Nicola’s Got Nerve: Boundary Setting at Home and at Work for Self-Protection on the Street

This post is part of our Nicola’s Got Nerve series by Nicola Briggs.

I believe that it’s vital to practice boundary-setting every day. You might think that that sounds like a lot of work, even a bit paranoid. But if you practice in environments that feel non-threatening, you’ll be gratified to see that you can rise to even the most surprising and stressful situation. Even if, God forbid, a do-or-die moment comes along, you will be ready. It’s difficult to think of getting into the right mind set to save your yourself from harm if you don’t continually work on establishing appropriate boundaries.

So what would some examples be in different settings? One could be refusing to allow your new boyfriend or girlfriend to show up at your house or work unannounced. You see, little transgressions like this, while seemingly cute and endearing at first, tend to escalate into even more violating behaviors.

Here’s an every-day example: Say you have a neighbor in your apartment building or on your block that continually asks about your private life. It always makes you really uncomfortable, but you seem to end up giving the information that he or she wants, just so you don’t appear rude. Well, that person is actually acting like a bully (even if they don’t realize it) and if you don’t want your privacy violated again, it’s time to look after yourself and set some boundaries in a polite way. Changing the topic of conversation to the person asking the questions, or even to another non-personal topic is a great way of deflecting attention away from yourself, thereby safeguarding your privacy. Information is power, and no one can take away your power without your consent.

Boundary setting is vitally important in the workplace as well. When I was fresh out of college, I once had a supervisor who tried to assert dominance over me by draping her arm over my shoulders each time she visited me in my cubicle. She kept doing it, until I had to tell her that it made me uncomfortable. Instead of respecting my request, she tried to save face and put me on the defensive, saying something to the effect of, “Well, everybody likes hugs, why don’t you?” It really doesn’t matter whether the someone doing this is male or female, if action is inappropriate and makes you feel uncomfortable, you’ve got a right to speak up against it. Or it will keep happening, and sometimes escalate.

I have seen so many people in authority do this so many times, that I’ve actually given it a name. I like to call it, “The Supervisor Hold.” Mind you, this is not simply a casual, friendly act between equals, because I have never seen an employee do this to their employer. Now, this is something you want to become aware of, because some supervisors might be doing it unconsciously, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very effective method of coercion. There’s something about the touch of a fellow human being that we all respond to, and if that person is not a stranger, then we’ve already been conditioned on some level to accept that touch, no matter what it’s real intention is. So it behooves us to examine whether we really feel comfortable with this kind of contact, especially if its coming from a superior. Some people might not say anything about it, just because they feel it might put their position in jeopardy, not because they actually like the contact.

And if you want to speak up about it, how should you go about that? From my personal experience, if you want the unwanted contact to stop, but want to maintain a working relationship, the best way is to have a private, short, direct, but respectful conversation with the person who’s making you feel uncomfortable. By establishing boundaries in the home and work environment you won’t hesitate to make sure that someone on the outside of those “safe” zones doesn’t run rough-shod over your personal space, either physically or psychologically. This is vitally important for your safety, and will allow you to move about your world with greater confidence.

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  1. Rachel Martin says:

    I just saw your subway story on the New York Daily News site (via Facebook): that was so excellent, ma’am. Thanks for providing this excellent example of just saying no to the creepies, getting bystanders involved, and shaming those who deserve it.

    I linked to your blog, too, in a comment on the NYDN site.

    Keep kickin’ ass, ma’am.

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