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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Snare

Setting and Respecting Boundaries During Office Holiday Celebrations

As a sexual trauma survivor, my physical boundaries are sacred.


And never more so during a season of festivities, fun and - in some environments - fuzzy lines between what is welcomed and unwelcomed behaviour.


Festive events can be a hotbed for crossed physical boundaries. In this piece let's specifically examine the environments of office Christmas parties.


What makes office holiday celebrations so tricky?


A party's combination of excitement + alcohol/drugs + power dynamics + new environments + individual personalities can lead to changes in how you and your colleagues physically relate to each other, and sometimes crossed physical boundaries.


You might experience:

  • A colleague standing very close to you

  • Team members encouraging you into a group hug

  • Your boss asking for, or performing, a kiss on the cheek


Now, these changes aren't necessarily bad. I've had beautiful consensual office romances begin at Christmas parties. I've shared hugs with people whom previously really got on my nerves. It can be healing, and fun!


But your physical boundaries are sacred, and you're allowed to uphold them if the physical contact that's happening is unrequested or unwanted.


Setting and respecting boundaries


So how do you maintain physical boundaries in environments where you're juggling power dynamics and high intensity emotions? How do you stay festive and have fun while keeping your physical self safe and comfortable?


Here are three principles anyone can practise, whether or not you are a sexual trauma survivor or carrying hidden suffering.


Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash

1. Ask for verbal consent for physical contact.


If there was one principle that could change all physical relations for the better, it would be this.


Culturally there's this idea that asking for physical consent, particular in sexual physical interactions, is unromantic. Or that in friendly interactions, it's 'over the top' and unnecessary.


This cultural idea has been played out in films, fairytales and newspapers time and again. It's attributed to 'wokeness' and 'political correctness gone mad'. But really it stems from the fear of the pain that will happen if someone says 'No' to our request for physical contact; a pain which feels very personal and hurts our inner child's desire for touch and love.


Someone saying 'no' to any request you make will always hurt a little bit; I asked someone to move their suitcase on the train the other day - they said no and I found myself very irritated and upset by it. But if you can't handle the 'no' then are you really ready for the 'yes'?


In environments of high intensity emotions and power dynamics, like the office Christmas party, verbal consent becomes even more crucial. It provides a space for people to participate in physical interactions fully, or not at all. And while a 'no' may sting, a 'yes' feels truly wonderful.


So ask - it only takes a minute but makes a big difference.



2. Practise saying 'no' with your words and body.


In stressful situations, our body goes into Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn mode. I know, as a survivor, my two 'standard' responses were Freeze or Fawn.


This looked like:


  • Freeze: quite literally freezing, numbing, and 'playing dead'

  • Fawn: being nice to the aggressor or appeasing them


While both of these states are completely normal responses to stress and suffering, they meant the stress I was experiencing continued. The aggressor continued with whatever they were doing (whether that was touching me sexually or otherwise). I did not escape what was happening, I just 'tuned out'.


Learning how to say no with my words and body has helped me practise the Fight and Flight responses which do not come as quickly to me as Freeze and Fawn, but which help me escape physical stress or aggressors if I need to.


This practise looks like:

  • Never saying 'Yes' or 'Okay' when I really mean 'No', just to be polite - of all the actions, this is the most crucial. Screw politeness; this is your sacred vessel we're talking about here.

  • Saying 'No' very loudly

  • Saying 'No' without a 'thank you' or another niceness next to it

  • Using directives rather than requests e.g. "Stop touching me" not "Stop touching me please"

  • Extending my hands away from my body between me and someone else

  • Making myself physically bigger

  • Speaking as loudly as I can, shouting if needed


Hidden suffering like historic sexual trauma negatively affects our ability to say no. If you are a survivor, like me, then part of your personal healing is to practise saying 'no' in calm, low-intensity environments so that in those excitable, high-intensity environments - like office Christmas parties - that 'no' feels easier.


Photo by Jason Strull on Unsplash


3. Reflect on your own physical boundaries


In my professional and personal experience, I've noticed those who cross the physical boundaries of others without asking for consent fall into two camps:


  1. They are very physically comfortable with themselves, naturally friendly and loving, and innocently think others are the same.

  2. They have few physical boundaries themselves, subconsciously expecting others to touch them without their consent, and therefore believe that behaviour is acceptable.


Reflecting on your own physical boundaries gives you an insight into how you expect others to behave.


Are you loving and friendly, touching people's arms and giving them a squeeze, innocent and sweet?


Being very honest, I often fall into this category, because that's who I was before my sexual trauma and I love physical contact! But I respect that others don't, and I'd rather think about that for a hot second and get verbal consent than ignore someone else's suffering.


Or are you subconsciously assuming that your physical boundaries will be crossed? That you 'have to' shake hands, high five, hug someone, accept that friendly punch, have sex with your husband when you don't really want to, give your wife a cuddle when really you need your own space?


In my romantic life, I've experienced many men in that second camp: those with few physical boundaries. They subconsciously expect to be pushed, shoved, or hurt against their will (often from childhood or male social experiences). Their physical boundaries are weak and so they don't expect, or like, strong boundaries in others.


If your physical boundaries are weak, non-existent or unacknowledged, you may inadvertently replicate this in your interactions with others, and then become irritated when they present strong boundaries.


So reflect generally on your physical boundaries, and then get into the specifics. Imagine yourself wearing a hula hoop at your office Christmas party. Who will be allowed in your hula hoop and your personal space, and who won't? What sort of physical contact is acceptable to you, and what isn't? Who would you love to be in your hula hoop, and how will you explore that with them through verbal consent?


You are allowed to sit down and have a good think about this for 30 or 40 minutes so that when you arrive at the office holiday party and it's in full swing, you feel clear on your physical boundaries and how you'll be interacting with others. Take the time now, and save some stress later.


Summary


Office holiday parties are emotionally-intense environments where physical relating between colleagues can change quickly.


Physical boundaries in these spaces are very important, whether or not you have hidden suffering or trauma.


You can practise three principles to support everyone's physical boundaries.


  1. Ask for verbal consent for physical contact: not a 'politically correct' action, but one which helps everyone participate more actively with their bodies and emotions.

  2. Practise saying 'no' with words and body: suffering can make saying 'no' harder, so this is a key part of healing and learning other ways to respond that help you move away from aggressors or stress.

  3. Reflect on your own physical boundaries: what are your expectations, both generally and for the party, around your physical contact with others? Who is in your hula hoop, and who isn't?


Personally, I have always loved an office Christmas party and one of the (only) downsides of working independently is not having one! I love the warm energy, the new connections, and the cheer that surrounds celebrating making it to the end of the year. None of that has to come with crossed boundaries, but instead can feel safe, secure, connected and comfortable.


-- Eleanor




Want your organisation to recognise how hidden suffering affects boundaries, communication and consent at work? Then bring me in as a inspirational speaker or skilled facilitator. Learn more here.

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