Boundaries. This is a big topic and I hope to do it some justice. For the sake of this post I will be focusing on some of my experiences with personal boundaries in regards to how they’ve been taken advantage of in the past. And ways to engage with those encroaching while keeping a healthy distance when you need space to feel and stay healthy.
Hope you’re still with me 🙂 It may be a bumpy road. I’d also like to take this time to say, especially if you’ve experienced abuse or trauma, I strongly urge you to find professional help. I am not a therapist myself and these are only my experiences, opinions and research I’ve done on the subject. My therapist has been an indispensable resource for me guiding me through very difficult times. Don’t be afraid to ask for the support you need.
The family dynamic I grew up in was very much a black and white landscape of either very rigid boundaries or absolutely no boundaries at all. For instance it was my mother’s job to feed and clothe me. And to her credit she took care of the basics with religious fervor. But I didn’t have the freedom to cook my own meals or request favorite foods. Or was I in any way involved with that decision making process when it came to meal planning or anything domestic. She never asked me if I ate while I was out with friends or even really ask me anything at all about me personally. I was punished severely and often for underachieving in high school yet I was never shown how to succeed in an academic setting. Or even had a curfew. Nor was anyone home to enforce it if I had been given one.
In short, I was always in trouble for doing something I shouldn’t be doing. And with no parent to enforce the severe punishments bestowed upon me because my mother and stepfather were likely out doing the same things I was getting in trouble for. It was a confusing place to be in my teenage years. And that’s not even accounting for the biological changes I was experiencing!
As a result I spent a lot of my time as a teenager wandering aimlessly around my surroundings looking for someplace to feel belonging, before I was kicked out of the house at 19. I remember feeling so left out and empty. It was a cold place to be.
There was a lot going on in my family besides personal boundaries being ignored. But it was in these times of not being recognized as a person with boundaries and their (my boundaries) being neglected, that I learned to neglect my own personal needs and boundaries. Picking up where my family left off when I was given the boot from our dysfunctional family at 19.
But as crippling as the rules and regs of my family had been, I still desperately clung to them and their lack of regard for my well being. If only to feel a piece of a whole. Some belonging. So it was their initial neglect of my boundaries that set the rules for there to be no rules or boundaries with myself. Only the pain of not feeling wanted or belonging if I chose to create a sense of separate self. My own personal identity. But it wasn’t my family’s fault either. They were most likely experiencing the same feelings I was. The neglect and the hurt, the lack of personal identity and feeling as though they had to cling to one another to feel belonging. It’s sad and a little exhausting just thinking about it.
So if everyone was so hurt by one another to the point where they were afraid of being around each other, yet feared above all else to feel rejected and hurt by the people who were supposed to love them, why did and what allowed us to all cling to one another with such a tight grip? Yep, alcohol, anger, indignation and shame.
It’s hard to see shame for what it is when you’re in its midst of it. Especially difficult when you’re drunk (or to recognize any emotion really when you’re three sheets to the wind ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). My shame was the internalizing of my mother’s critical opinions of me. Mixed with the trauma from my abuse I was thinking to myself, “What had I done to deserve this and make my family feel they needed to punish me so severely”.
When abuse happens, all kinds of boundaries are being trampled. The right to be in control of who is allowed and how to physically be in contact with your body is one. And the physical threat that is embedded in that loss of control. Emotionally by imbuing terror in the place of where love and safety should be with and around those who are supposed to be your caretakers. And the parelizing judgement of who you are thought to be by those who are supposed to teach you healthy habits. That will show you how to navigate life. And instead leave the fear of and from the abuse in their place.
As well as the confusion of being rejected by your loved ones who you are mirroring in order to feel belonging to and with those doing the rejecting. This is just a short list of the many different and difficult feelings of abuse of boundaries that go along with the shame of abuse and trauma. Probably too much to cover in one post.
The first step in healing this shame of loss of boundaries and loved ones is to realize that it’s not your fault. This is best done with the aid of a therapist and trusted family and friends. Because as Tara Brach puts it, “we were wounded in relationship, we heal in relationship“. Not only that but we can’t do it alone.
It’s also helpful to know that the people who have abused us are probably hurt themselves. And possibly have been abused in the ways they are abusing others. Not helpful in a way that we are happy for their suffering. That would be likened to seeing them with a large pile of festering garbage and feeling better that they are in it too. But this perspective allows us to see that they’re suffering like we’re suffering. Which if we allow it, will open us to compassion for the person’s suffering because it is so interconnected with our own. And to transform the suffering they’ve handed to us and turn it into compassionate caring is how we find our way out of the suffering cycle.
As I see it the gift lie in transmuting the suffering into caring and spreading caring and love instead of hurt and abuse. This is what I believe is meant by coming to realize that we are the ones in control of our own experiences. What it means to be one hundred percent accountable for yourself, your emotions and actions. And it’s then when we realize that it is our suffering, no matter who perpetuated it, that we can let go the anger that keeps us wrapped up in blaming the other for the transgression they perpetrated. We can get so attached to that angry self. The one that needs to be seen, heard and justified for the wounds we are carrying at the hands of someone else’s actions that we forget we can let go and be free. Free from the idea that we’ve been done wrong and we need retribution for our grievances to move on.
This is not to be confused with not pursuing justice for crimes when the situation requires it. But if we let the wound fester after justice has been dealt we lock our emotional energies into fixating on how we have been hurt. Or focusing on fantasies of how it could happen again, closing off our emotional selves from the risk of harm. This only works to keep us in a frozen emotional state. Like a plant that has been pot bound, unable to spread its roots and subsequently stunts its growth leaving it small and vulnerable.
Or maybe the time for justice never came and you are truly left with the injustice of a crime never revealed, heard or seen. In this case it is even more important to let go of those feelings of injustice and find ways to move towards more fertile grounds. Because resentment will take the place of the relationship turned sour. And it will cripple us emotionally if we allow it to reside within. Keeping us from fostering new and healthy, loving relationships.
So in the analogy above in order to break the bonds of our personal pots to find more freedom and space, we must first give up the bonds of our “pots” voluntarally. The anger, the blame and find more fertile soil. Helping others and connecting in relationship is a good example of finding more space. The way twelve step programs allow space for people with similar experiences to come together and be witness to one another. This creates a space larger than the self who is often too small to hold the burdens of a life’s time worth of aggression and abuse.
I should probably note that none of this is easy. It sounds so simple to take stock of and list all our grievances. Most of us carry them around our whole lives. It seems idealik written down and the truth is it may be difficult. But like a physical wound, if left unattended, will only get worse the longer we ignore it. And don’t forget, it’s not like we’re carry around the anger and indignation of our wounds for no reason! There’s a sort of logic to poking the wound to remind us of the pain we feel. We can use it as a tool to protect us from what can happen if we let our guard down or put ourselves in a vulnerable situation such as trusting another or sharing our wounded selves.
This is why I brought up earlier that working with a therapist and trusted friends and family can be invaluable. If you are like I was I didn’t even know what a boundary was, let alone a healthy one. If we don’t have the space to talk about how our actions and the actions of others are making us feel in a non-judgemental environment, we may not be able to find the necessary tools and resources. Such as healthy self-talk, building a high self-esteem and healthy role models. We need these tools to be strong enough to journey to be the healthiest version of ourselves. Especially in the face of those whom may have torn us down in the past.
And that is what it really comes down to. Finding out how we fit into the whole in the healthiest ways possible. For most of us that means family and friends. That being said family can be brutal when it comes to disrespecting boundaries. So can friends so it is especially important to find someone who has your best interests in mind and at heart. Discerning who is safe in regards to family and old friends who may be ignoring some important boundaries is definitely a challenge. Boundaries can be fragile when they are first forged so go slow. Be certain that you can take care of yourself before caring for another. Especially if the other is a family member who has unhealthy boundaries.
Which leads to another issue. Knowing how to say no to those whom have no boundaries. If we haven’t cultivated the healthy habits that allow us to be strong and take care of ourselves first, then there’s no way we’re able to be a part of someones solution. We’ll most likely get pulled into their unhealthy and possibly self destructive lack of boundaries. Being strong enough may look like knowing how to ask for help from a friend or know when to talk to a therapist. Or something as simple as taking yourself out for dinner at your favorite restaurant, just you for the night. It will look different for each person but you first need to know what those resources look and feel like for you. And how to access them when you need them most in order for them to be useful.
Because those are ultimately the parts of ourselves we want to share with others. The strong, independent, capable, fun loving… insert adjective you want to describe yourself as here. But we can only do that once we’ve found our way to that person. And then draw a map so we can keep getting back home. And we do that by feeling the support of our resources and knowing how to access them when we need them most. As another friend of mine puts it, “when I’m the best version of myself, that helps others be the best version of themselves”.
So it is here that I will leave you good reader. I know that I covered a lot of ground and there’s more to be said on the subject for sure, but I feel that will be best left for another post another time. I’ll post some resources I’ve found handy in the Community page, so don’t forget to hop on over and read like you love yourself (shout out to YWA:)! Peace.