Emotional Boundaries for Minorities and Advocates for Change

Photo: Luis Quintero

I started counseling again.

I used to go every week in college because the counseling fee was included in our tuition, so I took advantage of that resource while I had it. Of course, in the real world, it doesn’t quite work that way, but fortunately, I was referred to a wonderful counseling service by one of my best friends.

This week, my counselor and I talked about what it means to actually feel and express your emotions rather than trying to will them away.

While I have a natural ability to create space for others to express themselves freely, I have not allowed myself that same space, and so I tell myself to either get over it, or I become so overwhelmed with emotion that I distract myself from overwhelming feelings. I would never do this to another person, so I am trying to learn how to treat myself with that same kind of respect.

Doing this work with a counselor, I have begun to think about the ways that allowing myself to feel and express emotions constructively relate to my to my experiences with marginalization, or in other words, how they relate to the ways that I push back against oppression like racism, sexism, and homophobia.

“Shut Down and Get Over It”

Those of us who are members of people groups that have been historically oppressed are often dismissed and/or punished for bringing up the challenges we face on a daily basis because of characteristics that we cannot change.

For example, I am often dismissed when I discuss the mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people. I have been met with arguments suggesting that since there are more LGBTQ+ characters within mainstream media than there have been in the past, that society has largely accepted queer people and that our grievances come from some unmet desire for attention or victimization.

A similar argument is made to dismiss black people and women when topics such as police brutality and rape culture are brought to the table. Black people are told that since segregation and slavery are no longer legally enforced, that America does not have an issue with racism, and that since women have accused men of sexual assault without substantial legal evidence, that women do not face sexism and that men have not created an unsafe world for women to inhabit.

Unfortunately, I could write an entire book of examples of various marginalized groups and discuss the ways that they have been dismissed and punished for speaking on their oppression and hardships.

Unfiltered Expression

When someone is dismissed so often for expressing valid concerns, they begin to dismiss themselves and say to themselves that what they are experiencing is no big deal and that they should be able to weather the storm that is an entire society built on power and privilege deciding that they have no worth.

If we are able to move past the process of self-dismissal, many of us who want to discuss the hardships we encounter move into another extreme; expressing frustrations without boundaries.

Many of us, after being forced to either remain quiet or face consequences, rightfully decide that our voices need be heard. We speak and act against institutions that have held us back and we often throw tact to the wind in order to get our point across.

This has been a method that I have used for a long time. I stopped policing my tone or inflection when I spoke about difficult issues and let others sit in the discomfort of hearing a gay black man expose the realities of life as a marginalized person in America. I desperately wanted for others to sit in the discomfort because historically, when queer people and when people of color have raised their voices in protest, they have been met with unwarranted and most often, violent opposition. Marginalized people are labeled “aggressive” or “ungrateful” when our voices are heard, but when someone who represents a majority culture raises their voice, they are seen as assertive and inspirational. To counteract this, I worked to make it a point to express myself without filter.

This way of viewing the world challenges systems of power and privilege, but also leaves the one using this method emotionally spent. It raises important questions, but it also places the weight of centuries of oppression and protest of that oppression upon one set of marginalized shoulders.

While there is a lot to be gained from this understanding, it is not completely beneficial.

Yes, it is completely wrong that I should be received as hostile when a white person could say the same things I say and be received with open hearts. Yes, it is completely wrong that my voice is dismissed for not pandering to white heterosexual men.

I am not about to advocate for respectability politics, but maybe there is a third option.

Setting Boundaries

Maybe we have another choice between outright dismissal and an emotional free-for-all. What if we were able to express ourselves in a way that didn’t bring us exhaustion and pain, but rather allowed us to know that whether or not we are listened to, that our voices are valuable and necessary?

Friends, when faced with a binary, there will always be an exception.

Instead of dismissing my own voice or leaning into a voice that knows no restrain, I can choose where and when I lend my voice, and set boundaries for the way I will communicate my grievances.

What do I mean by this?

Instead of unleashing my perspective on anyone who will hear me, I have been choosing to set boundaries for myself. For example, I have made the decision to no longer argue about racism with anyone whose definition of racism is “when someone of one race looks down on another race.” This is a decent start, but it misses the power dynamics at play and the systemic nature of racism. When someone has that limited definition of racism, I cannot constructively make critiques or even suggestions about the way that white people interact with other cultures, and my experiences with racism are not able to be understood.

When we cannot agree on a definition of something like racism, we waste time talking about two totally different concepts and both parties leave frustrated with no learning to show for it.

As another example, I choose not to debate with anyone that has not made the assumption that LGBTQ+ conversion therapy is always wrong. It drains me to spend energy arguing with someone who thinks that my sexual orientation itself is a sin, so I choose not to engage in discussions with someone who holds that belief. If it did not impact me so personally, I may be able to entertain the discussion, but since this topic touches on the worth of my humanity, I choose to leave that discussion for friends and allies who feel compelled to defend LGBTQ people in this way.

I can choose to acknowledge the hurt that I feel when talking about ways that I have been mistreated and recognize that I don’t always have to take part in debates. I can take care of myself by knowing my limits, and by doing so, I can take care of the people I may potentially find myself in conversation with.

I cannot “get over” racism. I cannot “get over” homophobia. I can’t continue to hurt myself by unleashing my grievances on people who do not wish to listen. What I can do, however, is create the space for myself that I allow for so many others, and allow myself to feel hurt over these evils that plague the world and as a result, be thoughtful about the ways that I open myself up to others about this hurt that I carry.

Moving Forward Into Balance

When you set boundaries, people can either respond with hostility and frustration, or they can respect your boundaries and reflect on their own boundaries as a result. It’s not up to you which option they choose, but setting these limits for yourself can free you from having to defend yourself at all times and release you from ever having to choose between dismissal or unfiltered expression.

By setting thoughtful boundaries, you can coach yourself through difficult conversations and emotions by choosing when to engage and when to step back. In my experience, when I have set these kinds of boundaries in conversations and relationships, I have felt less of a need to explode or to tell myself that I am making a big deal out of nothing because I simply spend less time trying to win over someone who is not willing to understand my limits, and I am consequently, no longer being forced to make such an unfair and unhelpful decision.

I am working on discerning when it is appropriate for me to speak up and when I need to allow myself space to feel difficult emotions and not have to present those feelings to anyone else. This is an area that I will continue to struggle in, but through counseling and God’s grace, I am hoping to over time, develop a healthier balance.

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