On Boundary Setting -- An Interview With Jackie Hyman
Jackie has a special passion for teaching women about creating and setting healthy boundaries, and is eager to share her expertise with us.
Q. Boundary setting is a term that gets thrown around a lot. How do you define boundary setting?
A. I would say that boundary setting is the use of verbal or physical tools to assertively communicate what is comfortable and what is not in any interpersonal situation, or to protect one’s values, beliefs, mental or physical or emotional health, personal safety or personal resources.
Q. Why is boundary setting such a crucial part of any empowerment self-defense curriculum?
A. A holistic approach to preventing violence must address all fronts. We can’t expect women to defend their bodies if we haven’t even provided them with the tools to discern what their personal boundaries are in relation to their bodies.
We are educated enough now to know that most self-defense situations for women involve a man that she knows, and she often times is even already in a physical or romantic relationship with him. We know that we don’t want a rapist to jump us in the street, but when it comes to new sexual territory on a date or with a partner, an unwanted situation can be avoided by empowering women to trust themselves when it comes to their boundaries and feel good about saying no.
Even with strangers, family members, or colleagues, most sexual assault situations begin with small boundary crossing. If I am comfortable with demanding that someone stop acting in a certain way, I may be able to prevent them from trying something worse.
The more we are comfortable saying no in the context of everyday situations: to our boss, our mom, our neighbor, our child’s teacher, or the stranger who asks to use our phone but gives us a bad feeling, the more comfortable we will be with asserting ourselves in a self-defense situation.
Q. What makes learning to set boundaries difficult for so many women?
A. Women, whether by nature or nurture, have been programmed to be accommodating, polite, nice, and giving. I don’t see these as negative traits at all, except when they interfere with our personal boundaries.
Women have not been provided with the right tools for learning to discern where our boundaries are, and we certainly haven’t been given full permission by society to trust our basic instincts when it comes to our boundaries. We are scared of being labeled yet again as another “crazy” “emotional” or “overreacting” “dramatic” woman.
Society has made it clear that this is not what it wants from women, and so even when we feel something is wrong, we shrink back into the traits we’ve learned we will be rewarded for: giving, niceness, and politeness, and to justify that, we tell ourselves a story that we are over-reacting.
I’ve also noticed more and more that in old movies, that the man decides for the woman what she wants sexually, even after she resists, and she ends up realizing that she wants it in the end. There is such a strong message there that women don’t know what they want, and they need men to tell them or help convince them.
A dangerous message for both sexes.
Q. What are your favorite activities for teaching boundary setting skills?
A. I love role playing, and of course yelling at an IMPACT mugger, but one of my favorite activities involves not letting one woman out of a circle until she uses her voice and body language assertively to effectively communicate what she wants.
She has to do it without asking, without excuses, without pleading, apologies, or explanations, and in a tone of voice and stance that mean business, without aggression.
I encountered a situation once where a man blocked me from leaving his house. I definitely could have used the tools learned in that game.
Q. In your opinion, what is the difference between assertively setting a boundary and being rude?
A. It’s very possible and IMO preferable to assert a boundary politely, but sometimes politeness isn’t relevant. That’s fine with me. We need to learn that it’s ok to be rude if we need to be in order to demand respect.
In fact, we need to learn that it’s ok to break any social norm that might prevent us from asserting and defending ourselves.
The problem I have is with aggressive boundary setting. It doesn’t necessarily command respect, it can lead to others resisting respecting your boundaries, and it can even escalate into violence, which is the opposite of what we want, and it isn’t necessary.
Q. Do you have any tips for those of us who are struggling to set boundaries with people we know?
A. Gain support from like minded women! I know we all want to be Wonder Woman and deal with things on our own, but the truth is we need each other and these battles are so hard to fight alone.
Reach out to someone who really respects you, tell them about your situation, internalize their support, and even ask for advice on what words to use, and then recap with them afterwards for additional support.
That’s why I love the Facebook group I manage: Women Setting Healthy Boundaries. It’s a very closed and intimate place full of women who can help with boundary setting methods, and of course support!
Q. Do you have any stories about boundary setting that you’d like to share?
A. I always tell a story about how I was walking home one night and I was really cold - so I had my arms closed and I was hunched over. A creep started walking with me and asking me all kinds of questions and wouldn't buzz off.
When I became mindful of how I was carrying my body, made a point of bringing my hands down, standing erect, made eye contact and raised my voice, he literally ran away.
I wasn’t listening to what he was saying, but he asked me a yes or no question, and I just shouted “No!” He got the message that I wasn’t answering his question, I just wasn’t interested in conversation.
I just remembered that one time at the beach, an older man under the pergola next to ours was looking at me every time I glanced over. I decided that I wasn’t 100% comfortable with that. Finally I just called out the action. “You’re looking at me.” “What?” “You keep looking at me.” “No I’m not looking at you.” Stops looking at me. LOL! That’s really all it takes sometimes.
Note: Jackie has been sharing more stories about boundary setting as part of a podcast and Facebook live show that she recently started with her husband to exemplify what a discussion about feminist topics with a healthy male perspective looks like.
This is their pilot episode:
Q. Any last words of wisdom you’d like to leave us with?
A. Women are beautiful, deep, spiritual, and powerful creatures. Every single one of you has something beautiful and unique about you that is only yours. Start to nurture that, start to love that, start to forgive yourself for your past, and for your current flaws, and talk to yourself the way you would to your best friend.
Protecting one’s self takes courage, and we all have so much courage when it comes to defending the people we love. It’s time to start radically loving ourselves so we are ready to defend ourselves too.
Such wonderful advice.
Thank you for visiting, Jackie!
Jackie Hyman has been teaching ESD for 8 years through El Halev in Jerusalem. She teaches IMPACT, the "Freedom to Choose" workshop, and she loves to empower women through cardio kick-boxing and a body positive approach to fitness. On any given day you can catch her snuggling with her three children on the couch reading books, or folding mountains of laundry in front of Netflix.
If you have any more questions for Jackie, or stories / tips about boundary setting, please leave a comment!