I once made fun of guy by calling him Sponge Bob Square Head. Another time, I got held in a corridor and had cricket balls thrown at me. I’ve punched my Dad in the face, been punched in the face, verbally abused a teacher, made a girl cry by calling her fat, been picked on for the way I look and I used to pull my cats tail as a kid*. I’ve ripped the piss out of some of my closest friends. I’ve made girls I’ve dated insecure and I’ve been involved in toxic relationships and manipulation games that made nobody involved happy.
I’ve been a dick to a lot of people, and some people have been a dick to me. When I look back on a lot of the things I’ve done to people and the stuff I’ve allowed happen to me – I cringe. And rightfully so.
We all have memories we regret, things we’ve said to one another in heated moments or moments of weakness that we wish we hadn’t. We remember the look on the other persons face, or we carry around a feeling of shame towards our own behaviour for years.
For me, this has always been the case.
I grew up hyperactive and disrespectful. I hated authority and was extremely insecure about my inability to fit in. As I result, I developed behaviours of treating people like shit. I wasn’t a complete terror; in fact, for the most part, I was a good kid. But like many of us, I did plenty of things I regret.
Part of growing up is learning to accept and manage the flaws in our own personalities. Whether we’re shy or narcissistic we have to be able to appraise ourselves and develop behaviours to calibrate for our own flaws.
This is called having boundaries. And learning to assert them is what this articles all about. A big 2500 word article I wish I could send back in time to teenage, dickhead me. Let’s jump right in:
Western culture and healthy boundaries are like Steven Hawking and Chamillionaire; they have fuck all in common. Western culture breeds behaviour where confrontation is avoided and repressed, passive aggressive behaviour is the norm and insulting people are how you make friends and take drunk girls home.
It’s a skill that westerners develop. Banter, jokes, being an asshole; there’s always someone who’s great at it, someone who sucks, and the rest in between. A cycle of participants in a dog pile of douchebaggery where everyone’s vying for the crown – but is it really necessary? And can it be solved?
WALKS LIKE A DUCK, QUACKS LIKE A…
People’s reactions are directly governed by what you will and will not tolerate, both from them and from yourself. If you allow people to walk all over you, people will walk all over you. If you regularly insult people, you are regularly going to invite the associated reciprocations into your life.
Our actions are a filter through which people will filter the social decisions they make with us. It’s not enough to appear to be a certain person; you have to be a certain person. An example of this would be your socially timid bodybuilder. On the surface he is enormous and visually threatening – this will gain him complements that reinforce this self-image. However when someone insults him and he does nothing, maybe laughs it off passively – all he’s telling everyone is that it’s a false alarm. They guy might look big and frightening, but inside he’s not at all. The same principle holds true in relationships. I.e. the bad boy in the leather jacket who you soon realise is actually a nice guy who can’t kiss girls. The way people (especially women) treat him after a few hours compared to a few minutes will be radically different.
But if we appear to be something, why aren’t we something?
EVERYONE’S A PUSSY…
Fear of confrontation, fear of rejection, fear of whatever; It’s a subject that’s needlessly overcomplicated. You don’t act because you’re afraid of the result. Or, if you want to be hard on yourself:
It’s because you’re a pussy.
And guess what? So am I. And so is that guy across the road; and everyone else in the whole world. Being a pussy is completely normal. In fact, I’d argue it’s our default position. The people you think are ‘the most confrontational’ are usually overcompensating because they’re scared too.
Fear is normal, and it exists for a reason. Fear of confrontation can save you from getting killed. The problem arises when these fears start entering into non-threatening situations and start moulding you into a passive participant in realities other people have decided for you.
So how do you handle fear?
I’m glad you asked. First you have to appreciate that handling fear is a process that completely and utterly sucks, takes a hell of a long time, and requires you to persistently hammer it out until your brain has changed its relationship to it. If you can’t accept that, then you’re going to struggle. If you can, then give this a try:
Step 1: Realistically appraise the threat of the situation. (This should be incredibly obvious to you in a micro second i.e. Am I scared of confronting my co-worker because he is armed with a knife and wants to murder me; or is he y’know a normal guy, and I just find confrontation awkward?)
Step 2: If your action won’t endanger you, act.
It’s really as simple as that. The only way out is through, you just have to do it and accept whatever physical bodily response you’re going to get, and whatever reaction you will get (ironically this is usually a positive one). Then just keep doing it over, and over again until your brain rewires itself and it is no longer an issue.
The shitty thing about fear is that you cannot change the cause of what you’re afraid of. It sticks around like chewing gum in hair. But training yourself to spot these feelings as they happen, and compare them to actual reality is the Peanut Butter Solution™ of present, clear minded thinking; grounding your thoughts and actions.
If you can’t do that, or you try it and it seems impossible, then I’d recommend seeing a cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT) immediately and working with the therapist to design a programme that will help you deal with this to the point where it is no longer an issue. There’s no shame in this, in fact, it’s what many people require. Those that can already take action just have a headstart.
But that’s just handling fear…
How do I assert the boundary?
‘I’ NOT ‘YOU’
You can have boundaries with yourself (typically referred to as self-discipline) and you can have boundaries with others. As in how other people will act towards you. Right?
You have boundaries with yourself. You don’t control others. You control yourself – what you will and will not tolerate. Examples such as I don’t let myself be insulted. I don’t give in to fear of rejection. I don’t let myself be manipulated. I don’t bully other people. I don’t eat ice cream (good luck with that). It’s about what you do and don’t want. It’s that simple.
And how do you express these boundaries?
Well if it only requires an action (or not taking an action) then you act accordingly. I.e. not eating ice cream. But if it requires you to speak?
Use a simple framework.
‘I don’t’ not ‘You don’t’.
If you tell someone what you personally want, it’s an ownership of yourself and your values and boundaries. It’s confident, independent and attractive. If you tell them what you want from them? It’s controlling, needy and inherently confrontational. Nobody likes being told what to do. Frame it from what you want for yourself – what values and boundaries you hold for yourself. Say it clear, direct and reasonable. If you’re angry, that’s cool let some of that in there, but don’t go exploding and frothing at the mouth. Just say it clear, direct and understandable.
Someone’s insulting you?
‘I don’t want to be insulted.’
Someone’s manipulating you?
‘I don’t want to be manipulated.’
Simple as that. You needn’t overcomplicate it. You don’t need to blather on about feeling ‘undervalued’ or hammer on about behaviour you’d ‘appreciate’ from them. Stop that. You’re overcomplicating it; trim the fat and toughen up.
Try it out.
BUT WHAT IF THEY…
If you’ve never tried handling boundaries before or you have and are simply uncomfortable doing it – there’s an inclination to resolutely believe that the worst will happen if you assert yourself. Like for example, your work colleague will murder you or Russian warheads will start flying.
Again this comes under fear, and the same principles apply. But for this, I’d add another simple framework. If you assert a boundary and it isn’t respected – leave. Just leave the interaction. If you’re interacting with someone and they have no respect for your boundaries, then they do not respect you.
Do you really want to be hanging out with someone like that?
CROSSING YOUR OWN BOUNDARIES
Asserting your boundaries with other people is great, but honouring your own standards of behaviour towards other people is a hallmark of maturity. When you behave in a way that is offensive, disrespectful or inappropriate towards other people, you do one simple thing:
You own it and apologise.
I believe there is a special circle of Hell for people who can’t apologise. It’s bizarre. I once had a co-worker who was chronically incapable of it. People like him are terrified of losing face and ramble on excuse making and spouting justifications for their shitty behaviour. It’s braindead stupid and best left for the narcissists.
People aren’t perfect. We fuck it up all the time. There’s no way to go through life without being offensive, disrespectful and inappropriate at some point. In fact, it’s going to happen often. That’s what happens when you pump a sack of meat with hormones, impulses, emotions and cognitive dissonance. Accepting that you’re on some level a permanent screw up is okay – because then you can own it and apologise.
Saying things like ‘You know what, that was rude. Sorry’ or ‘Hey, that was a shitty thing to do. I apologise’ aren’t a loss of power or face. They’re an ownership of your own failings. That’s confident, self-assured and most of all, human.
Learning to apologise is more important than ever before. We live in a strong contender for the most narcissistic generation of all time – where appearance and status are everything. Have the confidence to own yourself as you are, instead of trying to maintain how you’d like to appear.
In my own life when I screw up I try to just own it in a simple uncomplicated way. If I offend someone or say something dumb – I call myself out on it.
‘Y’know what, that was a shitty thing to say. Sorry.’
Then I move on. I don’t make a big deal about it; I just apologise and then move on. To most people this is fine, but some people want a little more. It’s up to you how far you take your own apology. I’m not one for grovelling, so I tend to just say:
‘Look I make mistakes, I’m not perfect.’
Then I move on. It depends a lot on the context, but I think this fits the bill for most. Obviously, if they’re extremely offended, then a finer touch will be needed. You’ve got to learn to decide for yourself.
Healthy boundaries are intimately tied to your self-respect and your respect for others. They’re a measuring stick for how you feel you belong in the world.
Do you deserve to get insulted?
Are you better than other people?
Do you get involved with manipulative behaviour?
Are you worse than other people?
If your answer was ‘No’ to all of the above then you’re on the right track. Respect isn’t about being perfect – your ego is going to fluctuate and sometimes you’ll feel like shit, sometimes you’ll feel like the king – Respect is about bringing your actions in line with what it is you want for yourself, whether you have to pull those actions up from the depths of insecurity or the heights of narcissism.
Respect is about having a line, first and foremost, for yourself that you won’t cross.
THE EASIEST WAY TO DEVELOP RESPECT
The easiest way to develop respect is to build that line for yourself. To have some measure of how it is you want yourself to treat other people, and then enforce it. As cliché as it is, do unto others really is good advice.
The more we start respecting the way we behave towards others, the more we start to become aware of the disrespect we’re tolerating from people in return. It’s in developing that awareness, that we can start to take action and create our boundaries.
It’s not about tit for tat. It’s about what do I want? How do I want to be treated?
THE IRONY OF RESPECT
Once those boundaries have been erected, you’ll begin to enter my favourite form of respect. Cheekiness.
I’ve always been a cocky, disrespectful guy, so boundaries are very important for me. My sense of humour is always to say the most inappropriate thing at any time. This, understandably, has gotten me in a lot of trouble.
But as I’ve gotten older, my sense of humour hasn’t changed at all, yet the reactions I’ve gotten have. Instead of getting in trouble, people appreciate my inappropriate, cocky behaviour as part of my personality.
Because at the core of what I’m saying isn’t disrespect, it’s respect. People can always tell your intentions – and now when I say cocky things, It’s no longer a narcissistic power thing, but it’s to make the other person laugh.
The irony of respect is that when it exists between two people, it can be playfully broken.
LEARNING TO RELAX
Having strong boundaries doesn’t mean you’re a walking fortress, it means you know what your boundaries are and are capable of upholding them when you want to. It doesn’t mean you always have to.
Anyone who’s flirted with a Western girl will attest to the fact that playful mocking is simply part and parcel with the whole process. Whilst I think it completely sucks as a way to attract people (the Brazilian method of just eye fucking the shit out of each other is way better), it is a social context that I recognise.
I don’t like being insulted, and I don’t like insulting other people. It’s lame. However in certain contexts, like the one above, I relax this boundary. I don’t mind making sacrifices for certain cultural proclivities (like the Brazilian method of kissing very, very early on. Did I mention I love Brazilians?).
Again this comes down to you. You know your own boundaries and you know when you want to uphold them. In the example of the Western girl flirting using mocking and teasing – it’s about deciding what you accept as a playful sign of affection, and what is just offensive.
It’s up to you.
GROWING UP AND MOVING FORWARD
I wish I knew a lot of this growing up, but in truth – this kind of stuff comes when it comes. Growing up is about accepting what we are, what we can and can’t do, and what it is within that causes the conflicts that affect ourselves and others.
For me, I was a narcissistic, insecure kid. There were plenty of good parts to my identity, but when I was younger, that was who had the reigns.
We can’t change who we are, but we can learn to manage it. That’s what boundaries is all about – respecting that reality, and the other people around you who are also part of it. None of us is perfect, but all of us can try.
*I still pull my Cat’s tail.