About a couple of months ago, my friend Michelle proposed that I write a piece about how to establish boundaries for yourself and to respect that of others.
Honestly, I have no advice for my friend or my fellow readers as I can only speak from my perspective and personal experiences. As a Black female abuse survivor with mental illness and neurodivergence, the very concept of boundaries is dissimilar to that of the next individual. For one, I had to find out and understand were boundaries were. The term itself is defined as “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent,” meaning that a barrier (invisible or otherwise) is employed to preserve something significantly important.
But for countless Black women and young girls, boundaries within their immediate environment are nonexistent. Writer Nneka M. Okona accurately describes the typical role of the Black woman within the family structure when she writes: “We do not belong to ourselves: our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our hearts, our spiritual state. Our emotional labor is prescribed and expected.” I grew up in a household where healthy boundaries were not exactly established—let alone enforced. In addition to rarely having my own space in our little home on 19th Street (as I shared it with my brothers or visiting cousins), my body, ideologies, creative expression, and even my voice was under what seemed like constant scrutiny. My aspirations and need for self-identity were dismissed because they didn’t involve my mother’s Christian God. When I attempted to defend myself, I was punished even further as I was not allowed express any emotion towards being mistreated.
So, by the time I stumbled into young adulthood, I’ve concluded that my very identity was spoken for by others. Whenever I was asked to do something, I complied despite my misgivings about the people and situation at hand. The main objective, I justified, was to keep everyone calm to avoid an altercation that would involve me being violated. It wasn’t until I moved to Rochester, New York in 2005 and began my personal journey towards sobriety that I gave myself the permission to feel. While I was a newcomer in Alcoholics Anonymous, my first sponsor informed me that expressing anger was allowed—a foreign concept to me. Nevertheless, that invitation stuck with me and, after years of taming it to some extent, my fury groomed me into the passionate, opinionated Radical creative I am today.
And who I am at this moment is one of the reasons I decided to not marginalize myself in regards to my capabilities. Throughout the education system, Black children with learning disabilities are often labeled incompetent and unteachable while associated with negative stereotypes constructed by systematic racism. Already branded as an “Other,” the result is that many of us place limitations on ourselves psychologically as adults, resigning to the false narrative that we’ll never make it. For more than a decade, I unknowingly struggled with Inattentive Attention Deficit Disorder or Inattentive ADD. Because I was untreated the majority of the time, I literally navigated through this society believing that I was unintelligent (being called “stupid” by family members and bullies only seemed to solidify this perception).
But once I realized what I was struggling with, I had to learn to overcome the psychological, emotional, and intellectually boundaries I placed on myself and my capabilities. This White dominated society thrives on neurotypical induced ableism infused with supremacy. Since it refuses to support me and my learning needs, my only alternative was to discover ways to manage my symptoms. I can’t retain information, so I write everything down—most of the time—and read aloud so I remember. I’m a visual learner who loves to read, which is why I watch programs with closed captions to catch every word. I have “To Do” sticky notes on my computer to stay on track. My doctor will reinstate the prescription for Adderal due to my high blood pressure, so strong coffee works as a substitute.
But above all, I refuse to allow intellectual elitists of any shade plant the seed that I am incapable. If anyone even attempts to take there, I exercise right to aggressively vocalize my disdain with exemption. Too many people have crossed my boundaries because I did not have the courage to speak up in the past. I even considered the feelings of the other person above my own believing that I’ve done something wrong. At this point in my life, however, I have neither patience for assholes nor for their aspiration to do the absolute most.
And I now expect a similar response from others when I myself become a line-stepper. Until recently, I often thought that many people (particularly Radical Leftists) shared similar ideologies regarding sex. As a sexual abuse survivor, my views on relationships and intimacy are skewed for the most part. So I went through my early 20s/early 30s chasing partners, sexualizing friendships by only viewing them to as a means to an end—which involved getting into their bed. If there was an “initial session,” I treated that person as if they owed me companionship and became infuriated when affection was not reciprocated. I’ve burned entire bridges due to my unhealthy conduct towards unhealthy people.
Though I’m gradually embracing my sexual expression, I had to understand that not all minds think alike in regards to sex and relationships. In retrospect, my behavior was very similar to that of my perpetrator and those who’ve sexual assaulted me as an adult. The power and control inflicted upon me throughout the years—the emotional manipulation, feigned compassion, intimidation, and infuriation—I’ve imposed onto potential partners. Beneath the shield toxicity was the yearning for the unconditional love and respect I barely experienced as a child. Unfortunately, my story is nothing new, considering that Black women and young girls are more likely raped and/or sexually abused before the age of eighteen. And many of us, searching for validation, often use sex to obtain it by violating the borderlines of others.
That fact alone forced me to realize that not every individual I shake hands with is a friend for life. I learned that I’ve no right to hold someone hostage simply because we had coffee a few times. No one owes me eternal friendship. People have the liberty to tell me “No,” “Not right now,” and multiple versions of that response. My fear of rejection and loneliness is not an excuse to step over someone’s line in the sand. If anything, I deserve to have my feelings hurt if the situation calls for it—especially if I’m not acquainted with the individual or group in question.
And yes, I naturally want to assist folks—especially friends and family members for when I care about deeply. But not everyone needs me caping for them when they are more capable of defending themselves. Besides being a Captain Saveaho causing me humiliation and stress on numerous occasions, it further perpetuates the Mammy stereotype associated with protective Black women. I’m not insinuating that I’m going to cease supporting folks, but unless the situation is dire and the person is in imminent danger, I only intervene when asked.
As I said before, everyone has their own set of boundaries so there are many answers to this universal question of where to draw the line. But by the end of the day, establishing one’s threshold includes constant self-reflection and learning from personal experiences. It involves being mindful of how I am treated as a Black woman with a traumatic history, what I myself have allowed to occur, and why. It’s understanding and respecting the limitations of others and their tolerance for my behavior—even though my bruised ego may not agree. But most importantly, it’s about knowing what my boundaries are to begin with and living by those convictions to maintain a meaningful quality of life.