Setting Boundaries in Uncomfortable Places

“My brother went to the St. George’s,” I told Bill, the man running the weekend program, “and I went to Holy Grace Academy.”

He smiled knowingly. “I’m a St. George’s guy too.”

With that acknowledgment, we knew we were from the same tribe of Catholic kids.   “Did any of those St. George’s gentlemen ever feel you up?”

Several people were sitting around the table when Bill shot me that question. He grinned and waited.

I hesitated—“Well, I guess even gentlemen sometimes did things like that.”

And while I had acted like I took his comment as a joke, playing it cool, inside I was shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever had a man ask me that, and so publically, in front of  folks I’d just met.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the exchange, so the next day when I caught Bill alone I said, “You really are a lot like my brother. He’s the only man I can think of who’d ask me a question about some guy copping a feel.”

Bill seemed to shrink a bit as he offered an explanation. “Well, I only said that because I felt comfortable with you.”

He may have been comfortable, but I sure wasn’t. “But I guess I could really get into hot water if I said that out in the workplace,” he offered.

So why am I revisiting this story? He said something offensive, I answered and then called him on it. But not the way I wish I had.

This isn’t the first time a man has made suggestive comments to me—under the guise of humor—and I feel like I should be able to handle the situation better—as soon as it happens. A few days later as I replayed this incident over in my mind, a good response came to me. I could have said, “Excuse me?” and then paused. For several seconds. Long enough for him to be uncomfortable. I could have taken my power without getting into the tug and tussle of common male excuses like “I was just teasing” or “Can’t you take a joke?”

I realize now, almost a week later as I replay this incident, that I needed to rehearse. I was caught off guard by his remark and I played along, the way so many women do. Just the way I was taught.

I’m not a kid, and I know how to stand up for myself. But like many women that I know, I froze in the moment and reverted to the nice girl of my past. I love that “nice girl” who’s still inside of me, and from now on, I’m going to protect her.

Here is a primer from David Hosier, MSc, on how to handle humor that is hurtful or embarrassing.

It should be borne in mind, also, that if we complain about being the object of cruel and hurtful humor, we may find ourselves accused of ‘not being able to take a joke’, or of ‘being oversensitive’ , that it was ‘just teasing’ or, especially irritatingly, being told that we need to ‘lighten up.’

There are, however, various methods that can be used to discourage others from using destructive humor. These include:

  • don’t ‘play along’ by joining in the laughter just because you feel pressured to do so
  • bluntly state you do not find the ‘joke’ funny or that it’s not your kind of humor (people who laugh at everything, paradoxically, often have little sense of humor and certainly lack discernment)
  • start defining limits and boundaries if someone continually oversteps the mark by making so-called ‘funny’ comments are hurtful
  • ask the individual to explain precisely why s/he considers what s/he said to be amusing
  • respond with bored indifference, perhaps even feigning agreement.

Source: http://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/tag/humor-as-a-weapon/

“Humor: How Parents May Use It to Emotionally Wound Their Children,” by David Hosier, MSc.

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