Over and over we are told we don’t know our own body. We don’t know our own mind. We don’t know our own boundaries or wishes or consent.
And, because we are told so often and from such an early age, we believe them.
And in the believing we allow others to have control over us. Over our body. Over our voice. Over our being. Our lives. ~ Gwynn Raimondi
The flip side to us not being connected to our own boundaries, to our own consent, and that is that we do not recognize the boundaries and consent of others. We don’t accept that No means No if that No isn’t something we want to hear. We touch people, no matter how lovingly, without their consent. We disregard others wishes and wants because we think we know better.
This happens almost daily in my home. I am still constantly unlearning and relearning power dynamics, consent and boundaries thanks to my two children, constantly being reminded of the responsibility of being the one “in power” and how to not be oppressive or authoritarian. Some days I am open to all the lessons they have for me and honestly, other days I am not. Some days I can patiently talk with them about their Noes and why I need it to be a yes (getting shoes on to get out the door to an appointment) and other days I just really want them to stop and blindly obey me because I’m tired and overwhelmed and have been running on empty for days (thinking about those great times in the past when my then-preteen told the then-toddler he can’t have something of hers and he screams in that screech-scream that both made my ears bleed and head feel like it was going to explode and I just wanted her to give him whatever the thing is to Make. It. Stop.).
It happens when I ask either of them if they want a thing, and they say no, and I then continue to ask approximately five hundred million times if they are sure they don’t want the thing, questioning over and over their No.
It happens when I take a bit of food off the younger’s plate, a plate he has abandoned at the table, and he sees me and reminds me I didn’t ask if I could eat his food.
It happens when we’re trying to get out the door.
It happens when I’m trying to get the house cleaned up.
It happens when one of them says they don’t want to do their homework that day.
And while it happens a million times over the week with my kids, it happens with adults too.
Truth is, I’m much better at not violating other adults consent. I tend to automatically respect their Noes and because of my own history I am perhaps extra sensitive about physically touching others grown-ups without their explicit consent. I’m also better about not questioning the whys behind their Noes, unless there is a philosophical conversation happening where my curiosity would be well received. Doesn’t mean it never happens, only that it happens less than with my kids.
Well, I am better now than I was a few years ago at respecting their autonomy, their Noes, their boundaries and consent. Even so I am still far from perfect.
So I have the privilege of receiving daily lessons on all the ways we are trained to give up our autonomy, our authority over our own bodies, our consent over our own lives.
And let me tell you, this training and conditioning runs deep.
Because this training and conditioning runs deep it isn’t going to be dismantled and dislodged in a day or a week or even a year. It will take a couple generations to unravel and dislodge and heal the collective relational trauma we all carry within us and all are complicit in out in the world.
This is exactly why we need to begin our work now. It is exactly why when we realize we have violated another person’s boundaries or consent or autonomy or authority over their own damn bodies and lives we need to make amends as best we can, learn the lesson as best we can, and do different the next time. We must start this work now, or it will not be dismantled in the next generation or two, if ever.
If we don’t start our own work now, we are complicit in the delaying of liberation for all people, for another generation.
If we don’t start our own work now, we are complicit in our own oppression as well as the oppression of other peoples.
If we don’t start our own work now, we are complicit in allowing the status quo just keep on keeping on.
If we don’t start our own work now, we are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Each of us need to do our parts in tearing down the oppressive culture that we live in.
Even if it is uncomfortable.
Even if it shows us the ways we have wronged others along the way and we need to go back and be accountable for our actions.
Even if it means being in a space of unknown and in-between and mistakes and stumbling and trying to figure it all out.
Because the moment we actually start doing our work is the exact moment we start to do our part in tearing all this shit down. It is the exact moment we begin to become part of the solution and become less a part of the problem.
I look at my kids and I think about all the things I do wrong every single day. All the ways I am unintentionally complicit and compliant to our oppressive culture. All the ways I pass down the conditioning and training. I won’t lie, it often feels overwhelming and the uphill battle of it all can feel like all too much for me to even attempt to make a tiny chip in.
Then I have a conversation with another woman who reminds me that I have broken the cycle of abuse.
Then I have a conversation with a different woman about how I am teaching my daughter about the powerful women of color, trans women, differently able bodied women, in the world and how until they are free and safe, none of us are.
Then I have a conversation with yet another woman about how I encourage my kids to have and feel and express their emotions in healthy ways.
And in those conversations I am reminded that I am making a difference. And while it won’t mean the world will be changed tomorrow, it does mean I am guiding two young humans to being in the world differently than I was raised to be and to having their own ripple effect in changing it all.
Parenting and auntie-ing and uncle-ing and grandparenting -all caregiving- is important and vital work. It is how we have a long lasting impact. It is how we help create a world we want for these young humans who are temporarily in our care. And of course the way we do this work, is through also doing our own work of unearthing and unraveling and dismantling, so we can teach them not only through our words, but also through our actions.
Our inner work is vital, and our work with the children in our lives is a vital step in making change within the next generation, there is also the greater work we need to be doing out in the world.
This greater work can look like any of a million things. It could be donating money to organizations that promote social justice. It could be volunteering time for a specific cause you believe in. It could be calling your representatives and/or attending town hall meetings. It could be speaking up when that racist relative says something oppressive or degrading at the family feast. It could be speaking up when you see a woman in a hijab being harassed.
It could be any of those things and so many more things.
All of this work, both inner and outer, in my opinion, in many ways, boils down to boundaries and consent. Honoring our own boundaries and honoring the boundaries of others. Defending our own boundaries and defending the boundaries of others. Respecting our own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others.
Inner work and outer work.
Both at the same time.
Because until we are connected to our own boundaries, until we respect them and defend them, until we know them, I’m not sure we can know or respect the boundaries of others.
This isn’t our fault.
We are trained and conditioned to disregard our own boundaries and to disregard the boundaries of others.
We are told our Noes don’t really mean No. And since our No doesn’t really mean No then their No doesn’t really mean No either.
We are told our body is not our own. And since our body is not our own, then their body is not their own either.
We are told and taught and trained in a million ways that we do not have autonomy or authority over our bodies, minds or lives. And since we don’t, they don’t either.
They can be just about anyone. That is, anyone who is not CIS, white, heterosexual, likely Christian, upper middle class (or more), able-bodied and always male.
No, it is not our fault that we received and internalized this training. It is not our fault this conditioning got deep under out skin into our very being. It is not our fault.
We didn’t ask for this training. We did not consent to this conditioning.
As I said for literally years, while it is not our fault, it is absolutely and unequivocally our responsibility.
It is our responsibility to stop passing on this training.
It is our responsibility to stop passing on this conditioning.
It is our responsibility to unearth and unravel and dismantle and dislodge it from our bodies and minds and ways of being in the world.
It is our responsibility to learn to feel and know and respect and honor and defend our own boundaries and the boundaries of others.
No, it’s not fair. And as I tell my kids, forget fairness and instead ask if it is just.
Because fairness is a fairy tale. But justice… justice is something we can all believe in and fight for and make reality.
Inner work and outer work. We need both.
To stop passing on harm.
To stop passing on abuse.
To stop being complicit and compliant to a dominant culture and its systems that don’t actually care about us.
To create a world that operates from a place of love not fear; liberation, not authoritarianism, connection and intimacy, not disconnection and isolation.
It is not easy work. And it is necessary.
So let’s do it.
This essay was originally published in my weeklyish newsletter in August 2017. It has been edited for publication here. To receive my most recent essays you can subscribe here.