Be The Smart Frog: Personal and Political Boundaries


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Last week I attended a self defense class through Fighting Chance Seattle. My intentions were simple: learn some practical means of self defense that I could pass along to my Smartlings and hang out with a friend who wanted to, in her words, "hit some shit." I didn't expect that it was to be a revelatory kind of evening, but it turns out that, in addition to learning great skills and punching and kicking things with my friend, I had a small epiphany about maintaining boundaries. There, amongst the heavy bags, it finally at long last occurred to me that one of the best ways to address having your boundaries violated is to intentionally, consciously, explicitly determine what those boundaries are in the first place.

Simple, yes? Intuitive, yes? Common sense, yes?

Ha! If only it were as easy at it sounds.

How many times have you had your boundaries violated socially, verbally, possibly even physically and not been able to address it in the moment because you were shocked, frozen, and appalled at what was happening? Lord knows it's happened to me, as I wrote about here, and in other, less dramatic exchanges. I'm sure it's happened to you. It's the stuck-in-time, "Wait, what just happened?," the "Is this really happening?," the "This can't be what is happening" incredulity that keeps us from reacting in the moment to defend ourselves. It's the sick slowness of the freeze before fight or flight in which you can't react because you're still processing the fact of the assault itself. It's a wasted use of reaction time when reaction matters most.

But determining what one's boundaries are before they are violated can reduce that reaction time down to next to nothing and prompt faster responses, regardless of the type of boundary or the type of breach. At Fighting Chance Seattle, one of the first exercises of the self defense class involved identifying our physical boundaries. Two people, partners for the exercise, separated across a room. One partner walked slowly toward the other while the stationary partner called out his or her physical boundaries for strangers, acquaintances, or intimates. So, for example, the moving partner might take 4 steps forward before the standing partner paused her by saying "Stranger." Then the moving partner might take 5 steps before being paused with "Acquaintance." Then, two more steps later, the "Intimate" call might halt the moving partner entirely.

Get it?

Of course you do. You're very smart.

And so is this activity, both in its subtlety and its utility. The ultimate response of the person calling out the different physical limits of social intimacy wasn't to begin karate chopping the person walking toward them, after all (the hitting and punching and kicking and grappling came later in the class). The response was merely to notice, to mark distances of comfort, and to determine in advance of those distances being breached what they were. It was about sense memory and how to access those purposefully-set limits when out in the real world.

It was a quiet, personal determination and excellent practice in respecting one's boundaries. Because, after all, you have to recognize your boundaries before you can respect and defend them. The visceral experience of recognizing them mindfully and calmly (not, say, when someone approaching too quickly on the street, standing too close at the ATM, or forcibly rubbing himself on you on a crowded subway) was powerful.

The power of this experience, this self-respect and self-determination, made me wonder if it is possible to extrapolate it to other areas of life, not just self defense. In particular, I considered applying the exercise to political boundaries.

Because right now we have an administration explicitly intent on pushing and violating boundaries. Legal boundaries, constitutional boundaries, social boundaries, ethical boundaries - all are fair game. And I wonder if it might be useful for this administration's constituents to identify in advance what their deal-breaking boundaries are. To put it in terms of Fighting Chance Seattle's boundary exercise, Trump and his people are walking toward us from across the room steadily and quickly, and we need to know when to call "stranger," "friend," and "acquaintance" as they approach. We need to recognize our political boundaries so that we know when to act in their defense.

For example, Trump, his people, his ethos, and his actions violated my boundaries long before he was elected, and I have been working to protect those boundaries for months. But maybe you're a republican (Hello, republicans!), and maybe you voted for him. I think that even for Trump-voting readers (for ALL readers, really), determining your limits of what is acceptable behavior and action for the United States president and when and how you will react when those limits are breached is necessary.

Is Russian collusion OK with you if it is proven? Are you cool with your own personal healthcare disappearing even if it is in line with your distaste for a health care mandate? Can you still stomach an administration that guts the public education budget while further bloating the largest military budget in the world? Do you believe that not funding PBS will make America great again, and are you willing to be complicit with that action?

These all violate my boundaries, and so I make phone calls and write letters and donate money to fight against them. But, republican readers, I urge you to examine your own core beliefs outside of punditry or news radio or Fox & Friends to find where your own personal, political boundaries lie. Because he's coming for them. His people are coming for them. And when he crosses them, it's best to lessen your reaction time by knowing in advance when your limits have been breached.

This notion puts me in mind of the old adage of boiling a frog. It's gross, but hear me out. The story goes that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out to save itself. Smart frog. It knows that immersion in boiling water is one of its inviolable boundaries. But if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly heat it to boiling, it will normalize the incrementally increasing temperature until it dies in a pot of boiling water that it otherwise would have escaped. Poor frog hadn't taken the class at Fighting Chance Seattle and determined its temperature boundaries in advance.

Let's be the smart frog, friends. Determine your boundaries - personal, physical, and political. Defend them. Know your limits so that you can show others where your limits lie and communicate not to cross them. It's the first step in keeping ourselves, and our nation, safe and thriving.

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