Happy New Year!
Years ago, I wrote a series of articles about religious abuse. They had been prompted by an overwhelming wave of reports about abusive group leaders in my area.
While I was sifting through the stories, I found that one of the most common forms of abuse in the neo-pagan community is sexual abuse. The reasons we are vulnerable to this kind of manipulation are varied. Many of us are coming out of Abrahamic traditions that are sexually repressive and we want to find a healthy, happy way to express our sexuality. Many of us are coming out of emotionally or physically abusive families or institutions and we are trying to find a healthy way to cope with our trauma. Many of us are trying to make sense of the world from a spiritual place that doesn’t reinforce the dysfunction we are trying to escape. All of these kinds of damage make for problems with boundaries, trust and ultimately, informed, non-coerced consent.
The first step is a self-inventory of the boundaries you have. We all have a series of physical, material, emotional, mental and spiritual boundaries between ourselves and others. There is a good chance your boundaries may not be well defined, or even something you can articulate. Concentrate on what actions or reactions make you feel comfortable, comforted and safe
Physical: How do I feel about people standing close to me? About people touching me? Hugging me? Kissing me?
Material: How do I feel about loaning people money? Books? Clothes?
Emotional: How do I feel about sharing my feelings about _____? How do I feel about being questioned? Asked to elaborate or explain?
Mental: How do I feel about sharing my thoughts about _____? How do I feel about being questioned? Argued with?
Spiritual: How do I feel about sharing my spiritual experiences about _____? How do I feel about being questioned? Asked to elaborate or explain?
The Target Exercise
Draw a target and make yourself the bull’s eye. Then think about the people in your life. Who is closest to you? Some examples are your lovers, your spouses, your children, your most intimate friends. These are the people who you would trust with your life, your sanity, your safety. If there is no one in that circle, that’s okay.
Then draw the next circle. These are the people who you like and maybe even love, but you aren’t comfortable sharing certain things with them. Some examples are your non-pagan siblings or parents or mundane friends. If there is no one in that circle, that’s okay.
Then draw the next circle. These are the people you like and maybe even love, but you aren’t comfortable sharing most personal things with them. Some examples are co-workers, spiritual group members that you don’t know well, acquaintances. If there is no one in that circle, that’s okay.
Then draw the next circle. These are the general public, people you meet in doctor’s offices or the DMV, who you may chat with but are basically strangers. If there is no one in that circle, that’s okay.
Then draw the next circle. These are the people you definitely do not feel comfortable or safe around. If there is no one in that circle, that’s okay.
Once you have your circles drawn, go through your boundaries inventory and think about which boundaries should go in or around which circle. If you don’t have boundaries for a circle, create some.
Keep this exercise available and review it periodically, especially when you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Did someone violate a boundary? Do you need to add a new boundary based on a person or an event? Did someone change their position based on something trustworthy or untrustworthy that they did?
When you feel anger or resentment, or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, then determine what you need to do or say. Then communicate your boundary assertively. When you are confident you can set healthy boundaries with others, you will have less need to put up walls.
When need to set a boundary with another person, do it clearly without anger or fear, in as few words as possible. Do not justify, apologize for, or rationalize the boundary you are setting. Boundaries are important for your health and safety. You are not responsible for anyone else’s reaction to your boundaries. If the other person reacts poorly to your boundary setting, walk away. Re-evaluate where that person is on your target.
People that are used to controlling you, abusing you, or manipulating you will test your boundaries. Plan on it, expect it. Do not apologize for protecting yourself. Be firm. You are worth protecting.
People who care about you will be willing to respect your boundaries, but if it is a new process, they will overstep through ignorance. Be prepared to be firm about your boundaries when they are not being respected. Boundary setting is often a way to weed out those people who are not healthy for you. If necessary, end the relationship. In extreme cases, you might have to involve the police or judicial system by sending a no-contact letter or obtaining a restraining order.
Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. You won’t do it perfectly every time, all the time. You will set boundaries when you are ready. It’s your growth in your own time frame, not what someone else tells you.
Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. People who respect your right to set boundaries will help you learn to trust and understand yourself better. Eliminate toxic persons from your life, anyone who want to manipulate you, abuse you, and control you. If you are willing, find a therapist or join a support group.
Next time, I’ll talk about sex positive behavior and dubious consent.
Your mileage will most certainly vary