Throughout history, women have been punished and shamed for claiming the right to their own inner authority. On many levels women have been conditioned to disappear, to be invisible and to cater to the needs and whims of men. Learn why having boundaries doesn’t make you a bitch and why they are necessary for women who want to express their inner authority and help dismantle Patriarchy. 

What Are Boundaries? 

Boundaries are an expression of inner authority. Boundaries are a function of how much you are in tune with yourself, how much you value yourself and where and with whom you choose to invest your energy. As women, we may want to have more boundaries but many of us still view them as equivalent to being unkind, especially those of us who had the experience of being shamed for needing boundaries as children. 

Generally speaking, in a patriarchal culture, the women who are considered most desirable do NOT have boundaries. 

The culture sees desirable women as those that never say no, the ever-willing sluts, the innocent angels or the self-sacrificing mother figures that coddle the fragile male psyche. 

Male fragility has played a role. We have been relatively paralyzed in a world that favors men and fosters self-suspicion in women. We have been conditioned to view our need for boundaries with distrust. Having boundaries, saying No, and setting one’s own limits has long been associated with being “difficult”, “uppity” or a “bitch.” Women who set boundaries have often been characterized as being ugly, “feminazis,” or man-hating and have been threatened with violence and death (and many still are to this day.) 

Boundary Backlash: What Happens When You Set Boundaries

The biggest insults we may often hear when we set boundaries usually fall into three categories: 

  • You’re a bitch 
  • You’re ugly 
  • You’re selfish

As little girls we had no choice but to believe the messaging that conditioned us to view our own needs, desires, observations, instincts, intuition as inherently evil, bad, and hurtful to others. Some of us even learned to hate our very female-ness itself as it came to be associated with the pain of never feeling good enough and the despair, aloneness and powerlessness that came with that. 

As children, our literal survival meant pleasing our parents and teachers and fitting in with the dominant culture. The subtext of these messages, once internalized is some version of  “I’m a good/ desirable girl when I hate/ harm myself and hide my pain with a smile.” 

The Double Bind: Lose Others or Lose Yourself

We have been faced with a double bind: Face the pain of possible rejection/humiliation for being seen as a bitch for setting firm boundaries OR face the pain of being increasingly cut off and disconnected from ourselves for NOT setting boundaries. Boundaries are a non-negotiable part of a healthy human life. We need to overturn the lie that we are too much, the lie that if women are truly independent, that we represent a threat to civilization. Causing us to distrust ourselves and other women has been an article of control, a way to keep women docile, doubtful, and thus, psychologically malleable and adaptable to the dysfunctional status quo of patriarchy. 

Self-Oppression Was/Is a Means of Survival

As the male gaze was installed, our minds were colonized by patriarchal values; we learned to unconsciously and automatically oppress ourselves and other women, as a means of survival. We had to self-fragment, disabling our own connection with ourselves to some degree and prioritizing external approval in a world that favors rich, white men over everybody else. 

Dire Consequences For BIPOC and Beyond

For black, indigenous and women of color as well as any women who grew up disabled, queer, or in poverty, these messages carry even more pain, intensity and relentlessness, with much more dire consequences for displaying inner authority by setting boundaries. Whenever we hear some trace of these shaming messages when we set boundaries, they may carry echoes of our past, perhaps from painful experiences when we were little girls or young women. These messages may trigger the grief about the injustices that have been done by patriarchal systems such as white supremacy, misogyny, genocide, homophobia and colonization. Setting boundaries can be very triggering as it can call up those memories of how we and the women in our lineage have been harmed and silenced through the generations. 

The patriarchal bind for women means that our longing to be our real selves is pitted against our longing for love and approval. 

Loving You Means Erasing Me

We’ve been taught in so many ways that our belonging is contingent on our ability to be accommodating to the needs and expectations of other adults. The algorithm could be LOVING YOU = ERASING ME. If we are too authentic or direct about our ideas, feelings, or too unapologetic about our appearance we may fear the relationship could be at risk. This bind can be felt more acutely or vaguely depending on many factors but at the heart it’s there for all of us to some degree. 

We continue to give our power away to the degree to which we still believe the illusion that our emotional safety lies in the fleeting external approval we get from putting ourselves last. 

External Approval in Exchange for Emotional Safety Is a Lie

As little girls our emotional safety WAS indeed connected with how much we pleased Mom and Dad, elevating their ideals, meeting their expectations, and making them proud. As young women, our emotional safety may have felt connected to our ability to be pleasing to potential mates, male professors, white institutions and authority figures. However, as adult women, we must realize something many of our foremothers never have, which is that our true emotional safety lies in unapologetically putting ourselves FIRST; not in a defensive, narcissistic way, but from a place of integrity and self-responsibility. Those of us with unearned skin or class-based privileges must use those privileges to amplify the boundaries of other women who are more exposed to violence and harm as a result of their boundaries. 

Having Boundaries is Uncomfortable (At First)

When you start setting more boundaries it will feel uncomfortable. 

The people around us, including our aging parents, our spouses, our friends, siblings, and work colleagues may still be operating from the patriarchal paradigm that says a good woman is an over-accommodating woman. And so we may face the backlash that comes from breaking old patterns. You may be faced with backlash at work, in your marriage or even with friends when you become more direct and more clear in your communication, more honest about your limits, or more forgiving of yourself. 

As women we often bear the projections of the mothers of people in our lives. 

Pulling back to nourish yourself may remind others of their own mother wounds and people may unconsciously feel abandoned and attack, ridicule or attempt to manipulate you back into the old more compliant way they have known you to be. The backlash can be overt or very subtle. Getting support from others who get it is important to ride the wave of backlash that may erupt. 

Pleasing Others For Love: The Doormat and the Martyr

When we don’t feel safe enough to honestly set healthy, firm boundaries, our behavior may reflect the archetypes of the Doormat or the Martyr, and it’s common to feel BOTH of these energies within us simultaneously; we may even embody each of them in different areas in our lives. 

The Doormat: Automatic Deferral to Others

The Doormat pattern is one in which we automatically defer to the preferences of others and prioritize their opinions, needs above our own. The acquiescence happens very quickly and we give little to no thoughts to what we need, want or have the capacity for. This can also mean we rush to rescue, resolve or fix other people’s feelings. In this pattern we feel depleted, exhausted, and like we have little or no right to speak our minds or have a separate self. This pattern can often reflect early childhood trauma of being gaslighted, punished or emotionally steamrolled by our parents or caregivers, who may have been codependent, neglectful or invasive. It may be that the Doormat pattern is actually from a very young inner child that bonded so completely with the dysfunctional parent who was neglectful to some degree and pleasing feels equivalent to survival. As part of her healing, the Doormat needs to get in contact with her righteous anger about how she has been violated, exploited and unseen. 

The Martyr: Deferral with Unspoken Resentment

The Martyr archetype similarly feels she does not have a right to her own preferences, needs, opinions or desires, but unlike the Doormat, her actions, words and behaviors may carry a flavor of unspoken anger, resentment and bitterness. Martyrs can overtly or covertly manipulate and be passive aggressive, sending a powerful subtext of entitlement underneath a self-sacrificing, caretaking façade. The Martyr archetype may reflect an older inner child, perhaps pre-teen or teenaged, who wants to say “Fuck you!” to the parent figure but is still terrified of their wrath or rejection so hides it under a compliant, deferential demeanor. If the pressure becomes too much, that anger can erupt in an explosion of pure rage. The rage may seem out of proportion to current, surface issue but that’s because the rage is actually sourced from her earliest days of being violated, silenced, and invisible as little girl. The intensity of the martyr’s anger is valid in the context of her original pain but can only be part of a woman’s healing when it’s acknowledged, felt, and listened to and empathized with. Left suppressed and ignored, the woman replicates the original trauma upon herself by looking at the situation through the lens of a child who feels powerless and stays silent out of fear and shame.

The rage of the inner child is legitimate and must be honored in order to be alchemized into self-love. 

Shame is the Root

The patterns of the Doormat and the Martyr are BOTH still controlled by childhood patterns of feeling they must PLEASE in order to be LOVED/SAFE, and harbor a powerful fear of abandonment, despair and shame. This can play out in many ways. For example, it’s possible to feel the Doormat pattern emerge with your children, trying to please and accommodate them to your detriment because boundaries were not modeled in your family of origin. At the same time, one can also show up as the Martyr with one’s spouse, feeling resentful that they are not giving you the validation, respect and time you deserve as an equal partner, but you’re not feeling safe enough to actually speak the truth of feelings for fear of further rejection. You may try everything you can to cajole or induce your partner to support you by pleasing them while feeling a growing undercurrent of rage simmering under the surface of your interactions with them.

Both the Doormat and the Martyr archetypes contain a hidden manipulation, that we need the other person we are pleasing to approve of us to create a feeling of safety within ourselves. It’s a form of “giving to get,” which is different from love freely given from the heart for its own sake. Seen in this way, we are NOT being loving to others when we suppress our truth and stay silent about our need for boundaries. 

The Sovereign: How to Find the Middle Way

Thankfully there’s a middle way, beyond the Doormat and the Martyr, an empowered pattern that is not mired in old childhood conditioning, one that is crafted over time within oneself through intentional boundary setting in our daily lives as women. The Sovereign is an archetype that emerges in us as we become increasingly aware of the childhood patterns that operate in our psyche that cause us to give our power away by pleasing others and silencing our need for boundaries. 

The truth is that public opinion and external approval is one of THE most fickle, ephemeral and changeable things in life. It’s impossible to control how people think of us, no matter how hard we may try through pleasing others. Ultimately, it’s futile and it doesn’t help us meet our desire to being loved for the true self that we are. Seeing the futility of it is incredibly liberating as our energy, time, resources become reclaimed as our own from the constant drain of pleasing others. There may be grief in realizing how much effort we put into something that’s ultimately impossible, but this grief is part of the freedom that comes with living life on one’s own terms.

This freedom comes through internally mothering your inner child, lovingly helping her grieve the neglect you experienced as a child AND also differentiating the fact that childhood is over and no adult can ever abandon, harm or neglect you again in that way again. 

With this empowered awareness and growing internal safety, pleasing behaviors are eventually outgrown. 

Honoring Your Righteous Anger as Catalyst for Confident Boundary-Setting

Boundaries are a form of self-protection which every woman has a right to. The Sovereign’s commitment to boundaries is sourced from a deep self-love that comes from grieving the past suffering that resulted from enforced compliance with the harmful norms of patriarchy. It comes from harvesting the fruits of your righteous anger at how high a cost it has exacted on your life and the life of other women. It comes from a full, compassionate embrace of yourself as you are, including your defenses which are nothing to be ashamed of as they are simply symptoms of past pain. Anger is seen as an important ally as we learn to create safe, loving containers for its honest expression. Once digested over time, our righteous anger transforms into clarity, wisdom and confident boundary-setting. 

The energy of the Sovereign is rooted in self-respect

My sense is that all three of these archetypes live in us now as women to some degree and part of birthing our true power in the world is to process, digest and grieve the traumatic pain from our inner child that shows up as the Doormat and the Martyr, and thereby transform ourselves more into the sovereign woman we are meant to be. As more women heal from the Mother Wound which is how patriarchy gets passed from mother to daughter, I believe this archetypal energy of the Sovereign will emerge more in the world, uplifting all life in the process and underpinning the new structures we will create in the future as patriarchy continues to crumble. 

Know this: Having boundaries doesn’t make you a bitch.  It makes you sovereign. Are you ready to step more fully into your sovereignty?