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Drawing the Line: Unwanted Attention

by Kristie Vosper

In the last few weeks I’ve covered the topic of flirting. We’ve talked about flirting for validation, competitive flirting, and the art of putting yourself out there. This week I’d like to address an important part of the flirting conversation: How do you set boundaries when someone is making you uncomfortable by flirting with you when don’t want them to?

I’m not talking about flirting when the love is simply unrequited with someone who is respectful and nice. I want to address the category of behaviors that fall into a disrespectful and unwanted place. I’m talking about flirting that crosses the line.

Our culture raises girls to please others and be nice. How do you please and be nice when someone is almost forcing you to hug them. How can you say “no” to a hug? Isn’t that being rude? Doesn’t everyone deserve a good hug?

Nope. No they don’t. Well, sure they do…but not that kind of hug. They can get their hug somewhere else.

After years and years of being nice to unwanted attention, I was in college when I began to understand the repeated damage my passive behavior was having on my soul. My passive behavior was not to blame for the unwanted affection, but I learned that I could be kind and bold in the same moment and take care and protect myself a little better.

There was a usual crew of college-aged people who would gather at a local coffee shop I’d frequent to study and socialize. Amongst the coffee shop crew of regulars was a guy named Clint. Each time I’d go to study, Clint would come up to me in this fake-sultry “I’m going to be a Casanova and woo you” kind of way. He gave me a feeling that made me want to run away. It wasn’t friendly, it wasn’t even good-flirty, it was just yucky. He always wanted to give me these long, smelly hugs.

One day as Clint approached me after I’d armed myself with some new boundaries, courtesy of my therapist, I said, “Oh, no thank you. No hugs today,” and I put my hand out to prevent him from moving closer towards my body. Did it frustrate him? Probably. I smiled. I was nice. I just didn’t let him step into my physical space and take from me in a way that I didn’t want to give.

I had to let go of worrying about the feelings of someone who was being inappropriate and care more about my heart. I had to learn how to take care of myself and ask to be treated the way that I deserve.

There is a difference between giving and being taken from. Ask yourself the hard questions: Is someone “taking” from you? You’re not there’s to take. Are you afraid of what it would be like if you didn’t just play along? It might seem harmless, but it really isn’t. You’re worth more than this. Flirting, hugs and affection are a way of giving generously of yourself. You want to be the one to give of yourself and guard against being taken from.

Some personalities don’t struggle with this as much as others. As someone who is by nature (and also nurture) a pleaser, setting these boundaries has been a vital part of my freedom and health.

I don’t think we have to resort to mean-girl behavior (but you certainly should if it’s needed) every time we set a boundary. For me, I wanted to be true to who I am. I wanted to be kind, but I also wanted to be firm and bold. It’s amazing how much being polite while you set a boundary shocks people. It’s as if they don’t have a mental category for nice and bold.

Let’s practice together:

  • “Oh, no thank you. I don’t want your hugs anymore.”
  • “Please leave me alone. I’m not interested in you this way.”

There have been plenty of instances where a bit more strength is necessary, but if it’s just someone who doesn’t seem to know the line, then they clearly need help finding it. Spelling it out might seem rude, but their unwanted movement towards the precious things you offer the world is all the more intolerable.

Practicing boundaries and making them a natural part of your behavior might take time and practice, but it’s worth the work. Your vulnerability is worth protecting because it is a precious part of who you are.

Steps towards having great boundaries:

  1. Look for role models. Who do you want to become? Who do you see that sets good boundaries but hasn’t let it become a wall around them? Watch their boundaries and learn to make them your own.
  2. Read good books. A starting place would be Boundaries by Henry Cloud.
  3. Find someone to celebrate you. Explain your desire to grow in learning good boundaries with someone you think will “get it” and who “gets you.” Ask them to be someone with whom you can celebrate a boundary set, a conversation had, and the moments when it doesn’t go well. Find people who you can walk the road of freedom with.
  4. Seek help. The roots of my mandatory care-taking and epidemic pleasing ran deep. I needed the help of a great therapist to uncover why I did what I did. I had healing work to do.

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