As forcefully as the moment demands
On boundaries, anger, and messy break ups
“Anger’s core message is a concise and potent no, said as forcefully as the moment demands.” — Gabor Maté
I went through four break ups this year and they were all messy. I absolutely hate messy break ups. I want to be calm, assertive, mature, graceful, and kind. I don’t want to get angry, hang up the phone, leave things without resolution.
Not only did I go through an unusually high number of break ups this year, but I felt guilty and horrible about the way things ended. I could immediately see my part in the conflict, and wanted to apologize for my anger, but I couldn’t because I was still way too mad.
A year ago I took part in four ayahuasca ceremonies and I was profoundly opened to connection. My capacity for connection skyrocketed and my dating life expanded. I found myself able to feel and dive into connection in ways that had previously been completely blocked off to me. I was so impressed and in awe of the medicine for making this possible.
But at the end of the year I felt like I had a trail of wreckage behind me. So many of my new connections had ended in major and unresolved conflict. I felt confused, exhausted, and despairing. I felt guilty. And I felt mad.
Talking to my therapist about it I lamented that the year had been a failure. I’d had these new connections but what did I have to show for it? A bunch of people were mad at me and I was mad at a bunch of people. There were now more people it would be awkward and painful for me to run into. Is this what opening up to connection means? What’s wrong with me?
My therapist, who had witnessed me going through those relationships and those break ups throughout the year, had a reframe for me. She told me that I needed to look at it a different way. From her perspective, this messy year was all about me figuring out how to have boundaries.
Just because I was suddenly open to connection did not mean I suddenly knew how to know and communicate my boundaries. New connections meant new opportunities to have my boundaries crossed, and therefore, new opportunities to practice the tricky skills of tuning into, expressing, and enforcing my boundaries.
All my break ups had been about either poor attunement, crossed sexual boundaries, and poor responses when I attempted to communicate about this, or outright disrespect and having things projected onto me that weren’t mine. (That’s the Coles notes — I’m not going to get into the details here.) All of my break ups followed a pattern of me failing to immediately tune into and express my boundaries in the moment, initiating communication about my boundaries once I had awareness, receiving irresponsible, defensive, and/or outright disrespectful responses, and me getting really, really mad.
My therapist suggested that this was not evidence of failure on my part, but evidence of me struggling and fumbling to learn boundary skills that I was not only not taught in my childhood, but that I was actively dissuaded from through punishment and shaming. My anger, when it finally exploded onto the scene, was proportionate to the extent of the boundary violations and the extremely poor responses I received to my heartfelt and sincere attempts to communicate with grace and compassion.
If I had noticed, expressed, and enforced my boundaries sooner there would have been less anger. If I had received responsible, considerate, respectful responses to my boundaries, there would have been less anger.
I do have an example from this year that did not go badly, and the exception to the messy break up pattern demonstrates the point. In another new relationship this year, there was a misattunement during sex, and I was unable to communicate about it in the moment. I followed up afterwards, asking to meet up to talk about it. He agreed, met up, listened to me, asked questions to clarify and get more information, apologized, and took responsibility. I apologized for not saying anything in the moment and he assured me that the responsibility was not all mine and that he should have been paying closer attention. He thanked me for telling him. We held hands and looked into each other’s eyes. I felt close to him, listened to, cared for, and respected. There was no anger.
This illustrates that even if I’m not always able to notice and name my boundary in the moment, it doesn’t mean there’s going to be an explosion of anger. What I need, once I have expressed what happened, is response, reattunement, consideration, responsibility, respect, and care. Not defensiveness, denial, argument, or disrespect.
My intense anger is actually a perfectly appropriate response to people responding to my boundaries with defensiveness, denial, argument, or disrespect. I didn’t harm or threaten anyone with my anger. I wasn’t cruel or violent. I was just fucking mad. My anger was, in fact, as forceful as the moment demanded.
I recently finished another four ayahuasca ceremonies, just over a year after my last ceremonies. This time, a major focus of the ceremonies was boundaries. In one of my ceremonies a memory came to me about my dog, Clover.
Clover is the first dog I’ve raised as an adult, and therefore, I have been learning with her. Clover is a very sweet, non-reactive dog who is in no way aggressive or dangerous. When she was maybe two years old she started to get very annoyed when puppies would try to play with her, because puppies have not learned about boundaries yet and can be very overwhelming for older dogs.
One time, we went to the dog park and a puppy was insistently bothering Clover. Clover jumped on the puppy, bearing her teeth, and barking. I had never seen Clover like this and it scared me. My assumption was that this was bad behaviour, and I took Clover from the dog park even though we had just arrived and she wanted to play. I was communicating to her that the behaviour wasn’t good.
This came to me in the ceremony and I realized, with pain, that I was repeating the dysfunctional lessons I learned from my parents in my childhood. I had punished Clover for expressing her boundary by taking her from the dog park. She wasn’t going to hurt the puppy. She was just expressing her boundary, as forecfully as the moment demanded. It is actually through adult dogs expressing their boundaries like this that puppies learn about boundaries.
I am sorry, Clover, for taking you from the dog park. There was nothing wrong with you expressing your anger and frustration at a puppy who was completely crossing your boundaries. You have a right to your boundaries and you are allowed to enforce them.
The medicine showed me that Clover has the right to her boundaries. And so do I.
While I obviously want to aim for smooth, respectful break ups, I’m reframing what I have been seeing as “messy” and “drama”, as the authentic expression of my anger at my boundaries being throughly disrespected. It’s okay for me to hang up the phone. It’s okay for me to be visibly angry. It’s okay for me to express that what is happening is not okay with me.
The better I get at noticing, expressing, and enforcing my boundaries early, the easier it will be for me to discern if the partner I’m choosing is a responsible one, early. The sooner the better. In this unfolding process, there’s bound to be some messy break ups and unresolved conflict. That’s fucking fine.
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Things I’m reading, listening to, watching or thinking about lately
Falling Back In Love With Being Human by Kai Cheng Thom
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
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Clementine Morrigan is a writer and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, ethics, relationships, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and a proponent of building solidarity across difference. She is a socialist, a feminist, and a vegan for the animals and the earth.