I recently heard the phrase “Never put your wishbone where your backbone ought to be”. The same day I read that, I got an e-mail from a woman telling me about how she doesn’t know what to do because her friends and family are so mean to her about her weight. She said that they treat her horribly, always say nasty things to her etc.
A lot of us have been there – with families, friends, strangers – we can be subjected to all kinds of poor treatment because of how we look. This is a situation that requires backbone, not wishbone. As people of size, hell as people at all, if we want to be treated well we can’t wish for it, we have to demand it. Here’s one way I’ve found to do that:
Step 1: Decide what your boundaries and standards are
You get to decide how people treat you – you are in charge. How are you willing to be treated? Do strangers get to make comments about your size without you saying anything? Do your loved ones get to nag you about what you eat? How does your mom get to talk to you? Think about it, make a list, write it down. (This doesn’t just apply to size either – you decide what your standards for treatment are in all areas of your life.)
Step 2: Decide on the consequences
I have found that this can be tough and that being realistic is extremely important – there’s no point in having boundaries and standards if you’re not going to enforce them and setting boundaries and then not enforcing them will likely end up making you feel powerless and teach people that you don’t mean what you say.
Personally I typically go with a teachable moment, then a warning, then a walk away. Sometimes I give more than one warning but in the end I’m absolutely willing to walk away from anyone who doesn’t uphold my standards for how I get treated …better alone than in bad company. I have disowned family members because they refused to treat me in a manner that was in accordance with my standards. But that’s me. You may not choose to walk away from family or friends or you may not be in a position to right now. Neither is better or worse, we just have to know ourselves and our situations. The main thing to remember is that you can’t threaten to do something that you’re not actually going to do. So if you’re not going to walk away from your mom no matter how badly she treats you, then you need to come up with a different set of consequences – maybe she doesn’t get to see you (or the grandchildren if any) for a certain period of time or until she apologizes. The point here is to start to reclaim our power in how we get treated.
I hesitated a little to use the word consequences because I am concerned that there is a connotation of punishment and that is not my intention. For me this is not about punishing people – it’s not about other people at all. This is about you choosing how people in your life treat you.
Step 3: Practice
You have to be ready, otherwise you will have a pretty decent chance of falling apart. Practice in your head, practice in your car, and around your house. Imagine what is likely to happen and practice your reaction. Do it out loud, write it out if that’s your thing. Just be ready. Create an affirmation around it, maybe “I insist upon being treated with respect in ever single interaction.”
Step 4: Engage Backbone
Stand up for yourself. Consider though, that empowerment may not be about screaming at people, and I submit that it’s most definitely not about controlling the behavior of others. I have found that being empowered is mostly about being calm and assertive and enforcing your own boundaries, rather than trying to dictate the behavior of others. So not “You have to behave [in this way]”, but rather “If you continue to do [this] I will do [that]”.
This may mean that it’s time to have an honest conversation with people in your life who currently aren’t living up to your standards and treating you as you deserve to be treated. Explain that their behaviors (be specific) have not been appropriate for you and be very clear about what you expect of them moving forward. Explain the consequences.
They’ll probably be surprised. It’s reasonably likely that they’ll try to make it a debate – to negotiate. You get to decide if this is a debate, a negotiation, or simply a transfer of information. You can expect push-back on this, stay calm and remember that you get to choose how people treat you all the time. They may try to make it about you – tell you that you haven’t been meeting their standards. If that’s the case offer to have that as a separate conversation and give them the same respect that you want to be given, but make sure that you accomplish your mission of clarifying your boundaries and standards and the consequences for violating them. Watch for derailing behavior like trying to say that you are asking too much or, trying to give their opinion third party validation by telling you that “others” feel like they do.
Step 5: Stick to It
For me, this is where the work really begins. Over and over again you’ll have to decide if upholding your standards is worth whatever the consequences are for doing so. I personally find that the consequences for standing up for myself and what I deserve are always preferable to the consequences of being inauthentic or not standing up for myself, but that’s just me. [edited because my first try made no sense. Thanks to reader Peregrin8 for pointing it out!]
I notice that my ability to set boundaries is about realizing that:
- Control all of my circumstances
- Control the behavior of others
- Control what others think of me
- Control who I’m an example to
- Choose to take responsibility for my reactions to circumstances
- Choose how I will deal with behaviors that don’t meet my standards
- Choose what I think of me
- Choose what I’m an example of
Civil Rights activism isn’t all about sit-ins and boycotts. A lot of it is about standing in our lives and saying “No more, never again, will I be treated this way without speaking up.”
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