When it comes to recovery work, there is no more famous buzz word than “boundaries”. There have been thousands of books written about it. Coaches and therapists focus intently on teaching clients how to set boundaries. But the effort associated with boundaries is often too centered around behavior. Boundaries are taught as something we just need to practice. If we practice, we will get stronger at setting boundaries and we can have a better life. In some ways, that is true. Practicing behaviors can settle some of our fears over time. But setting boundaries is far more effective when we can understand what created the problem in the first place. And even more importantly, we need to understand what beliefs we carry that make setting boundaries so darn hard.
What created the problem in the first place? Why are boundaries so hard for survivors of childhood trauma? They taught us many reasons why boundaries were not acceptable. We might have been told we had no value as an individual person. We might have learned that our entire worth was defined by the impact we had on others. We might have understood that our emotions and thoughts were of no importance to anyone. So during the age where we were supposed to be developing a sense of self, we were erased instead. We learned there was no self. But why? Why did our abusers target us in this way? That’s simple. A person with strong boundaries is too confident to be abused. They won’t allow it. Or they will seek help from others. The erasure is critical to their goals.
How does this settle in our system? The impact is not small. It is like a nuclear bomb went off in our psyche. And as you already know, it takes time and patience to excavate all the traumatic wreckage from a childhood of abuse. And it is particularly difficult because we don’t know what we are looking for. So much of it lives in our unconscious. So I will lay out a few of the impacts we can bring awareness to. If we can see them, we can do something about them.
I don’t know who I am. I hear this statement from survivors all the time. And it makes sense. We underwent a sustained attack on our being for most of childhood. We heard from family members that our authenticity was unacceptable. We heard from society that we must develop a mask to gain approval from others. We learned from abusers that we only existed as a punching bag or a sexual target. And these messages were reiterated repeatedly as we explored any way to be ourselves until the futility was too strong to continue.
I must find people who reflect who I am. Since there appears to be no self left, survivors feel desperate about finding positive reflections in the external world. Life becomes years of seeking anyone or anything or any accomplishment that can make us feel good about ourselves. In this desperation, there is no consideration for boundaries because we have never been allowed. The only goal is to feel good even for a few moments here and there.
I must do what others want and need. Survivors are often lost when we consider the idea that we should be granted opinions or feelings. We learn to prioritize everyone and everything else. We have become accustomed to this way of living. We have even been rewarded with this way of living. So that is where we turn their focus. And after all those messages, it is incredibly difficult to shift.
After a childhood of this torture, why don’t we just let all this go? If you know me, you know this is a rhetorical question. We have internalized all of it. Our inner parts have taken on the beliefs that were passed to us from our abusive environment. So when we attempt to set a boundary, we are inundated with internal conversation about how selfish we are being, how much we need this person to like us, or how our reputation depends on our service to others. It is nonstop. If we are not in touch with our unconscious, it might manifest as anxiety when we try to set a boundary. It might show up as an inability to stick with a boundary we have already set. And if we are focusing on behavior only, we will likely fail.
This is why I will be devoting the month of October to Navigating Boundaries with Compassion. This compassion must be extended to ourselves first. Boundaries are always compassionate to self. But it is also extended to others by default. Why? When we set boundaries, we are communicating clearly with them instead of expecting them to read our minds. When we set boundaries, we avoid the anger and rage that builds under the surface and stops any real connection. When we set boundaries, we let people know who we are and where we stand, so they can choose to respect that or walk away. Either choice, we know where they stand. So join me this coming month on Survivor’s Guide for Life as we build our ability to set boundaries and find the freedom and compassion that comes with them.