Recently when I arrived at a women’s meetup, the conversation at the time was dominated by the topics of hunting and fishing. I stood around quietly sipping my sparkling water, occasionally pacing out of the room, thinking that surely the topic would soon steer in another direction.
I only knew the host of the gathering, and I could tell from the discussion that openly expressing my aversion to these topics would not lead anywhere productive— and more likely, would just make for an awkward evening.
After close to a half-hour of this, I reached my limit and decided to go sit in my car to figure out what I was going to do. Should I pull the host aside or send a text that I was uncomfortable? Should I just drive home? A few minutes later, I did decide to text the host and told her the truth: that the topics were not comfortable for me to be around, and that I would sit in my car until the group was done with them. She quickly responded apologetically and said they had moved on. I went back inside, compartmentalized¹ the stories I’d heard, and went on to have an enjoyable evening.
Reflecting back now on this minor incident, I feel good about how I handled it— though there certainly would have been other appropriate responses, too. For instance, it would have been completely acceptable for me to say, “Hey, I know most of y’all don’t know me, but I have a weird request — could we change the subject? What about the last movie you saw and loved?”
I view the concept of setting a boundary as essentially making a request, because the other party is under no obligation to follow it, and you’re not in control of them. This doesn’t mean, however, that you just have to deal with whatever they do if they don’t like your boundary.
The second necessary component of boundary-setting is determining (and often communicating) what your follow-through will be if the boundary is not respected. In this example, if the conversation had gone back to hunting and fishing after I had set the boundary with the host, I would not have felt bad about leaving early. If I had requested to the group to change the topic and they did not, I would have simply left.
This means that willingness to follow-through is critical for successful boundary-setting. If people hear us set boundaries but we never follow through with them, we’re essentially teaching them that we don’t actually value our boundaries… so why should they?
Sometimes in an attempt to set boundaries, it is possible to veer into the territory of making demands or ultimatums. The key distinction with making a demand is that we are expecting the other party to change — and often using power, control, and manipulation to achieve this — rather than recognizing that we have a choice in the situation. For instance, I could have blown up in judgment to these women, saying “I’m really offended that y’all are talking about hunting. Killing animals is wrong and I need you to stop talking about it because I can’t be around it.” Notice that keyword “need”; I don’t “need” them to do anything, because I have control over myself and can remove myself from the situation if they do not want to honor a reasonable request.
Another clue that someone is making a demand rather than setting a boundary is manipulative language, such as “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have a turkey at Thanksgiving because you know how much it upsets me. If you have a turkey, my Thanksgiving will be ruined.” Setting an appropriate boundary, on the other hand, might sound like this: “I request that we not have a turkey at Thanksgiving; I don’t think I can come if a turkey is there. I understand you’re hosting so it’s your decision, but if you decide to bring a turkey I will make other plans for myself. I am also happy to host an event that won’t include animal foods.”
This can certainly get complicated, because every vegan has a different tolerance for being around animal products or discussions about animals used for human purposes— and even the same person may have a different tolerance level depending on the day and the context. Some vegans decide to not be around anyone who is consuming meat, while others may decide to tolerate people eating meat around them as long as they don’t get into lengthy discussions about how “delicious” it is.
It’s important not to judge someone for where they set their boundary — with veganism, or frankly, with anything. We usually don’t have all the information or variables, and some folks need to honor their sensitivity rather than force themselves to stay in a situation that doesn’t feel okay just because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do.
Setting boundaries in any area of life can be one of the most challenging tasks in maintaining healthy relationships. For vegans setting boundaries with non-vegans, the challenge is amplified by having to communicate across values that may not be shared. However nuanced a particular situation may be, a good north star question to come back to is this: “How might I express what I want/need to with kindness and compassion?”
¹ Compartmentalizing is often discussed as a maladaptive defense mechanism, but it is, in fact, very useful in certain contexts. If I view eating animals as something that is completely against my values system, but some of the most important people in my life (friends, family members) continue to eat meat — and I still love and respect them in many other ways — I have to decide to compartmentalize the fact that they eat meat.
In this way, I still see them as loving, compassionate people… who I believe are often just doing their own type of compartmentalizing by eating animals they claim to love when they seem them on a screen. I can have compassion for that, because I used to compartmentalize in the same way, too.