May 4, 2015

What Can We Learn from #PonyTailGate?


A recent incident involving the New Zealand Prime Minister being outed for repeatedly pulling the ponytail of an Auckland waitress has brought an important aspect of interpersonal dynamics to the forefront of the collective cultural consciousness.

It begs the question of how one creates and maintains boundaries in one’s life and effectively communicates them to others. It also brings awareness to the great difficulty those in vulnerable roles in our society have in establishing healthy boundaries. Furthermore, the incident shows how people in positions of power and authority are often insensitive to boundaries or even take advantage of those who are in lower status positions.

As a writer about behavioral change, I’m always interested in empowering people to change their lives for the better—but I haven’t always had a lot of awareness of or skills for understanding personal boundaries. I am familiar with severe social anxiety and used to be afraid to confront anyone that violated my boundaries. I allowed myself to be in vulnerable job roles and verbally abusive relationships. It seemed like the less confident I was, the more others would take advantage of me.

It took a lot of reflection about my thoughts and behavior to realize that I was the one who ultimately created those victim-based situations. This was both humbling and liberating. It was humbling because I had to admit that I was creating my own suffering and that I needed to change. It was liberating because I now had the power to transform into a confident and healthy person.

How did I make that transformation?

Through radical responsibility.

The word responsibility has a connotation of obligation in our society. One thinks of the obligations involved in our societal roles, such as worker, student, and parent. However, I’d like you to suspend your current belief about this word and take it quite literally. It is your ability to respond.  You have free will to believe or ignore the many thoughts that race through your mind, which in turn reminds you that the thoughts you believe cause your feelings and behaviors.  Your feelings and behaviors are the largest contributing factors to your life’s circumstances. Your life is your creation. The cycle starts again because you have a choice in how you respond to your own creation.

Once you have this realization, you have reached the point of conscious evolution. From this point forward, you can direct your own evolution by consciously changing yourself from within to get the results you want. You can now start directing instead of acting. If you agree with this theory but you still feel like a victim in life, that means there is a part of you (conscious or unconscious) that does not completely believe in free will.

A person with conscious free will knows what kinds of thoughts, feelings, and circumstances they prefer and they take decisive action to attain them.  They only believe the thoughts that empower them. Conscious creators have boundaries in their lives. They know what they are willing to put up with and what they are not.

A person who feels like a victim of circumstance will put up with abuse and situations of vulnerability because they don’t believe their actions can really change the situation.

Non-conscious creators are in relationships that predictably violate their true boundaries. They are not fully aware of their own boundaries, and they don’t communicate their boundaries to others. Non-conscious creators are more afraid of loss than they are excited by gain. They are more comfortable with the abusive life they know than the non-abusive one that is yet unknown. So, they unconsciously create victim dynamics in every aspect of their lives, imprisoning them into a cell of their own making.  How can one break free from this prison of fear?

I believe one must first become aware of the causality between thought, emotion, behavior and life circumstance. Then one must become aware of his or her boundaries, and learn to effectively communicate them to themselves and others.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand (supposedly playfully) pulled the hair of a waitress many times over several occasions. The waitress understandably found it difficult to effectively communicate that she did not like him doing that. She was confused and intimidated by her offender and hoped that her body language would communicate her boundaries. However, he kept repeating the boundary violation. Then she told his staff and his Facebook page—it seems she told everyone but her offender that she had a strict boundary.

I’m not condoning the Prime Minister’s behavior in the least. Blaming the victim is not the goal here. The goal is to bring awareness to what actually works in getting your life and the people around you to respond to your boundaries.

However, this is a very sensitive topic.  Some would say that the Prime Minister’s actions were bordering on illegal harassment. According to her account, the waitress never clearly stated her boundary, but she did eventually use the word “no”. After that point, the Prime Minister continued briefly, then seemed to get the point. He stopped, apologized, and he expressed in his own words that he never knew he had crossed her boundary.

While not condoning the Prime Minister’s unwelcomed touching, we must still realize that other people cannot read our minds, read our body language accurately, or even understand our tone or verbal meaning at times unless it is explicitly expressed.

In our society there may be a power differential between a woman and a man, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, the young and the old, the congregant and the religious leader, the employee and the boss or the student and the teacher. The power differential between any two parties can make it  difficult and uncomfortable to confront unwelcome behavior. Unwelcome behavior is not condoned, but it does happen all the time. Thus, it’s important to be aware of your boundaries, learn how to communicate them effectively, and know your legal rights in your jurisdiction. In the end, we do not have control over our offenders. We only have control over our own behaviors.

Another recent political power differential comes to mind: In late 2014, a caddy to a formerly powerful politician in Korea allowed him to physically grope her for all 9 holes of a golf game before reporting it. That’s how hard it was for her to stand up for her boundaries. To a person in a vulnerable role of society, everyone that violates their boundaries seems to be able to assert real control over them. Nevertheless, a lack of appropriate action on the victim’s part will lead to further violations by many in their lives.

You must be willing to feel the fear, yet take decisive action to gain your proper boundary.

Appropriate actions can look many different ways. A general rule is to firmly and seriously tell the person exactly what your boundary is, and what you will do if they repeat it.

For example: “John, I will not allow you to pull my hair or touch me in any way.  If you do it again, I will report it”. If the conduct is illegal, you do not have to put up with it multiple times or try to convince the perpetrator to stop. You can, however, report it and seek resources for safety. This is not easy, but the alternative is even worse.

Boundary discussions and decisions can be difficult. Sometimes you sacrifice things that you value, such as a job, money, and prestige (in the short term).  In the long term, you have a lot to gain.  You will be happier and more productive, and your life will reflect your self-respect and confidence.  In the end, you are sacrificing a frequency of a low nature for a higher one.

Boundaries penetrate every aspect of our existence, not just relationships. You have standards about what kind of living environment you are willing to be in, what kind of food you are willing to put into your body, what kind of media you are willing to consume, and what kind of people you will associate with. Every action in your life is a measure of how much you respect and love yourself.  Every action corresponds to your boundaries.

May we choose the most self-loving standards for ourselves.

I know that in my life, the stronger I make my boundaries, the higher I climb in a spiral ever-upward toward health, happiness, empowerment and self-actualization.  Your free will is the greatest gift, so honor and cherish it in yourself and others.


Author: Sean Morgan

Editor: Alli Sarazen

Photo: Patrik Nygren/Flickr

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