Why the BIPOC community is getting serious about boundaries: ‘Boundary work is liberation’

There is increasing conversation around the importance of boundaries in the BIPOC community in the wake of COVID-19 and racial unrest. (Photo: Getty Creative)
There is increasing conversation around the importance of boundaries in the BIPOC community in the wake of COVID-19 and racial unrest. (Photo: Getty Creative)

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of prioritizing mental health, ushering in the buzzword "boundaries" in the process. With work-life balances in disarray and people under great strain, setting boundaries — such as saying no to extra commitments that don't serve you, keeping particular topics off-limits or distancing yourself from draining relationships — has become a cornerstone of many well-being practices. It's no accident that therapist and boundaries expert Nedra Glover Tawwab's Instagram account, where she dispenses advice on protecting oneself from outdated and unhelpful people and behavioral patterns, has a whopping 1 million followers.

For the Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community — which is this month marking BIPOC Mental Health Month — establishing boundaries has become especially crucial amid a year-plus of racial unrest and the community's disproportionate deaths from COVID-19. It has played out in myriad ways, from everyday interactions that limit one's availability — see new bride Issa Rae reportedly setting her vacation auto-responder to "I am unavailable, unreachable and uninterested for the next two weeks" so she can enjoy her honeymoon in peace — to significant, self-protective stances designed to avoid potentially triggering or toxic narratives. Case in point: Tennis champ Naomi Osaka declining to subject herself to French Open press conferences, and ultimately withdrawing from the tournament, for the sake of her mental health.

Author and writing facilitator Alexandra Elle, who often encourages her 1.1 million followers to set boundaries, tells Yahoo Life that what is happening is less about an increase in interest in drawing these lines and more about an “increase in practice.” Elle credits setting boundaries with helping her find "clarity."

“I think that that's really beautiful and important, because the practice is really what makes the boundary or the self-care exist. You can be interested all you want, but if you don't put it, that interest, into practice, it doesn't matter,” she says.

Ife Kehinde, a licensed mental health therapist at Brooklyn’s Heal Haus, credits this increase in practice to quarantine. With many working from home over the last year, it became harder to escape toxic workplace culture, which has been particularly hard on Black women. According to a 2018 Women in the Workplace study, 40 percent of Black women said they had their judgment questioned in their area of expertise while earning only 67 cents on the dollar compared to what men earned. These factors and other instances of workplace discrimination can cause a major impact on mental health and create a demand to separate work from other areas of one's life; unfortunately, quarantine made that much harder.

“The boundaries of work and play, home and rest — even the boundaries of family and socializing — all got twisted because we're stuck in the same place," Kehinde tells Yahoo Life. "You’re having to navigate and renegotiate boundaries, and you don't get to use space or physical distance as an excuse," she adds, noting that the blurred lines between work and home during this time have made many people feel like they are constantly on call.

It's just workplace stress at play, she says.

"Coupled with everything that's been going on and more awareness around police brutality and racial and systemic injustice, I think it's become really important for people to navigate what their limits are and how they can help really maintain their identity and engage in the world around them," Kehinde says.

According to Rheeda Walker, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Houston, it is especially important for people in the BIPOC community to set boundaries in their lives.

"These communities disproportionately carry high levels of burden with less access to education, housing, economic and political opportunities while shouldering more violence and disparities in health and well-being. These communities are resilient, but even resilience has its limits," Walker warns. "We often get overwhelmed before we know it. When that happens, we feel as if we cannot take anymore, mentally. Because we need our minds to accomplish everything in life, it's a good idea to protect it before feeling overwhelmed and even if we think we can 'handle anything.' Everyone has a limit."

Walker adds that setting healthy boundaries has historically not been a priority for many Black women.

"The African proverb says, 'I am because we are,' so taking on everyone else's 'stuff' is innate for some of us," she explains. "Add that we have, understandably, had to be there for one another for our very survival. That is the culture that we brought with us from our homeland. Unfortunately, there are some who may be taking on much more than others and feeling the emotional weight of it all. Boundaries are important for redistributing responsibilities."

Stigma has also been a barrier to many people who need to take the crucial step of creating boundaries. Black women are often scrutinized when they want to protect their energy. Osaka, for instance, faced backlash after stepping back from tennis tournaments. After she blocked one such critic, Megyn Kelly, on Twitter in a move that many saw as a boundary in itself, the 23-year-old was accused by the former Fox News host of being overly sensitive.

Similarly, many Black women have found themselves being perceived as angry when they set boundaries. Kehinde explains that Black women need to see their anger as being valid.

"I think that when people experience a Black woman being angry, it is not random," she says. "Oftentimes, anger is a healthy response to someone violating your boundary or being dismissive ... because we're all entitled to be heard. And I do think it really impacts Black women and how they engage, especially in work. I think in social environments [where] Black women and Black female-identifying individuals engage with others like them, there's less of this fear of being angry because they're being heard and understood."

So, how does one put boundaries into practice? To start, Kehinde suggests making a list of one's boundaries for different situations, which can help pinpoint issues that need to be communicated. Maybe it's that you love your friend's company but not their habit of showing up unannounced, or that your co-worker is regularly contacting you with nonurgent work matters on weekends. Whatever it is, she stresses that people are not owed an explanation.

Walker, meanwhile, says that asking yourself questions can help you determine when you've reached your limit and need to step back: "Am I behaving in ways that are inconsistent with my character? Am I snapping at friends or my children and feeling regretful about doing so? Do I resent having to get out of bed in the morning? Have I lost my sense of joy and peace? They may not remember the last time they had a sense of peace."

And for Elle, learning to honor her own boundaries and not cave to pressure has been tricky, but "necessary."

"I can't expect folks to honor the boundaries that I'm not honoring myself. And that started happening a lot in my work life where I would be like, 'I don't want to work after 6 or after 7.' [But] if someone wants a call, [I'd say] 'I guess I'll squeeze them in.' That's not honoring the boundary that I set," she explains. "They are uncomfortable sometimes, especially when we're setting them with loved ones or family. They require a lot of self-awareness and the ability to hold ourselves accountable. And so we have to learn how to manage them and set them because if you don't, we're just going to be depleted at the end of it. And it's not easy ... but at the end of the day, it's necessary."

Sticking to those firm boundaries has ultimately brought her "more freedom."

"[It meant] emotional freedom, physical freedom, more saying 'yes' to the things I want to say yes to and 'no' to the things that I want to say no to — that has really allowed me that space and the freedom to stay true to myself," she admits. "[It's] been a challenge, but it's also been liberating. Boundary work is liberation."

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