Radical Boundary Setting: "Being a Bitch" as Self-Care
At one point last year, I went into a therapy session on the verge of a meltdown. On the brink of tears, I immediately began telling my therapist how overwhelmed I had become. On top of graduate school applications, starting a new relationship, working full-time, and navigating a physical health issue, I was being bombarded with criticisms and complaints pushing back against my writings and activism in favor of abolishing sanism, ableism, and paternalism.
Many of these criticisms and complaints came in the form of questions. Typically sent through Facebook comments or private message, they were often framed as “what if” questions. “But what if someone is a danger to themselves or others?” “Don’t you think someone should be locked up if they are really suicidal?” “Don’t you think some disabled people - like those with severe autism - are a burden to society?” “But what should I do if my child is cutting themselves?”
At the time, I often naively thought that these responses to my work were genuine questions coming from a place of curiosity and the desire to learn more. As a new activist myself, I could relate to those who didn’t fully understand yet, or who wanted to get a better grasp on the ideas I was supporting. I wanted to help in whatever way I could. And so I would spend my time and energy painstakingly crafting replies to these questions, writing well thought-out and reasoned answers explaining my position in a way I felt would be accessible and understandable to people unfamiliar with neurodiversity, Mad Pride, the social model of disability, and other related concepts.
As I said, I was naive. The vast majority of the time, my responses would be met with rebuttal, further what-ifs, criticisms, or ridicule. The situation would devolve into a debate or argument over which groups of people are or are not deserving of the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy. More and more people would join in to defend the side of the questioner; I would feel increasingly attacked and increasingly obligated to respond. At the same time, I would feel increasing amounts of self-doubt and at times, self-hate: what if the other person was right? What if I didn’t deserve self-determination and bodily autonomy? What if I was a burden onto society? What if I didn’t even deserve to accept myself or like myself? I began to feel a constant sense of anxiety and restlessness, preparing myself for attack, for self-defense.
And so I sat in my therapist’s office, panicked, exhausted, utterly overwhelmed. “I know this seems so trivial. It’s just social media, after all,” I said. “But if people are taking the time to read my work and then they have questions about it, I feel like I at least owe them some sort of answer. I don’t want to seem cold or unwilling to engage or like I think I’m better than them. I don’t want to be a bitch.”
My therapist raised his eyebrows. “What if I gave you permission to be a bitch? What if I gave you permission to just not respond sometimes? To set boundaries?”
I hesitated. “I don’t know. Wouldn’t that be unethical? I mean, I think a lot of people would be really unhappy with me.”
“Would it make your life better?” he asked. I nodded.
After that session, I gradually began to set boundaries. I started telling people that I would not engage in debates or arguments about which groups should or should not have human rights and self-determination, what kinds of people do or do not deserve to be accepted, or which people are or are not valuable. My answers to those are absolutes: every single person deserves human rights and self-determination, every single person deserves to be accepted, and every single person is valuable. Those answers are not up for debate; I am not going to be swayed. I told people that I would answer clarification questions or provide resources for more information, if I had time, but I would not argue. I would not allow them to place me in a position of needing to defend myself or my friends, comrades, or fellow humans.
And I was correct: setting these boundaries made my life better. The less time I spent debating with those who doubted the value of myself or my fellow disabled comrades, the more time I had to spend with those who do value me and believe in my right to self-determination. The less time I spent doubting myself and wondering if I even deserved to like myself, the more time I had to spend with those who encouraged me to view myself positively. The less time I spent challenging those with biases and bigotry, the more time I got to spend building up and encouraging fellow activists, being a good friend and partner.
Up till that point, I had been pretty skeptical of the idea of setting boundaries. The world spends a whole lot of time telling people with privilege how to “set boundaries” with those who are marginalized. We are encouraged not to make eye contact with those who ask for money in public spaces. Parents are encouraged not to “give in” to their children’s wants and needs in order to establish authority; therapists are told to set strict rules with clients around social media and after-hours texting. We are advised to limit the amount of time we spend with depressed or pessimistic people - “toxic individuals” - so we don’t get dragged down. I worry that a lot of the boundaries we are encouraged to set serve to further dehumanize marginalized and vilified people and to reinforce existing power dynamics.
But rarely are marginalized people encouraged to set boundaries with those with privilege or power. We are often sent the message that if we want to be valued and given the rights we deserve, we need to answer their questions, respond to their demands. We are told that not doing so is impolite, rude, “bitchy.”
My therapist’s permission set boundaries - to be impolite, to be rude, to be a bitch - was one of the best things I got out of therapy. It gave me a chance to practice real self-care - not self-care in the sense of, “If you just take a bubble bath or do some meditation all your troubles will go away,” but self-care in the sense of recognizing that my time (like everyone’s, and especially all of those who are marginalized or disabled in some way) is limited and highly valuable, and that I have the right to exercise what little control I have over who I spend it with. That, to me, is radical boundary setting, a radical prioritizing of myself and my time in a world that says I owe my existence to those with privilege.
I now usually reply to the “questions” I get in one of a few different ways. If it’s a good day or the person seems well-intentioned enough, I’ll say something along the lines of, “I have a limited amount of time left in my life (as we all do) and am not going to spend it replying to this. You are welcome to read my work to learn more about my stances if you’re genuinely curious.” If I have time, I might even link to some blog posts. If it’s a bad day and I don’t have much free time, I usually won’t reply at all. If the commenter says something particularly hurtful or condescending, I may just reply, “Fuck off.”
Of course, there are those rare, few people I occasionally encounter who are genuinely curious. Who are not asking questions as a way to tear holes in my argument, to mock the ridiculousness of my values, but to actually try to understand the perspective and cultural shift I am advocating. One of the biggest challenges I experience with radical boundary setting is distinguishing these types from those who just want to debate or argue. I worry about the possibility of pushing away potential comrades and friends who genuinely want to learn. However, I generally find that those who want to learn are not completely scared off by a bit of boundary setting. Still, there is a delicate balance to strike.
If you are disabled or marginalized, I would love to hear from you how you set boundaries with those in privilege. How do you respond to requests to debate or argue over the value of a particular group’s lives or right to self-determination? How do you respond if that group includes you?