Healthy 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 my personal boundaries. Mostly with regards to how they’ve been taken advantage of in the past and ways to engage with those encroaching on them, while keeping a healthy distance when you need space to keep healthy boundaries.
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, that I strongly urge you to find professional help. I am not a therapist myself and these are only my experiences, opinions and the research I’ve done on the subject. My therapist has been an indispensable resource for me. Guiding me through some very difficult times. Don’t be afraid to ask for the support you need.
Family Dynamics Shape Our Boundaries
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. Clearly examples of very rigid boundary setting where she was unable to deviate from her plan.
But on the other hand, she never asked me if I ate while I was out with friends, or even really ask me anything at all about me on a personal level. Though I was punished severely and often for underachieving in high school, 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 due to my caregivers likely out doing the same things I was getting in trouble for. My teenage years were a confusing time to be in. 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 family house at 19. I remember feeling so left out and empty when it happened. It was a cold place to be.
Carrying On The Legacy Of My Family’s Values
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 let my boundaries be violated. Picking up where my family left off when I was given the boot from our dysfunctional family.
But as crippling as the rules 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 greater whole. Some belonging. So it was the initial neglect of my boundaries, that set the rules for there to be no rules or healthy boundaries with myself. Only the pain of not feeling wanted or belonging if I chose to create a sense of separate self by establishing healthy boundaries. My own personal identity.
But this 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 through the unhealthy ways of being to feel a sense of 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? It was mostly a combination of alcohol, anger and shame.
Using Unhealthy Values to Hold Us Together
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). My shame was the internalization of my mother’s critical opinions of me, mixed with the trauma from my abuse. I often wondered what I had done to deserve 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 to, and how to physically be in contact with your body is one. 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 paralyzing judgements of who you are told you are by those who are supposed to teach you what healthy self image looks like. Something that should help to guide you through life in healthy ways. While in its stead, leaving fear of and from past and future abuses in its place.
And maybe what’s most confusing is, of being rejected by your loved ones who you are mirroring, in order to feel belonging to and with those (your loved ones) doing the rejecting. This is just a short list of the many different and difficult feelings of abuse and abuse of boundaries that go along with the shame of abuse and trauma. Definitely too much to feel all at once and definitely too much to cover in this post.
Healing Old Wounds
The first step in healing the shame, of the loss of healthy boundaries and loss of loved ones is, to realize that it’s not your fault. This is best done with the aid of a therapist and trusted family or 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 in a large pile of garbage and feeling better that they are in the pile as well. But this perspective allows us to see that they are suffering like we’re suffering. Which if we allow it, will open us to compassion for the person, knowing that it’s interconnected with our own. And to transform that suffering that they’ve handed to us and turning it into compassion is how we find our way out of this abusive cycle.
As I see it, the gift of healing lay in transmuting our suffering into caring. Then we can spread that care and love, instead of hurt and abuse. This is what I believe is meant by being one hundred percent accountable for our emotions and actions. It’s from this place of accountability that we can realize that it is our suffering, hurt or pain, no matter who perpetuated it. And that we can let go the anger that keeps us wrapped up in blaming others for their transgressions and our difficult emotions. And hopefully, move on to a place of healing and love.
Knowing When To Move On
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 of the anger 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, including our more pleasant emotion, for the risk of being harmed again. This works to keep us frozen in anxiety producing emotional states. 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 anger and resentment. To find ways of moving towards healthier emotional states and finding healthy boundaries. Because resentment will take the place of the feelings for the relationship that turned sour and penetrate other relationships that may remind us of that abusive connection. And resentment will cripple us emotionally if we allow it to take up residency. Keeping us from fostering new and healthy, loving relationships and establishing healthy boundaries.
Finding More Freedom To Move On, It’s No Easy
Using the analogy above, in order to break the bonds of our personal “pots”, to find more room to grow, we must first give up the bonds of our pots voluntarily. Examples of these bonds being the anger and blame we hold on to or that hold us in a smaller version of ourselves. Ways to break these bonds and find more freedom are by connecting with others in relationship and expanding our social network.
The way twelve step programs work is a great example of allowing space for people with similar experiences to come together and be witnessed to one another. The main goal is of feeling heard and held in caring connection while establishing healthy boundaries. This creates a space larger than the self who is often too small to hold the burdens of a life’s time worth of misdeads and abuse.
And this is probably a good time to mention that none of this is easy. It sounds so simple. To take stock of and list all our grievances and abuses. The ones that most of us carry around with us our whole lives. Then tell them to people whom hopefully won’t hurt us as we’ve been hurt in the past. It seems idyllic written down, but the truth is that it’s difficult. Though like a physical wound, if it’s left unattended, it will only get worse.
I believe what makes this so difficult in the first place is, that it’s not as though we’re carrying around the anger of our old 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 remind us to protect ourselves from what can happen if we let our guard down or put ourselves in a vulnerable situation. I.e. trusting another or sharing our wounded selves with them.
This is where working with a therapist and/or trusted friends and family can be invaluable. If you are like I was, I didn’t even know what a boundary was let alone healthy boundaries. If we don’t have the space to talk about how our actions and the actions of others are making us feel in a nonjudgmental environment, we may not be able to find the necessary tools and resources to shape new, healthy boundaries. We need these tools to be strong enough to make the journey towards being the healthiest version of ourselves. Especially if the resources we had were forged by those who’ve torn us down in the past.
Finding Healthy Versions Of Belonging: Being Strong In Ourselves First
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 finding and being support to family and friends. That being said family can be brutal when it comes to disrespecting personal boundaries. So can friends. So it is especially important to find someone who has your best interests in mind and at heart when learning how to set new, healthy boundaries with those closest to you. A good place to start is by finding a good therapist.
Discerning who is safe in regards to family and old friends who may be ignoring some of our more important boundaries, can definitely be a challenge. If we’ve been taught unhealthy boundaries or been abused in the past, healthy boundaries can be elusive. And boundaries can be fragile when they are first forged as well. So go slow. Be certain that you can take care of yourself before jumping into an old relationship where boundaries were exploited. Especially if the other person is a family member who has unhealthy boundaries.
If we haven’t cultivated the healthy habits that allow us to be strong in taking care of ourselves first, then there’s no way that we’ll be able to be a part of somebody else’s healing. This is where we can get pulled into others unhealthy and possibly self destructive ways of being.
And being strong enough in ourselves may look like knowing how to ask for help from a friend, or to know when to talk to a therapist. Or even something as simple as taking yourself out for dinner at your favorite restaurant. Just you for the night and enjoy the peace and quiet while enjoying your favorite meal. It will look different for each person, but you first need to get comfortable with what those resources look and feel like for you. Also, how to access them when you need them most in order for them to be useful in the moment.
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, to our true selves. 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”-Jay Foss. That being said, don’t be afraid to be less than your best self around those you care about. Those who are true friends will support you whether you are in a good place or a difficult one.
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 some other time. I’ll post some resources I’ve found handy in my Community page, so don’t forget to hop on over and read like you love yourself (shout out to YWA : )! Peace.