This week, Off-Kilter returns to our ongoing series of conversations with social justice leaders digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is political warfare—and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work. Given that the disability community harbors some of the greatest wisdom when it comes to radical self-care–with disabled people as “modern-day oracles,” as activist Alice Wong often puts it—Rebecca has been spending a good bit of this series in conversation with leaders across the disability rights and justice movement. For this week’s episode, she sat down with longtime disability rights and justice activist Vilissa Thompson, founder of Ramp Your Voice!, a fellow with The Century Foundation’s Disability Economic Justice Team, and someone who doesn’t mess around when it comes to self-care. They take a deep dive into the subject of boundaries at work—a practice that, like so much within the realm of self-care, gets talked about a lot at the surface-level, but remains a perennial challenge for a lot of folks engaged in social justice work. Not so for Vilissa, who is so renowned for her mastery of boundaries—at work and throughout her life—that her friends and colleagues lovingly call her the “patron saint of boundaries.”
[bright theme music]
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I talk with visionary leaders working to disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
And this week, we’re returning to Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of conversations with social justice leaders, digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is political warfare, and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work. In a lot of ways, as I talked about with Rebecca Cokley for the podcast earlier this month, the disability community harbors some of the greatest wisdom when it comes to radical self-care, with disabled people as modern-day oracles, as activist Alice Wong often puts it. So, in that spirit, I decided to devote a good bit of this series on self-care as political warfare to a set of conversations with leaders across the disability rights and justice movement.
And to that end, I really enjoyed sitting down with our next guest in that series, who’s a friend as well as a colleague at The Century Foundation, and someone from whom I’ve learned a great deal about self-care over the years, and especially the practice of boundaries. And that’s Vilissa Thompson, founder of Ramp Your Voice, a fellow with the Disability Economic Justice team at The Century Foundation, and someone who doesn’t mess around when it comes to self-care.
No series on self-care would be complete without digging into the subject of boundaries, which, like so much within the realm of self-care, gets talked about a lot at the surface level, but which remains elusive for a lot of folks who do mission-driven work. Setting and enforcing boundaries when it comes to my own work has been a real challenge for me over the years and has been a domain with a steep learning curve that my own health has made into a necessity. And I can’t think of anyone better to get into this subject with than Vilissa, who is so renowned for her mastery of boundaries that our mutual friend Rebecca Cokley lovingly calls her the Patron Saint of Boundaries. So, without further ado, my conversation with Vilissa. [upbeat music break]
Vilissa, it is so good to have you back on Off-Kilter, and it’s great to be in conversation with you. Hello, hello!
VILISSA THOMPSON: It’s good to be back in the New Year.
VALLAS: It is. It is. And the last time you were on Off-Kilter I think was last July.
VALLAS: I think it was part of the ADA series we were doing. And you and I were getting to talk with Laurie Bertram Roberts about how reproductive justice is disability justice. And I kind of wanna give a shameless plug for that episode ‘cause it was so good and totally timeless. And honestly, even, it gets even more timely as time marches on with the reproductive justice fight being so core to a lot of what many of our movements are needing to engage with.
But before we get into the topic that you and I are really gonna dive into this week as part of the ongoing series of conversations that Off-Kilter has been doing about self-care as political warfare, you and I are gonna be talking about boundaries!
VALLAS: We’re gonna be getting into it. But I wanna give you the chance to remind Off-Kilter’s listeners—since it’s been a minute since you’ve been on this show—talk a little bit about how you come to disability rights and disability justice work. You’ve worn a lot of hats over the years. You are the founder of Ramp Your Voice. Today I have the pleasure of getting to work with you at The Century Foundation, where you’re also a fellow with the Disability Economic Justice team. Talk a little bit about how you come to this work.
THOMPSON: Yes. So, for me, this year marks ten years of me doing this work, and it has been quite the journey. I had never seen myself doing probably most of what I have the incredible opportunity to do. So, my background is in social work, and so I come into this space as a macro social worker who really centers on community and advocacy through a disability lens and an intersectional lens of combining race, gender, and disability into the scope and the space. So, my work expands upon really getting people, social workers, those in non-profit, for-profit sectors, politicians, and so forth, to really understand disability from a intersectional and intentional lens so that they can truly do the work that is needed to make this world a more inclusive, accessible, and safer place for the community. And a lot of that is done through speaking opportunities, doing podcast interviews like this, and doing trainings, presentations, writing, and so forth. So, I am a little bit of everything in my capacity to really get the messaging out there to the people that really need to hear these stories and experiences and really sometimes see themselves as a part of the community if they have had a distance from self-identifying as disabled for whatever reason. So, this work has been a true saving grace of not just me being able to do my work, but to also empower myself into embracing my disability identity in a way that I never considered before. So, the last ten years have been quite the journey to bring this forward in a multitude of ways and meeting incredible people along the way.
VALLAS: And I’ve loved getting to be engaged in this work with you. You have been one of my favorite people, truly, to get to be in this work with. And I have to say, I knew I was gonna love you as soon as I knew you were a social worker because [laughs] as a former legal aid lawyer who has a forever love affair with social workers, there’s just, there’s so much about the education you get in that approach to how to approach systems, how to change systems. And so, I love that you bring that perspective to this work as well. And I’ll give a plug among all the different hats you wear, you are also one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter. So, if anyone’s not already following Vilissa on Twitter, we’ve got her handle in show notes. She’s @VilissaThompson, and she is well worth the follow. You’re probably one of the funniest people on Twitter, I think, that I follow in addition to the important serious stuff that you bring forward as well.
So, V, I’m really, really excited to get into this particular conversation with you because as I mentioned, this is, we’re continuing the ongoing series that Off-Kilter has been doing, really interrogating self-care as political warfare in the way that Audre Lorde and others truly meant. Not that kind of watered-down capitalist, kind of mealy-mouthed self-care that is so prevalent, but really the real, the real stuff underneath what that concept is meant to be. And in particular, what does self-care in the context of social justice work look like?
And you can’t really do a series of conversations about this subject without talking about the subject of boundaries. And so, as I was thinking about who to have on to talk about boundaries with, boundaries as a practice—and we’re gonna get into what does that mean—I knew immediately you were the person I wanted to talk to about this. And honestly, you are one of the people I have learned the most from over the years when it comes to the practice of boundaries. I also wanna note Rebecca Cokley of the Ford Foundation and a longtime disability rights and justice activist that you and I are both close friends with, she literally namechecked you in an episode a couple of weeks ago that we aired as part of this series. She called you the Patron Saint of Boundaries. And I swear I didn’t pay her for that plug for this episode! But it was a perfect introduction to what we’re gonna be getting into here.
So, as we segue way into talking about boundaries, I wanna sort of just offer up, similar to the surface-level nature of so many conversations about self-care, a lot of conversations about boundaries are also really surface level. And so, my hope for this conversation is really to get deeper into the subject of boundaries with you than most conversations on this subject tend to get. To do that, I would really love to start up top, as I often do in Off-Kilter episodes, with a little bit of definitional work. And so, I’m gonna throw to you the question, how do you understand boundaries? And how would you explain the concept of boundaries to somebody who isn’t familiar? And I recognize a lot of our listeners might be going, “I know what boundaries are!” But you may and you may not, and Vilissa, I promise, has a lot to teach on this. So, talk to me a little bit about how you understand boundaries.
THOMPSON: Yes. I was just talking about it in a recent discussion that I did for a speaking opportunity when a person I was chatting with asked me, “So, what was something that you have learned over the scope of doing this work?” And I was like, “The importance of having boundaries is so important for self-preservation.” And that’s what I see boundaries as self-preservation: self-preservation for yourself, self-preservation for the relationship that you have, whether it’s work relationships, intimate relationships, family relationships, friendships, and so forth. And I think that looking at boundaries in that way shifts the guilt that we sometimes hold about having to enforce boundaries and really see the freedom that boundaries allow us to experience: the freedom to be honest, the freedom to communicate our needs well so that they can be understood, and also the freedom to understand that those who do not respect our boundaries typically are people who don’t respect us. And the onus then falls on us to reconfigure or reshape those relationships so that the respect that we have and that we’re asking for is found. So, I think that boundaries are necessary for us to engage with each other intentionally and lovingly and to not feel as if boundaries are a bad thing.
VALLAS: I love that as the place to start. And I wanna dig into a bunch of the different elements that you brought into that definition, which honestly, was more than a definition. It was sort of a heart-led understanding of really a multidimensional concept. I feel like often I hear boundaries discussed in the context of like, “Oh, yeah, I have boundaries. I don’t check email after 6 PM,” right? And like, that’s as deep as folks generally get. But you’re really, you’re delving into that deeper level of what they represent, what they are about, what the purpose is. And it really is about that respect that one has for oneself, but also the respect then that others either do or don’t show for you based on whether they respect those boundaries. Would you maybe offer some examples of how you bring boundaries as a practice into your life? And maybe get concrete about some of how that shows up for you in terms of self-preservation.
THOMPSON: Yes. I think for me, the shifting that I had with boundaries started in grad school, and I’m really thankful for social work. My undergrad was in psychology, and with psychology, you study mind, things of that nature, kind of what can go “right or wrong” with the individual, quote-unquote. But with social work, you really get to study the people and relationships. And that’s when concepts like boundary and healthy communication and building healthy communication skills were really taught to me. Because honestly, these concepts are not taught to us. These are things that we learn haphazardly, you know, by trial and error. Or if we are in helping professions like social work, psychology, counseling, we learn it that way. Or for those of us who are able to engage therapeutic practices, we learn it through there. So, that is the misgiving about being able to learn how to engage healthily with each other, if that information is not readily available. So, for me, this has been a decade-long journey to understand boundaries in a way that is intentional.
[sighs] The one thing that I had to realize is that saying no to people can be triggering for other people, but their trigger, you know, them being triggered is not mine to hold. And I think once you’ve released that guilt or that shame or that uncomfortable nature of saying no, getting to boundaries and setting boundaries becomes easier to do. And I think that, particularly for those of us who are socially conditioned to be women and femmes, we are told that saying no is not always good. And sometimes in certain situations, saying no could put your life in jeopardy, particularly if you’re dealing with men and masculine-presenting folks. So, there’s a delicate dance for those of us who are socialized as women, femmes in being comfortable with saying no and being comfortable with having boundaries. And I think that is something that I have seen over the course of time in talking to women and femmes, but particularly Black women and femmes, about regaining our time back, you know, as Maxine Waters would say, “Reclaiming our time.” And that, basically, is what boundaries is to me: reclaiming our time about the things that really matter to us and putting our needs first and not putting them last. So, I think there is an intentionality for those of us who are women and femmes to really grab ahold to understanding boundaries so that we are not stressed out.
I know that for me, a key area that I’ve had to insert a boundary was for myself. I’m in my 30s now, in my late-30s, and understanding that I don’t have to be the helping friend all the time. You know, it’s okay to help, but I don’t have to overextend. And I don’t have to overextend in relationships where I’m always doing the helping or the work to sustain the relationship, but it’s not giving back. So, a boundary that has to be enacted is recognizing when there is an overextension of labor, and in this case, emotional labor, and figuring out what can you do to navigate that in a way that is more so with ease. Sometimes that ease can be talking to that person, and sometimes that ease can be you just doing it and just waiting to see if the person notices or not. And I know some folks may see that as passive aggressive, but we all know the people in our lives who can take no and criticism well and those who cannot. So, you enacting it without saying something isn’t being passive. It’s a very responsive way of engaging with that boundary that you know that you need to have. But it brings that ease to where you don’t have to engage in a potential conflict with that person when you’re doing something that’s for your betterment.
And I think that’s another key thing I had to realize with boundaries is that boundaries are not just stringent demands, it’s for your betterment so that you can show up in the ways that make you happy, that makes you fulfilling, and that makes your relationship stronger. Because when you’re on the same page with someone, whether it’s spoken or just doing it silently, you can find some happiness in that relationship to where you’re doing the things that you want to do and not what you’re feeling obligated to do. And I think for me, on a personal level, boundaries is about feeling less obligated to the things that I know I don’t want to do and steering more into the direction of things that I do want to do that is fulfilling and that comes with an ease versus difficulty.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that. I love that. And I’ve got Aisha Nyandoro’s words in my ears as we’re having this conversation. She joined me for the kick-off episode of the series. The episode is titled Self-Care is Political Warfare. You can find it if you scroll back in the episode archive. But Aisha speaks just beautifully and eloquently and with great wisdom around what she calls joyous noes. And she speaks beautifully and from the heart about how saying no to something that you don’t want to do, that you don’t have the bandwidth to do, that you don’t have the energy to do, or just that isn’t right for you is about saying yes to yourself. And that might sound like a somewhat counterintuitive concept. For example, folks who are maybe newer to the practice of boundaries or who are resistant to the practice of boundaries or to saying no, particularly because of the conditioning that you were describing, which is so pervasive, especially for women-identifying folks, setting boundaries can feel like, “Oh, but that means I’ll be doing less work. And therefore, I’ll be doing less good towards the cause that I fight for when I need to be doing more because there’s so much work that needs doing.”
And but talk a little bit about how you practice boundaries in a way that allows you to say yes, right? Saying no to say yes is really what I feel like you’re speaking about here. You referenced that boundaries are about self-preservation for you, but I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to witness you as the Patron Saint of Boundaries, as Cokley calls you. And I’ll call you that too, ‘cause you deserve the title. You, as the Patron Saint of Boundaries, really have, I feel, demonstrated that boundaries can actually make you more successful in the work that you do and that they can allow you to be not just more sustainable in the work that you’re doing, but actually more successful. So, maybe how does that land with you? Do you think that’s a fair characterization of how the experience has been for you? And feel free to share concrete examples of either times you’ve said no or things you’ve learned to say no to or boundaries that you’ve learned to set over that ten-year journey that you referenced.
THOMPSON: Yes. I think the boundaries, I pay attention to my intuition, which is something that we all have. And if I get a inkling that something may not feel right or I’m just not excited about it, then that is my first indicator that I need to pause and think and reflect and then come to a decision. I think that folks may feel like boundaries is about just saying no to everything. And it’s not that, but being strategic about what you say no to and also what you say yes to. And what I’ve had to learn is that when I make room for the things that matter to me, it’s easy to say yes to those things and to say no to the things that don’t matter to me. And I think that, to something that you mentioned, you don’t have to do it all. And I think I’m just at the age and stage of my life to where I don’t have to do it all. And I really don’t want to! [delighted chuckle] If I’m being transparent, I don’t want to do it all and feel rushed. And I don’t wanna feel it all and feel obligated to someone else when it may be fulfilling what they care about and not fulfilling what I care about. Or my needs may be in the background and not the foreground.
And so, for me, enacting boundaries in work really is about assessing, that reflective moment of what does this have to do for me? Is this a good use of my time? Is this a good use of my energy? Can this be done by someone else who may be more passionate and excited about doing this thing? I think especially if you’re thinking about in the work space, it is really hard to say no in a capitalistic society that wants you to hustle, hustle, hustle day and night, all day long. And that’s not feasible, that’s not realistic, and that is surely not sustainable over time. So, I really had to, particularly since I started working for myself over the past, it’ll be four years now, I really had to sit and assess: Does this matter to me? Am I excited about this? Is this something that two years from now, I’m going to look back at and realize, “You know what? That was a really good use of my time and energy”? Or would I be thinking, “You know what? I really could’ve done something else in this time.” In some ways, boundaries is about potentially holding off on resentments and regret because many of us have been in situations to where we wish we had said no when we said yes.
And I think that’s the other thing, too. Like, how did you feel when you said yes to something when you know you should have said no? How did that go? Most of those times, at least for me, I found that those situations were very bumpy, had a lot of unnecessary obstacles that if I had said no to it from the jump, my time, energy, resources, brainpower, whatever that I was giving could’ve been steered to somewhere else. So, for me, I really think critically about the things that I do so that I don’t have resentment or regret, and it is excitement. And I know I say “excitement” a lot, but I’ve been dabbing into Human Design. And my Human Design type is the generator, and unbeknownst to me, I had been functioning in my Generator Human Design for a very long time before I realized it. So, that excitement bug is so important for me to have.
Like, if I’m not excited, that’s when I pause. If I do get excited, I still reflect and make sure it’s what I wanna do. But that excitement is my tentative yes to giving the definite yes going forward. And if that excitement is not there for me, then that is my pump-the-brakes moment and for me to assess, like, okay, is this something I wanna do at all? Or are there bits and pieces that I can engage with that can excite me, but I’m not holding the whole responsibility of doing x, y, z project or x, y, z thing for this person? So, I think that, circling back to how I started this, boundaries are about paying attention to my intuition. And I think that living in a society that tells you to not pay attention to your spirit or to those little thoughts that you have, I think that is instrumental to knowing how to engage going forward.
VALLAS: I so love that you took us here, and I love that you brought up the connection to intuition, right? Because in order to have a conversation about boundaries, right, I think that the question anyone who’s listening must be asking is, “Yeah, but how do I know what to say yes to and what to say no to?” They can master the concept at a theoretical level and still not know where to go with a yes and where to go with no and where to draw those lines, right? Unless there is that connection to the energetic yes or to one’s intuition. This connects to another conversation we had as part of this series about self-care as political warfare, an episode with Leilani Mañulu, a dear friend of mine who’s also a practicing shaman. And she speaks beautifully about intuition. So, I’ll suggest that folks go back and listen to that episode if you want a deeper dive into how to connect with your intuition and how intuition shows up as part of, and a necessary part of, self-care.
But Vilissa, I’m so excited, somewhat nerdily, that you brought up Human Design. You and I both—usually off the air, but I’m actually kind of excited to bring this conversation into this episode a little bit—we talk about how both of us work with astrology. Both of us work with Human Design and a few other maybe some might call them woo tools to actually be better at living life and more intentional about living our lives and more intentional about our work. And so, I’m actually really excited that you brought in a mention of Human Design to this conversation and connected it to how you know when to say yes and when to say no. I love the way you described it. It’s like you’ve learned to follow the excitement because that’s one of your guides; that’s one of your tells.
But for folks who might be like, “What is Human Design? I have no idea what that is,” well, go check it out. But just like the short CliffsNotes is, it is a modality for getting in touch with, becoming more consciously aware of, kind of the way you’re wired. And part of what Vilissa was referencing was that she has learned to listen to her authority, her inner authority, and to make decisions on that basis. And so, you mentioned you’re a Generator, Vilissa. I’m a Manifesting Generator, which is similar in Human Design.
VALLAS: Both of us need to have a strategy of responding. So, there’s life comes and brings you invitations and offers and opportunities and demands and challenges. And then our strategy is to respond, and that’s to respond with a yes or to respond with a no. And the only way we know what’s right for us is to go within and to ask. And it’s, and for me, that’s about going and saying, “What do I feel in my gut? What do I feel literally in my gut?”
VALLAS: And I have to say, just to plus-one everything that you said about the power of that kind of practice, it has been literally transformational for me to start to engage with life in that way, going within to ask, “Is this a yes, or is this a no for me,” as opposed to, “Does society want me to do this? Do the people around me want me to do this? Have I been conditioned to think this is a thing I should do?” And so, really kind of separating out the conditioning from that inner authority has really been really, really big for me. But I so appreciate you bringing it into this conversation about boundaries, and I hope some folks might be interested in might wanna go check out Human Design and say, “Hmm, what might that have for me in terms of insight?”
Did you have mentors or teachers, or is there anyone along the way on this journey for you that has been someone who comes to mind when you think about how you learned about boundaries, how you have become so skillful at the practice of boundaries? You mentioned a lot of it’s been trial and error, right? And so, a lot of it is just sort of seeing what works. But talk a little bit about kind of this learning process for you and how your mastery with boundaries emerged.
THOMPSON: I think for me, I have a mentor who has been very intentional to get me to trust myself and to trust my intuition and my gut and the way that I feel about things. And it’s something that she had to learn in her own work. She’s in her late 60s. She’s semi-retired. And she shares a lot with me about the trials and errors of her experiences, professional life, personal life, when she was my age, the things that she learned. So, just getting that type of insight lets me know that people are always learning about boundaries. And she has gotten better in some ways herself over the years. And our conversations about things to be empowered about asking for the rights that she deserves or just really ensuring that her work is in the spaces that matters to her. So, I think that just hearing it from someone who is older, that they’re still learning about boundaries and enforcing them, but also, can look back at moments to where when they enforced boundaries, how did that work versus when they didn’t, and what were the outcomes of those moments? So, I think that’s, for me, just having those conversations. And also, seeing friends, when do they trust themselves to say no, and how did that work out versus when they didn’t trust themselves? And what may have been the hard lesson that they’ve had to navigate by not putting their needs first? So, I think that just really listening to people’s experiences as to the decisions they made and what they’ve learned has really helped me see the importance of trusting your gut, listening to yourself, and doing the things that genuinely make you happy or genuinely get you excited or genuinely aligns with your purpose.
And I think that’s another thing that my mentor talks about, is staying true to your purpose, the things that you enjoy doing when it comes to the work and ensuring that what you give your time to aligns with that, whether directly or indirectly, and not just fulfilling someone else’s dream box of what they need. I think that’s been the thing that I’ve been teaching about carrying forward professionally, is just really aligning to the things that matter to me and helps to build up my work versus somebody else’s work. So, in having that mentor, she really helped me grapple with boundaries on a professional level pretty significantly so that I can enforce them easily over time.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that. And part of what I have to say has been a real learning process for me—and learning, really, I feel like, by witnessing you, by being in conversation with you, by learning directly from you, and you are a font of wisdom that you’ve been really gracious and generous to share with me and many others over the course of your own journey as you’ve been mastering boundaries. And you’re often pretty public about talking about this stuff too—I have to say that’s been pretty amazing to watch. It’s part of why I love following you on Twitter. You often share about these types of subjects and say, oh! Here’s something I did today, and here’s how this went. And here’s why this was important, right? And I feel like I learn a lot, not just in conversation with you, but quite literally even just from seeing sometimes what you share on Twitter.
But one of the things that I have really learned, and which I’m still very much learning from you, is that it isn’t always easy to do what we’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still the right thing to do for you. And so, maybe part of what I mean, maybe to say that a little differently is, as you were saying before, sometimes when you say no or sometimes when you set a boundary, it can be triggering to the recipient of that boundary. And it can mean that it isn’t necessarily received with puppies and rainbows and a thank you card that gets mailed to your house! But that doesn’t mean that it still isn’t the right thing for you to set that boundary. Do you have any advice or any tips or wisdom to share around how to enforce and set boundaries when they feel as though they might be going against the grain of the culture or the space that you’re in, which might be filled with a whole bunch of people who aren’t actually doing much to set boundaries for themselves or respecting their or other people’s boundaries? What does that look like for you? I have witnessed it involve a lot of courage and a lot of self-awareness on your part, but I’m curious if you have any specific tips or wisdom to share.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think that to enact boundaries at times can feel like a privilege, depending on how you exist in the world. As a Black disabled woman, I have been in spaces to where I could not enact boundaries ‘cause there would have been repercussions. So, I would be remiss to not bring up the fact that enacting boundaries, particularly in professional settings, can bring on negative consequences for those of us who are not white or women, I mean, that are not white or male/masculine-presenting folks and so forth. So, it is a very delicate dance of sorts of trying to enact boundaries in the professional world, particularly when you are not white or male. So, I do have to bring that up. And it’s because I have been in such spaces that I have had to realize that in spaces where boundaries can’t be enacted with less consequences thrown upon me, that’s how I do them. But it is not always safe to enact boundaries because people don’t like to be told no, particularly folks who have certain privileges that are not used to being told no. So, I think that has to be brought into this conversation as well, is that the right to say no is a privilege, is a luxury for some of us versus others.
So, that’s something that I had to learn, like I said, the hard way of being in professional spaces. And most of my professional spaces have been disability spaces. So, I’m dealing with white, disabled or non-disabled men, women, those who may be in between, who do not want to be told no and demand so much from you. And in those situations, there have been moments of professional mistreatment, not just towards me, but I’ve seen a threat of mistreatment from others as well who have similar identities as myself. So, I think that’s a realistic point to bring into the conversation, is that the right to set boundaries, the right to say no is a luxury at times.
And I think that, for me, that’s why I have been so intentional about saying no, because I do have that freedom now to say that and not engage in such harsh repercussions for that. I think that sometimes being in spaces with marginalized people, you realize, like I said, no is triggering because people have been told no pretty much their whole life to a whole lot of things. So, sometimes you have to realize that it is not your burden to hold their reaction to being told no. That sometimes it runs deeper for that person, but that deeper does not that have to be your responsibility. Nor do you have to feel persuaded or encouraged to saying yes because someone is not adult enough to deal with a two-letter word. So, that’s something that I’ve had to learn as well in being in certain spaces, is that how to navigate saying no, how to navigate setting boundaries in a way that doesn’t yield me harm. Or if it will yield me harm, what are some of the things I have to enact to try to reduce that? Even if reducing it means eventually removing myself from those spaces.
VALLAS: Yeah, no. And it’s just, it’s a really important point to make that we would be remiss if we didn’t center in this conversation as well. Obviously, there is great privilege required in order to be able to set certain types of boundaries, especially in certain types of spaces, and particularly for folks who come from pretty much any background that is not a person who appears as a white masculine man, right, as you’re pointing out.
I wanna note, though, as well, that part of what I have witnessed that has been incredibly powerful watching you as the master of boundaries over the years and learning a great deal from you in the process as someone who frankly has historically had really, really poor boundaries myself—something I’ve talked about quite openly as part of this series about self-care as political warfare—is that even sometimes when the initial reaction in a space or a particular network or workplace or space with certain cultural norms that you’ve been in, where you’ve set boundaries has not necessarily been immediately puppies and rainbows and thank you notes, you also have had the effect, in many cases—and just I’m just speaking about the ones I’ve witnessed; there are probably countless ones that I have not had the good fortune to get to be present to witness as well—you often had the effect of actually making the space better and teaching people, whether you’re intending to or not, to think a little differently themselves about the boundaries that they set or do not set.
And so, I’m gonna offer an example from a conversation you and I were having just the other day when we were catching up about a variety of stuff. Something that I used to do routinely, which is very common in a lot of different workplaces and workspaces, is I used to work through illness, and whether that was my own chronic illness flare ups of some of what I live with on a regular basis, or whether that was, hey, I’d gotten a cold or the flu or whatever it was. And that’s a change that I’ve made now in recent years. I no longer work when I am sick. That’s been actually a pretty transformational change, even though that might sound pretty common sense to some people. And I have to say—and you and I were talking about this the other day when we were catching up—that’s something that I have felt empowered to do for myself, to make that change in large part thanks to people like you and others who have set that boundary and who said it long before I did. And I’m talking about just the outer limits here of boundary setting, right? There’s like, it gets way, way— It only goes up from there. This is like really basic outer perimeters kind of stuff. But just to name it because a lot of the work circles that I move in and that you move in are ones where, frankly, working while sick is treated like a badge of honor, right? It’s like, “Oh, no, no, I’m too important to take a sick day,” right? Which is often the conditioning that we get. So, just to say I’ve, I’m someone who has learned from you through seeing you set that type of boundary.
But also, I’ve now experienced myself as I communicate to other people, “Oh, no, I’m actually, I’m taking some time because I’m sick,” I’ve actually seen other people in my workspaces hear that and say, “Oh,” and the first reaction might be like, oh, they’re annoyed. Or, oh, that means that a meeting’s getting rescheduled, or something’s not gonna happen when they thought it would. But I’ve now gotten to witness some of those people who might’ve initially been annoyed actually start to be influenced by seeing that that maybe is something they should examine for themselves. And so, I was really pleased just the other week, and I think I was sharing this with you, that somebody came forward to me and said, “You know what? I’ve decided to change this for myself because I witnessed you say, ‘I don’t work when I am sick.’ And now I am canceling a bunch of meetings because I am sick.” And it might feel like a small thing, but it actually, it really isn’t. And so, I’m curious if you have any reflections on that or how that lands with you, the idea that the setting of boundaries that might not be popular or might not be in vogue in the spaces that you bring them to bear when you first do so are actually ones that can be changed for the better, and the people who are part of them can be changed for the better, just by virtue of your engaging authentically with what is right for you.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think that sometimes you can lead by example without even meaning to, and I think that sometimes folks can use you as the example to start doing something that we all know we should be doing. We all know that we should not be working while sick, but we do it anyway because of the pressures that you mentioned that others impose or project, you know, for being a disappointment, being upset, to kind of seeing, like, wow, she has audacity to not power through like I would do. So, I think folks need the examples to feel empowered to know like, “Hey, I can do that as well. And I can get similar results of resting my body and allowing it to heal, and when I return, I’m in the shape that I need to do to work in, instead of just dragging and pushing through.” So, I think that in being someone who enacts boundaries, it is inspiring in a way to hear other people feel empowered to do the same.
But I think that it goes back to understanding that we all have access to boundaries and setting those limits so that we can be sustainable. That’s why I started the definition about boundaries about self-preservation, because you’re preserving your quality of life and your ability to do the things that you wanna do, whether it’s professional-centered or personal. And I think that’s the thing that folks have to start really reshaping in their minds is that boundaries isn’t a naughty thing. It isn’t a bad thing to engage with. It’s actually something that allows for you to continue forward in an intentional way, that allows you to engage in your fullness and not engage in a fragmented type of way. So, I think that it is important to share those examples of people being influenced by you to do similarly. But I think that we all have access to that in some way, shape, or form, but it’s on us to pay attention to it when it’s done seemingly flawlessly by others and realizing, “You know what? I can do the same.”
So, I think that for me, engaging with boundaries is something that I do so that I can be at my best at whatever that I’m giving my time to. And I think that’s my reminder for when I meet that pushback that you describe and knowing that this person doesn’t know what’s best for me. I know what’s best for me. And if I need to take time to allow myself to heal, or I need to redirect my time and energy to another project and not what they’re asking me to do, then that’s something that I have to do. And I think you just have to get this, you have to get comfortable with disappointing people and allowing people to sift through their own emotions of that without you taking on that responsibility. And I think that’s something that I had to learn.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that. I love that so much. And just the way you put that, that boundaries, setting your boundaries, enforcing your boundaries, protecting your boundaries allows you to show up as your best in the things that you do give your time to.
VALLAS: It’s such a simple and yet such a profound way of flipping the script on something that, as you describe beautifully, is usually talked about, is so often talked about as though it is taboo.
So, V, I wanna ask you a variation of the kind of, the set of questions that we’ve been digging into here, that it brings in the present moment that we are in. We’re entering the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is not over, as many people try to say that it is, although we are sort of entering new chapter after new chapter of what this pandemic looks like and feels like for all of us. I’m curious your thoughts and any wisdom that you have to share on navigating self-care, navigating the maintenance of healthy boundaries in a pandemic. And I ask that question with the context that it can feel, and often does feel, and often is true, that there is so much that urgently needs to be addressed in terms of social ills, policy failures, on, on, on the list goes that can make it feel as though it’s not safe to rest.
And this is particularly the case for the disability community at a moment where, I mean, we’ve seen more entrants to the disability community in the wake of long COVID than we have seen at any other point in recorded history. And so, this is a hell of a moment to be trying to think about and grapple with setting boundaries because it can feel like, oh my God, everything is on fire. We need to be go, go, go all the time. And that feeling that it’s not safe to rest is one that is incredibly pervasive across social justice movements, but which I know is particularly felt, and justifiably felt, by many in the disability community with people not only literally dying by the millions, but people also getting sick and with a still not-well-understood illness that clearly is gonna be with many people for a long time and which can be disabling. Talk a little bit about anything that you’ve learned, anything that you think is worth reflecting on or sharing as we enter this fourth year of the pandemic when it comes to how to maintain healthy boundaries in a pandemic, whether it remains appropriate to maintain healthy boundaries in a pandemic, and anything that that brings to mind for you.
THOMPSON: Yes. The one thing I think about, and I’m empowered to say it to you as well and a few other folks in this space, is that there are a lot of things that are important, but very few that are urgent. And when I realized that, it really made that hustle and bustle about all the issues that we may care about stop. And it made me, again, recalibrate and think about, okay, what matters to me? Where am I best utilized to engage in this way that helps us remain safe or helps us get the messaging out about this topic or that topic regarding the pandemic that matters? And that has been a grounding reminder for me. Again, there are a lot of things that are important, but very few that are urgent. And particularly when you are in activism spaces and policy spaces and so forth, we have to realize we are not crisis workers. The things that we work on are important, but they are not urgent to where we have to drop everything in this moment to engage with. It is on us to be strategic about how we utilize our time and the resources that we have at our disposal to act in a ready moment. But this is not urgent.
And I think it’s also something to be said that you can care about a lot of things, but you can only do so many things. And I think that’s the other grounding element that I have to remember as well. Where am I best utilized in this moment? And who may be a better fit to be utilized than myself, who may have the stamina or the passion to bring it forward better than I can? So, I think in some ways, stripping the ego is important into really ensuring that we are engaging in ways that are sustainable even in a pandemic, a pandemic that has been incredibly stressful and disappointing in the way that we engage with each other. But also ensuring that we are intentional with our time. I’m using very a lot of active words like “intentional” and just really engaging with forethought, with care. I think those are the things that are kind of missing at these times. So, for me, the pandemic has really made me reconsider so many things, but particularly where I am that’s needed and where it may be best for me to be in the background and push someone else forward who may be better suited. So, again, stripping the ego has been beneficial for me during the pandemic so that I can show up as my best self in the ways that matters to me in the moment and also in the long term, and also supporting other people who are making those same assessments for themselves.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that. And I love the reference to stripping the ego away, right? Because so much of what can feel urgent is so often really sort of the hero complex in disguise, right?
VALLAS: The, “Oh, I need to be the savior. This is the moment where it’s all on my shoulders,” right? And you’re reminding us, and I think so importantly—and it’s reminder that honestly can’t be repeated often enough—that we’re all in this together, that we’re all part of communities who are doing this work. And so, it is not on any one person to be the savior. And so often, the right thing is to figure out who else could actually be doing this thing, who might be better at it, who might be more passionate about it. Where is your best use, and how can you be in sync with your allies in a way that it’s not all on your shoulders? That’s wisdom that feels incredibly timely to be invoking again as we mark the four-year anniversary of the pandemic.
In the last few minutes that we have, Vilissa, I wanna throw you a question that I also asked of Rebecca Cokley a couple of weeks ago, and which is part of what is very much in my mind as we continue this series of conversations now with leaders from the disability rights and justice communities as we continue to delve into self-care as political warfare. And that is, as Alice Wong puts it, the idea that disabled people are oracles. And I’ll note that that is true on a range of different issues, but it’s especially true when it comes to a concept like self-care. Are there any reflections that you want to offer when it comes to the significance, as you see it, of self-care, of radical self-care to the disability community?
THOMPSON: I think just realizing that we are a community, and we are in community with each other and to really look out for one another. If, you know, I was saying, one person may be better suited to doing this one thing, offer that support in uplifting them to do that thing. If somebody realizes that they’re maxed at capacity, then shifting the responsibility off of their plate and spreading it around to other people who can engage with it in a fair way and still keep that person in the loop or engaged in whatever capacity that they can that’s not overextending. So, I think that for me, when it comes to disabled folks, just recognizing that we can lean on each other and not have to be an island of sorts. And that’s something that I do right now, you know, checking in on people, seeing how they are, particularly if it’s come on my radar that they are overextended in some way due to life stuff. And being like, “Hey, if you need to talk, I have capacity.” You know, just letting people know that you can be there for them and what space you can hold, that’s also a way of communicating. I said that boundaries are about healthy communications, and that’s a healthy way of letting people know that, “Hey, you don’t have to navigate this by yourself. Or you’re not going to be a quote-unquote ‘bother’ if you reach out.”
So, I think that just being intentional about the people who are in your orbit, letting them know that you can be there, in what capacity. Even if they reach out to you and you realize that you may not have the capacity to engage in the way that they’re asking of you, stating that plainly but also being like, “Hey, I may not be able to engage in this manner, but I can do this instead. Can we compromise on that? Is that a better suit for you?” So, I think that just really stating our needs as a community and seeing who can engage is helpful. And also realizing that many of us are at our max, and we are doing the best that we can. So, I think that radical self-care can also be about extending grace to one another and just knowing that we’re actually doing our best in the ways in which we are able to engage and to not hold a grudge if somebody has to say no to you. Or they may not show up for you in the way that they typically do, doing a check-in. And again, stripping the ego of allowing people to just be in the ways that they can and not guilt them or shame them if the way that they’re able to show up has transitioned over time.
VALLAS: I love that. I love that so much. And it’s something that certainly has been part of what I have appreciated so much about our relationship, and it’s something I watch you model all the time with folks in the community. And I love that. I love that answer.
In the last two minutes that we have, Vilissa—and sadly, this conversation’s gonna come to a close, even though we could probably do this all afternoon and still have more to say about boundaries and self-care—are there any other self-care practices that are particularly important for you and which have been important for your success and sustainability in this work? Or is there anything particularly exciting coming up in your work that you want to plug or to share about?
THOMPSON: Yeah. So, I think there are two things. The one that I have started to enact this year has been decreasing my time on social media, which is also boundary enacting. Sometimes it’s not always about your engagement with other people, but also your engagement with yourself. And what activities or behaviors or actions are you doing that may be hindering your peace or growth or development, and what things should be added to increase your growth or development? And for me, as much as I enjoy social media, it can be a lot to engage with every day, in and out. So, setting a limit on how much I engage and what I engage with on social media has been instrumental for me this year.
And it’s not just, like I said, about the time, like how much I consume, but also the what. “The what” means am I doom scrolling? Am I only seeing the negative aspects of humanity? Am I enjoying some of the lighter moments that people can engage with? Taking stock of the content that you engage with and the what is important. So, that is something that I have an intention about, and it has been very rewarding. It made me more strategic to seek out the more lighter things on social media, the more positive, the funnier things. Because, yes, we’re in a pandemic, but life is still going forward, and not everything is doom and gloom. So, I think that’s a thing that I have been enacting as well, ensuring that I get the roses and not just the thorns of life.
And so, for me, this year, in keeping with that getting more roses than thorns, just really being intentional about my work. Like I said at the beginning, I’m celebrating ten years of work. So, the way that I plan to celebrate things is to do things that matter to me, which is taking rest and taking time off to travel safely during the pandemic and engage in activities that make me whole, as well as celebrate some of the great work that I’m doing. I’m currently working on putting together a conference in 2024 for the community, still doing my speaking, consulting, and trainings and so forth like that. So, being intentional with the time that I give to the things that matter to me, whether it’s projects, people, situations, or so forth. So, this year has been my recalibration of not just boundaries but also self-preservation so that I can be fulfilled in what I do and also not be depleted in the many things that I do. So, just taking stock as to what gets my energy and what should get less of my energy, and how can I stay true to what matters and not feel guilty about it and not allowing guilt to knock at the door?
VALLAS: I love that, and I can’t think of a better place to end this conversation. Vilissa Thompson is the founder of Ramp Your Voice. She’s also a fellow at The Century Foundation as part of the Disability Economic Justice team. And you’re also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, affiliated with the Disability Justice Initiative that I have so much love in my heart for over there as well. You can find her on Twitter @VilissaThompson, and you can find more of her work in our show notes. As always, Vilissa, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation, for sharing all of this wisdom, and for all that you have taught me over the years about boundaries and so much more. I’m really grateful for your friendship, and I’m grateful for all that you have taught me along the way. [theme music returns]
THOMPSON: That’s great. Thank you for your friendship and just bringing me back. This has been a great conversation.
VALLAS: I’ve really enjoyed it as well.
And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is Powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker, RouRou. You can find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do with the podcast, send us some love by hitting the subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. It really does help. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.