaries itself is neither “nice” nor “nasty.” It’s the words you use, the body language, the tone of voice, that determines the level of niceness.

And, if the other person objects just to having a boundary set, it really does not matter how you set them. They will object to any boundary, and I would seriously consider limiting my connection with that person.

If you are one of those who struggles to set an appropriate boundary, try this exercise. Take out some paper and a pen. Write down what you can say (and how to say it) that really does NOT set a boundary; it’s more submissive, and you are hoping that the other person will take the hint without you having to actually set a boundary. Then write down a brusque and pointed way of setting that same boundary, also complete with body language and tone of voice.

Now start filling in the middle — change some of what made the second one abrasive to smooth it out, and change some of what made the submissive one too weak to strengthen your message. Envision your body language, and what the distance between you should look like. You can do this!  We do practice this in our self-defense classes.

Stay safe, live life.

Today I’m back to “red flags.” These are the hints that something may be awry. Also called gut feelings, intuition, instincts, it refers to trusting yourself when you’re uncomfortable or sensing something amGirls learning about red flags and trusting their intuition when sensing something wrongiss. Some red flags are subtle, some really blatant. They are all specific behaviors that somebody is doing that bumps into one of your boundaries.

Red flags also come in different “flavors.” By that I mean they are tactics to try to take down specific boundaries. Consider these three red flags, and what they have in common:

▪ Keeps asking you out after you’ve said no
▪ Pushes you to drink alcohol or use drugs
▪ Refuses to wear protection when engaging in sex

If this were a class setting, I’d give you a few seconds to think about it. If you want to, take a bit of time yourself to think about these three.

What they have in common is an explicit rejection of boundaries you’ve already stated.

If you’ve already said no to dating, repeatedly asking is not flattering. At best, it’s awkward.  At worst, dangerous and (very) rarely life-threatening.  Do you really want to go on a date with someone who ignores your boundaries?

Alcohol and drugs are known to impair our cognitive functions and physical reactions. Indulgence should be a choice. If someone is pressuring you, wonder why. Never underestimate the human need to fit in, to belong. Perpetrators will frequently exploit that, especially in a social situation.

Refusing to wear protection when having sex. What could possibly go wrong? The statement assumes you’ve already had a discussion, or you’re having the discussion. Maybe you’re not ready for parenthood, or don’t want to deal with an STD. Now do you think the person with whom you’re having this discussion is unaware of potential risks? They’re aware all right, just don’t feel it’s a big deal for them, and your boundary is just a nuisance.

As I’ve already said, the flavor of these three red flags is that of explicitly negating your boundary.  Of saying your needs are just preferences, probably trivial, and not taken seriously. You may be past the state of sensing something amiss, you could very well be experiencing some strong feelings of violation, or embarrassment, or even shame that your boundaries were disregarded. We all know that many boundaries do change over time and with different people, and you get to decide which are more fluid and which are more fixed. Because your freedom to make your own choices, to be able to trust yourself in sensing something wrong, is essential to real personal safety.

Speaking of which, our Personal Safety Essentials class is happening tomorrow night. Self-Defense for Teen Girls ages 12-14 is this coming Sunday, and Self-Defense for Teen Girls ages 15+ is March 13th (but that one may be full now). I should be posting a Spring schedule in the next week or so.

Stay safe, live life.

I used to work a regular 9 to 5 job, before shifting my focus on teaching self-defense. A feature of many regular jobs is having co-workers. Some you like, some you get along with, and others, not so much. At one job I had two co-workers who really did not like each other, we’ll call them Sally and Nicky. They pretty much did the same tasks for different supervisors, but often disagreed on processes. And every so often, their disagreements would get a bit loud. Specifically, Sally would get loud.

Now, when Sally got loud it wasn’t just that her vocal volume went up. She began verging on, and often crossed over into, verbal abrasiveness, even abuse. That’s not really surprising. When we take on expressions of anger, such as raising our voices, the emotion — even if we don’t intend it — will often also rise. (We discuss that in our self-defense classes, as one reasoTwo co-workers who dislike each other, an intervention may need to happen.n why using your voice is so important.)  Sally would ALWAYS deny that she was angry, her voice just got naturally happened to get loud. But the reality was, it didn’t JUST get loud. She’d begin throwing in derogatory comments on the other person’s overall competence and intelligence.

One day Sally and Nicky began one of their discussion just outside my cubicle. As usual, it began in quiet tones, but within a couple of minutes Sally’s voice began to rise. I got up from my desk, walked over, looked each of them in the face, and said, “indoor voices, please.” Then went back to my desk. They kept it down for another minute, but then Sally’s voice again began rising. Again, I walked over and said in a firmer tone, “indoor voices please.” This time the remainder of the conversation was held in conversational tones.

Later that day Nicky thanked me for intervening. Because Sally’s voice never rose to the point of agitation, she didn’t get to that verbally abusive level.

I’m not saying this will work in any and all situations. I had insider knowledge, a “special sauce.”  I knew the participants well enough to recognize that Sally did value the appearance of appropriate workplace behavior. I also believe she thought I had influence with the bigger boss. Those two factors probably contributed a LOT to why my “special sauce” intervention worked.

One critical aspect of bystander intervention is that while intervention is important, in our ideal world we’d all interact with other people in non-harmful manners, we’d all have that level of self-awareness and care. In that ideal world, we would not have to intervene, but if we did we’d be more comfortable and confident doing so. Maybe we’d all know and care about our friends and colleagues, so we have our own “special sauces” that would appeal to their better selves. We don’t live in that ideal world, so how do we signal to others joining our social and work groups that our norms are more respectful and non-harmful? We explicitly state those boundaries and expectations, we hold each other (as well as ourselves) accountable for actions, and we have appropriate consequences for inappropriate behavior.

I personally never overheard a Sally and Nicky argument after that. Unfortunately, they did continue, out of my earshot, because it seemed I was the only one to speak up. Was I the only person who had the recipe for the “special sauce?” No, but apparently I was the only one not too uncomfortable speaking up.  So even if you feel let off the hook because someone else already said something, no you are actually not off the hook. Please consider how to do your part to create a safer environment, so you can lessen the odds that you’ll ever have to use your more drastic self-defense skills.

This morning I was reading an advice column where the inquirer had told their family that, even though they hosted every year, because of the pandemic there would be no Thanksgiving gathering this year.  Yet that Thanksgiving morning family members showed up, each with an excuse why it was okay for them to be there. The inquirer wanted to know how to “lovingly” shut the door to uninvited guests who are putting you at risk.  How you can still be setting boundaries, effectively and without damaging relationships.

The responder, quite accurately, got to the point that there’s a difference between caring about others’ feelings and assuming RESPONSIBILITY for said feelings, and we should set our boundaries according to our needs and safety. Check out this article for the details.

The responder states the answer is patently obvious, which is true.  You could say (and I am paraphrasing and expanding what the responder wrote), “Cousins, Happy Thanksgiving!  What brings you here?  I already told you we weren’t having our usual gathering. Why would you come anyway? I am very much looking forward to a time when we can again safety be physically together.”

But what is also obvious yet unstated by the responder is the long-term effects of socialization, expectations, and fear of facing negative emotions.  Not to mention lack of support from others in the family.  Setting boundaries in families are among the most challenging interactions we can have.

It would have been another step for for responder to go into a bit about socialization, where certain people are expected to put others’ comfort over their own safety. When I ask, many students say they have not set boundaries in the past because they did not want to damage a relationship (note they didn’t seem to be as concerned with the other person’s actions in damaging the relationship). Second common reason was not wanting to deal with others hurt or angry feelings.

This is a lot to unpack for setting boundaries, and it is crucial to understand and deal with your own discomfort if you are to successfully set boundaries.

The object of safety planning is safety, yes.  And, for most efficacy, put some effort into planning.  Someone acts, you respond, what’s next?

Over the last few months I’ve talked a lot about setting boundaries. Most of the time is it successful, in large part because most peoples’ intent are pretty good.  Also in part because most perpetrators want easy targets — they don’t want to have to work hard.

However, sometime there may be repercussions or consequences. This can happen where there’s a difference in power, where there’s an employer/employee relationship, or coach/athlete relationship, or teacher/student relationship. It can also happen when peers are involved.  Part of making your personal safety planning effective is in plotting out those “what’s next” possibilities.

Consider the other person’s possible responses when you set a boundary, and plan your responses to them. Assess the probabilities of each of the possible responses. This should be based on your past experiences with that person. If you set boundaries, could your boss deny a promotion or raise, or demote you, or fire you? Can a coworker or classmate begin a round of gossip, or even try to sabotage some of your work? Can a coach limit your play time, or even cut you from the team?  Will that person get a bit huffy, stomp away, and then nothing else happens?  Or will they just say “OK,” and it’s all good?

Assess the people around — are they likely to be allies or detractors? Is it safe for you to talk to some of them beforehand?

And, if necessary, do you have an exit strategy?

Watch the Netflix documentary Athlete A for some good examples of choices around boundaries.  I wrote about that a few weeks ago.

And even if you’re not liking some possible outcomes of setting boundaries, think of the results of NOT setting boundaries. Which consequences would you rather live with?

It happens to everyone.  You say or do something that offends or upsets another.  You care about that other person, and you recognize why your actions or words caused them grief.  You acknowledge it to them, and say you are sorry.

While knowing how to apologize is an important safety (and social) skill, it is not today’s topic.

Today I want to emphasize that your setting a boundary is not cause for an apology.

You should not have say sorry for treating your needs and peace of mind as priorities.  You should not have to say sorry for taking your own safety and comfort into account.  You should not have to say sorry for self-care.

You should not have to say sorry for taking up your personal space.  You should not have to say sorry for having your own opinions, and voicing them.  You should not have to say sorry for taking time for yourself.

But still, you may find yourself apologizing just to get by, just to get through the day.  Because it seems you’re judged more harshly when you dare to assert yourself.  And you still need to get along with others at work, or in some social settings.  If that is the case, if you decide to make that tactical decision to use the “s” word, do it with no guilt.  Because it’s your choice.  Sometimes, in considering personal safety, you have a choice between being safe and being right.  That is your determination.  You may not want to fight every battle, so choose which are most important for you.  Do remember, however, that this is the result of a specific power dynamic, a tug-of-war over who gets to define what is “acceptable” or “appropriate” or “normal.”

And remember that a truly crucial element of your personal safety is the choice you make to keep yourself safer.

You may know this site as Strategic Living Personal Safety and Self-Defense Training. But today, for this post, we are Strategic Living Personal Safety and Selectivity Training. Because recognizing and selecting when to say YES or NO is an important component of your personal safety. As a bonus feature, an important component of your peace of mind.  You make choices every day, selecting whether to say YES or NO to requests.

That includes when someone wants your time. They may be a stranger, a co-worker, client, acquaintance, exercise buddy, family member, BFF; could be live, could be on some webinar platform such as Zoom, could be on Facebook or other social media. Maybe they want advice, or want to give you advice, or tell you about their day, or make sure you know their opinion. Maybe they want a discussion, or pick a fight, or are testing your boundaries to see what they can get out of you. Maybe they just need to connect with another human.

By all means take that into account, and consider what you want. Much of the time, you can select whether to engage or not, and at what level. Recognize when you can make that choice.  Think of it as selectivity training.

Perhaps because I’m a bit older, I take measure of my time. I’m at the age where I’ve lived more years than are ahead, and my use of my time has more urgency.  (If you are younger this is still true, but you may not think about it with the same sense of urgency.)  My time is valuable. Once spent, I can’t get it back. So I choose to spend more time on people and events that I will enjoy, or from which I will benefit, or that will result in a sense of accomplishment or feeling that I was able to help, or it’s sustaining and self-care. If somebody wants to waste my time, I probably don’t need to let that happen. I can select to end the conversation, say no, walk away.  Perhaps they will consider me rude; oh well, that is their prerogative. And that’s it. Move on. Live your life. Stay safe, and live life.

These last 2 weeks I’ve been outlining finding support after assault.  Self-care is a critical aspect of anyone’s overall safety plan, and the central pillar of self-care is knowing who among your family and friends could support you after any assault, regardless of outcome.  Two weeks ago I began outlining traits of those individuals, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human does.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Two weeks ago I described what listening looks and sounds like.  Last week I described what believing you and reminding you it wasn’t your fault looks and and sound like.  Today I have a few more words on blame and fault-finding, and then move on to creating community.

First, some words about those who habitually blame victims for their own assaults. This is chronic in domestic violence, where the abuser is manipulating the target’s perception.  Very often also manipulating the perception of those around, cutting off ways of getting support.  This is often described as “gaslighting.”  It is a long-term strategy for you to relinquish control and hand over decision-making.

Getting support? Not from them!

Getting support? Not from them!

A major process in our culture is an adversarial approach — our justice system and political system are set up to pit two sides against each other, there are defined rules and referees, they duke it out like a boxing or martial arts sparring match, and a winner is picked. So it’s not really a surprise that some of us expand that view, that life is a brutal competition.  It bleeds into other parts of our lives, where there are no explicit rules, no referee, and it’s not a good fit.  And it’s all about power.

There does not need to be a long-term relationship for blame-shifting to occur.  People who harm others often try to shift attention away from themselves and their actions to what the victim did “wrong.”  The stereotypical ones include “what was she wearing,” “how much did she drink,” and “she was flirting.”  Others in our communities, like ourselves, want to stay safe and part of their process, though, is to find out details about what happened to others and resolve to not make the same “mistakes.” Except there’s a big problem with this approach.  The person targeted may have done something different, and it may have made a difference, or maybe not.  There are people who do “wrong” stuff all the time — they smile at strangers, they drink a lot, maybe even pass out on a friend’s couch.  And didn’t get assaulted.  Because there was no assailant present.  The common elements of all assault isn’t clothing choices or alcohol consumption or flirting, it’s the person(s) who made the bad choice to take what they wanted, regardless of consent.

Do you want to wait until after an assault to figure out who your supportive friends are?  Probably not.  Rather, you can be cultivating those relationships now.

My colleague Yehudit Sidikman of ESD Global suggested in a recent blog post that you practice talking about “what-if” scenarios with those important people in your life.  One of her examples is, “mom, if something like this [kind of assault] ever happened to me, how would you react if I told you?”  Or begin a conversation with a good friend like, “ I’ve never had this happen to me, but I am wondering how you would react if I came to you and told you that [add story].”  Maybe there was a recent assault in the news, you could use that as your example.  Or a particular #MeToo story.  Their responses can give you some information about what they think about assault and blame.  We do all know that there’s often a gap between what a person says and what they will do, so please temper this with what you already know about them.   But, perhaps more importantly, it will also give them food for thought. And this does not have to be a “one-off” discussion, and should not be a one-off.  You transition that “what-if” into a conversation on what it means to be supportive, to be a friend, do you want to be supportive, when do you feel it important to be supportive.  When these conversations happen with a few people in your circle, and it becomes less awkward, you get a better sense of where people are at.  You find those who share your values, and you maybe even move others to really think about what support means.

Building these relationships takes a while.  And it is critical.  And that’s how communities begin, one relationship at a time.

Why don’t you begin with the very next conversation you have with someone close?  Today is not too soon.

Today, November 11, is Veterans Day.  The one day where we as a nation formally thank those who served our country with their military service. Parades, taking out old photos and uniforms, visits to memorials.  We recognize all those who served.  At the same time, as a nation we are less caring about veterans’ getting support they need.

For about 12 years (between 2003 and 2014) I worked with Dr. Wendy David, Dr. Ann Cotton, and the VA Medical Center in Seattle on the Taking Charge project.  This 12-week self-defense program was for women veterans who were suffering from long-term, chronic PTSD as a result of sexual assault while in military service.  (Unfortunately, the program ended when Dr. David retired.)  If you are familiar with PTSD, you know it’s not pretty.  Watch this short video for more on the effects and possible causes.

While this blog post not an exposition on PTSD, I have to note there’s a significant correlation between social support and the likelihood of an assault survivor developing PTSD.  One commonality all the participants in Taking Charge had was a lack of support from those around them after their assaults.  Our culture does come with a large victim-blaming component, and sorting out those who can be supportive from those who won’t is likely to be critical to your long-term health and happiness.

Last week I began outlining how to find those individuals who would be supportive, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human would do.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Last week’s post was on the first bullet point, listening.  Today I’m moving on to the other two.

They believe you.  Most women are assaulted by someone known to them, particularly in cases of sexual assault.  They may be a friend, a co-worker, a classmate, a colleague, a family member.  Because of that, others you know will also know that assailant.  When you confide in someone in that same circle, it can get complicated.  That person may be struggling to wrap their brains around what you are telling them, which may be totally counter to their own experiences with the assailant.  They’re trying to figure out how someone they know as a kind and generous soul could have done something so wrong.  We humans do not do well with that sort of cognitive dissonance.  That can come out as questioning your account of what happened, which comes across as non-supportive.  One option is to confide in someone from another social circle.  Another is to cultivate relationships of support, which is the topic of next week’s blog post.

Finally, a supportive person will remind you that the assault was not your fault.  Period.  End of sentence.  It is so common for the person assaulted (or targeted) to go over details again and again and again in their heads, trying to figure out if they could have, should have, done something different.  Maybe there is something they could have done differently.  It may or may not have made a difference.  It’s overlooking the fact that someone else made that choice to harm someone.  That’s right, the assailant is not like a fast-moving river into which you slip and fall.  Rivers don’t make choices to injure or drown people.  But people do.  The assailant is the person who is responsible for their actions.  If you are the listener, please make it a point to remind your friend/family member of that.

And, in a nutshell, that’s how you know someone is supportive.  But, do you really want to wait until you are in need to find those trusted, supportive folks?  No.  Next week we’ll look at building supportive communities.