Enforcing your boundaries and knowing when to walk away

I have been experiencing some challenges communicating with a close friend recently. Challenges which arise from the crossing of personal boundaries. Boundary setting is not something I am strong at unfortunately; I have worked hard in recent years to learn to vocalize and protect my own boundaries because I’m a people pleaser and I hate letting anyone down. But I do understand the importance of boundaries to protect my own wellbeing, and have come to realize no one will automatically recognize or respect my boundaries, rather it is up to me to assert them. Ouch.

My recent issue stems from my friend and I speaking two different emotional languages. Where I am very comfortable discussing, exploring, and dealing with emotions, they are not. They are extremely intelligent though, and comfortable in physical territory (which is something I quite frankly suck at) and because my boundary is emotionally-based and somewhat abstract, we have been continually butting heads over the same thing. This came to a critical point recently which I have been feeling really frustrated and sad about – no doubt they are frustrated too.

So I have been considering how to tackle this and what my own role in the situation is. In my professional life I work in Communications. How to convey a difficult or challenging message is something I deal with every day, so I decided to put my work hat on to analyse my current circumstances. Straight away I realized that I have failed to land the message in a way that resonates with them. I’m still speaking my own emotional language and feeling put out that they don’t understand. But thinking about it, if someone talked to me about the finer points of cricket (which has actually happened because that’s the life I lead) I would struggle to absorb what they were saying. The other thing that dawned on me is that when we are learning a new skill we have to do it in small bite-sized chunks. If someone asked me to do a 5k run I’d laugh in their face, but I might attempt a 10 minute jog. So now I have to work out how to communicate my boundaries in their language in an easier to absorb way.

My mind instantly went to the Consent and Tea video. This was a clever idea because, though to many people the concept of consent seems obvious and absolute, it isn’t obvious to everybody and does involve an element of emotional judgement. The issue of consent has some very clear areas and some greyer areas. If someone explicitly says no consent is denied, if they say yes consent is given. Easy! Er no actually. The video takes that middle ground and makes it practical. What if consent is not clearly expressed in either direction? What if consent is only implied? What if someone says yes, but really they mean no or vice versa? What the video does is take the issue out of the abstract moral space, and make it practical where it suddenly becomes much clearer where the boundaries lie.

In my own situation, I have decided that pizza is the solution to my problem….isn’t it always? A particular topic of conversation has been causing me heartache because it has negative emotional associations for me based on my past experiences. My friend has different experiences in that regard and therefore a different association with the topic. Where it is challenging and evocative for me, it’s actually quite easy and even happy for them so they bring it up a lot in conversation, jokes, banter etc. I have been trying to get them to do this less because of how it makes me feel, and they have been struggling to understand why even just talking or kidding about it would be an issue…it’s not the same as actually doing it after all. But of course the association is still there whatever way the topic is brought up.


  1. Take the issue out of the abstract
    I am gluten  and dairy intolerant. This is challenging for me because I wish I could enjoy pizza with everyone else. Because I miss eating pizza, I’d prefer not to watch them eat pizza, and I don’t want to hear about their pizza, the pizza they ate in the past, or the pizza they might eat in the future. Because even joking about pizza reminds me that I can’t have it. The exception to this is that I DO need to know factually if gluten is in the pizza, so I know to avoid the pizza.
  1. Take morality out of the issue
    I don’t think it’s wrong for them to eat pizza, or to have eaten hundreds of pizzas in the past. I’m only asking them to be sensitive to the fact that I can’t eat it because gluten affects me differently.
  1. Communicate the effects
    I understand that they can have all the gluten and dairy they like without getting ill. Sadly, if I eat it I will get a stomach ache, skin problems, and headaches. If I eat it continually I will get inflammation and my immunity will suffer so I’ll catch every cold going. I don’t want skin problems and colds.
  1. Manage expectations
    I absolutely don’t expect them to give up pizza. I don’t even expect them to understand all the symptoms of my gluten and diary intolerance. And I don’t expect that every time they mention pizza they are actually eating a pizza – I only ask that they respect my request to avoid the subject of pizza. When they don’t, they make me sad so I won’t want to keep hanging out with them.
  1. Be prepared to hear their boundaries
    While pizza is the problem for me, maybe pollen is a problem for them. If I need them to respect my avoidance of pizza, I must not then ask them to sniff a flower. We all have our thing.
  1. Be prepared to walk away
    Knowing that gluten and dairy make me ill and that I am sad I can’t eat pizza, if they continue to shove their pizza in my face it’s time to walk away. Because even if I like them, I cannot eat pizza. Period. Don’t try to eat the pizza to please them or keep them around.

I don’t know if I will manage to repair things with my friend, or ever succeed in establishing healthy communication on our pesky issue, but if I get the chance I will certainly try to speak their language and help them to understand mine. What I must not do, however, is eat the bloody pizza. Because that is one cheesy wheat-laden nightmare for me!