Trigger warning for victims of rape, sexual assault and spiritual abuse.
At the recommendation of several people, I’m currently reading the book Boundaries by Cloud, Henry and Townsend. It’s proving to be a real eye-opener for me. Not only am I unable to say “no” to the bad, I’m apparently unable to say “yes” to the good in my life as well. No wonder I’m so exhausted.
It’s not that I lack self-control. I’ve got that in spades. You won’t catch me chewing out clerks in the checkout line or flirting with hot guys at the bookstore. It’s just that I don’t know where my internal property lines are. I don’t know how to take proper ownership of my feelings, express my needs in healthy ways or let the right people in.
There’s a reason for this.
See, the conservative doctrine I was raised under denied me ownership of my internal property. My property was always under the control of others. My attitudes, actions, emotions and desires were dictated by my parents, my teachers and my church. I don’t simply mean that I was told what to do or that I was disciplined. That’s normal for a child. I mean that I was not allowed to fully form my own sense of self. I was forced to hug people when I didn’t want to. Even when I thought they were creepy. Even when I didn’t feel safe around them. That’s what an obedient, Christian daughter did. When I felt sad, I was told, “Christians don’t pout. That upsets Jesus.” So I tried to put on a smile. That’s what a good, Christian daughter did. When I wanted the black dress and my mom* said, “But the red one is so much prettier and $10 cheaper,” I sighed and picked up the red dress. Because that’s what a considerate, Christian daughter did.
Anytime I couldn’t face up to the hug or the smile or the red dress, there was plenty of lecturing and shaming to get me back on track.
In short, I was raised without boundaries.
That’s not to say I was raised without limits. Oh, there were myriads of limits: no swearing, no backtalk, no secret sharing, no pierced ears until age 12, no shaved legs until age 13, no short skirts, no shorts, no tight clothes, no dancing, no movie theaters, no trick-or-treating, no swimming with boys, no makeup until age 15, and no dating until age 16. But I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone no. Or expect that my decisions would be respected. As a result, I lacked confidence in nearly all of my decisions and was easily swayed by other people’s desires and emotions.
Let’s talk about how this can be dangerous.
A girl who has been conditioned to never say no – and to feel intense guilt at ever disappointing anyone – goes out alone with a guy she likes. Of course, she knows that sex, or physical contact of any kind, before marriage is bad; by this point, it’s been ground into her at the cellular level. While out with the guy, he reaches over and puts his hand on her leg. She feels uncomfortable, but doesn’t say anything. Maybe the guy doesn’t realize what he’s doing, she thinks.
After a while, his hand starts moving. The girl’s anxiety rises until she feels she has to say something or else be in violation of her parents’ wishes. So she says, “Hey, could you not do that? We shouldn’t be getting physical.” The guy turns to her and says, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”
The girl won’t be able to speak. She doesn’t know how to answer a direct question like this. She can tell the boy that Jesus or her parents won’t like what he’s doing, but her mind won’t be fully made up until it is made up for her. Because that’s been the pattern for her whole life – and complementarian teachings say that pattern will only continue for her after marriage with her husband in the driver’s seat.
The girl doesn’t fail to say no because she wants what is happening. She fails to say no because she doesn’t know how to say no. As the writers of Boundaries put it, her “no muscles are broken.” Saying no is unthinkable to her; it’s like slapping someone in the face. And now she is caught between the conflicting desires of her parents and her boyfriend, suffocating her under a crushing weight of guilt and shame. So she’ll let the hand go further up her leg, even if she wants to vomit in disgust. She’ll let him kiss her, even if it makes her skin crawl. And she’ll walk past you with a half-hearted smile and claim nothing is wrong, even if she’s just been brutally raped, because she knows that if she confesses to you, you’ll say it’s her fault the guy touched her in the first place. That’s what her church teaches her every week, anyway.
Simply telling your daughter when to say no won’t work. She has to know how to make up her own mind and stand by her decisions when you’re not there to glare over her shoulder. For that to happen, you have to allow her some ownership of her internal and external property. That means allowing her to withhold affection from strangers at church, letting her frown if she feels sad, and letting her choose the black dress without a lecture. Because women who can’t draw clear lines for themselves and keep evil at bay become targets for the worst kinds of abuses. Men who love to manipulate others for their own benefit can sense them a mile away and will come running. They probably won’t have to run far. Many of them are sitting next to you in the pews.
I know. I’ve dated them. And so have many women I know.
Let’s stop raising victims.
* Addendum: My parents were just as much victims of this spiritual abuse as I was. We all suffered under these patriarchal teachings. My comments are to illuminate a destructive doctrine, not criticize the people who loved and raised me.