A Sharp Knife Cuts Best: Setting Limits and Teaching Boundaries

Geeking out with Reid Mihalko, Simone Bienne, Carol Queen, Kristen Tribby, and Nina Hartley

This past weekend, I was a speaker and panelist at the BIL Conference. It was an amazing time, with some wonderful speakers. And of course, having the chance to connect with other sex educators and geek out was great.

During one of the presentations, a participant asked a question about how she could set some boundaries for her son. He’s 7 years old and he’s recently discovered how much fun his penis can be. He enjoys touching it, but he’s sometimes does it in situations that his mom isn’t comfortable with, like in public. He’s also hugging other kids and pressing against them in ways that aren’t ok with them, simply because he doesn’t yet understand that they don’t experience it the way that he does. His mom is struggling with this because she doesn’t want to shame him, but she knows she needs to help him find better ways to deal with his sexual energy.

One element that I see in these kinds of situations is that we often don’t want to “make the other person feel bad.” That’s something that seems especially common among folks who describe themselves as sex-positive. After all, there’s so much toxic shame around sex that it’s easy to conclude that shame itself is the problem, rather than the overuse of it. Unfortunately, in our desire to not hurt someone, we easily fall into codependency and its close cousin, idiot compassion. When we do, it becomes difficult or impossible to set the limits that we need in order to care for ourselves. For that matter, the other person often needs to hear those limits in order to grow and thrive, especially when they’re a child.

One of the hardest things that I see parents do is tolerate their children’s discomfort in service to their future well-being (not to mention, the well-being of the people in their lives). I think it’s important to remember that although it’s uncomfortable, shame is a powerful medicine. It’s one way that we learn and grow and when we try to avoid it, we end up doing a disservice to ourselves and the people around us. When we can’t tolerate the experience of shame, enmeshment and codependency are rarely far behind.

It’s also common for parents to minimize the situation, perhaps because of their own discomfort or out of a hope that it’s just a phase that will change. Unfortunately, we don’t always just grow out of these things, and while they may seem small now, they can get bigger over time. Many of us who have had a cat or dog have seen how the cute things they do as kittens or puppies become much more annoying when they’re full grown. The same thing happens with people and it’s a lot harder to change behaviors after they’ve become habits. While it’s not a certainty by any means, imagine what it might be like if this boy grows up without learning how to manage his sexual energy or how to ask for sex in ways that work for potential partners?

I used to have a lot of trouble when I needed to confront someone or set a boundary. I would step softly around it, in the hope that I could keep them from getting angry. Or I’d be really apologetic in an attempt to make myself less of a target for a backlash. Actually, most of the time, I just wouldn’t say anything. One day, someone pointed out to me that a sharp knife cuts best. What they meant was that when your tool is well-honed and appropriate for the task, it does a much better job than when you try to dull its impact. Speaking honestly, authentically, and with compassion is using a sharp knife. Trying to be nice about it, downplaying the reasons for the boundary, or coddling the other person’s anger, fear, or shame is using a dull knife. And ironically, it usually causes more pain.

That was when I started to learn about shame. I developed an increased capacity to tolerate it in myself and in others. I found ways to talk about my needs and my limits. I learned about the differences between limits and ultimatums. Sharpening the blade takes time and it takes practice. And it’s definitely worth the work. The trick is learning when and how to use your knife in ways that heal. If that sounds impossible or contradictory, think about what a doctor does with their scalpel.

So for this mom and anyone else who struggles with this (including myself, since it’s an ongoing journey), I offer this- learn how to sharpen your knife. Figure out what keeps you from speaking your truth with compassion and power, and then find ways to grow past that. Work on tolerating discomfort in other people instead of trying to rescue them from it. It’ll help you, it’ll help the people in your life, and the short term difficulties will be in service to a deeper, richer, and more healthy life.

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