My daily life provided inspiration for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. As in I strongly desired to move to an impenetrable castle in the sky surrounded by an alligator-filled moat today when my neighbor decided it was a perfect time to host a live band in his backyard on the one day of rest I have. I decided to channel my frustration into examining why we have boundaries, how they may be experienced by trauma survivors, and how we can establish and manage them in real life. I’m also investigating local bagpipe musicians for hire (j/k)!
The Purpose of Boundaries
Boundaries in relationships convey safety. I see them as twofold: offering an invitation and granting permission to a request. We all have aspects of our physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual and mental being that we cherish, that not everyone gets to access, that we elevate to the VIP section of our being. If people want in, they either need to wait for us to invite them in, or they need to ask permission. It is entirely within our rights to say no at any time for any reason. It should go without saying that this is also how we should treat others. I get weird looks occasionally when I ask permission for things most people would just take; I do it not out of a submissive personality but instead because it is how I want to be treated.
Boundaries and Trauma
One of the core features of an event that crosses from an everyday occurrence to a trauma experience is that it often involves a threshold of personal safety being desecrated or obliterated. This could be on a physical, sexual, verbal or emotional level. The individual emerges from the experience with some aspect of their very being shaken and betrayed. Concepts like complex PTSD and moral injury lend themselves to this type of experience.
What makes a boundary violation traumatic may be rooted in the power difference that frequently occurs in traumatic events. When a parent, teacher, coach, religious leader or other authority figure takes advantage of the imbalance of power to violate boundaries in such way as to induce shame, we are left feeling helpless and hopeless, not to mention estranged from ourselves. I’ve come to believe that some measure of us, perhaps called our soul, remains unvarnished no matter what our body, mind and heart have had to endure. This view has given me comfort in that the sense of something pure and whole lying at my core gives me the strength to reassert myself in the world.
We do well to speak our needs aloud before they become pressing. Giving those whom you encounter a fleshed-out synopsis of who you are in a casual way allows those who are emotionally competent to pick up your preferences and “no-go” zones. For example, I tend to try to find a way to mention my values, likes/dislikes and habits to people as I get to know them. I’d much rather they decide our level of compatibility or how well-suited we are to work closely together from the start. This approach will likely be much more successful if you are comfortable with who you are. If your outward stance on things is based on adjusting to what those around you think, it’s very easy to find yourself frequently offended. Others will walk all over your true values because they aren’t visible or known to them.
Not everyone has the capacity to discern what you are communicating through how you present yourself. Some individuals may have conditions that affect their ability to perceive social cues. Others know full well what you want but don’t care. In these cases, I think we need to be direct, unapologetic and unambiguous regarding where our conditions of relationship are located. For instance, there have been people I’ve had to tell more than once that I wasn’t interested in a certain type of relationship, with increasing bluntness until they finally got the message.
Handling Boundary Violations
When I first learned about the concept of boundaries, I naively thought that all it took to set them was to know what I wanted and share it with others; the potential conflict was the ending point in my mind, rather than the start. My life experience has taught me that many people respond negatively when a boundary is laid out. It can be very hard to hear a ”no” from someone else.
I think the reason we may respond to someone setting a marker with us in a defensive manner is that we are often conditioned to have to know what others want without them telling us. This means that someone needing to tell us that they don’t like or want something means we have failed in our minds, and this leads directly to feelings of shame. People tend to struggle to manage feelings of shame appropriately. It is significantly easier to call others “oversensitive” “emotional” or “demanding” if they express their true desires to us, rather than accept the limitations they are placing on our behavior towards them.
I absolutely hate it when my actions lead another person to feel shame, but I know in most of the specific cases where it’s occurred that the alternative was for me to act in a disingenuous way that would have caused me feelings of bitterness and resentment, and would have damaged the relationship more severely in the long run. If you find yourself often offended at others’ behaviors, it may be a sign that you are allowing yourself to proceed into situations that might have been preventing if you had established your limits with the other person earlier.
To circle back to what this means for trauma survivors, it is possible that we can do everything possible to cordon off aspects of ourselves as sacred, as our own, and desire to let others into those areas only when trust has been established, only to find that all the self-knowledge and empowerment in the world can’t withstand every threat. Sometimes we are too small or young or vulnerable or simply human to protect ourselves. It makes my blood boil to think of people taking advantage of others in this way. I’ve talked about my perspective on justice previously; all I will say here is that I think no one can take possession nor damage the core of who we are, and I think there are many more people in the world who would help us heal than hurt us.
Negotiating Boundaries in Relationships
I’m not sure if there is something inherently individualistic about the self-definition that comes with healthy and flexible boundaries. Many proponents of Goddess Spirituality emphasize the communal aspects of life and the interdependence which allows for reliance on others and work towards common goals. Even within this framework, I think there is a potential for each of us to have emotions, thoughts and behaviors that are our own, while also celebrating the interweaving of our lives.
Personal boundaries may be an artificial creation from a metaphysical perspective. If we see ourselves as one speck in the web of life, carefully carving out the diameter of our “speckness” may seem an exercise in pettiness and futility. At the same time, as I mentioned above, I cannot overemphasize the degradation and annihilation of self I’ve experienced being in relationship with those who lack the ability to acknowledge and respect boundaries. Being subsumed into another’s psyche is not healthy nor life-giving.
With these dialectics in mind, I think the key concepts here are fluidity and evolution. Visualize your boundaries as made of water rather than stone. Enough water moving in the same direction can be an incredibly strong force, knocking buildings off their foundations. Water can also be a gentle kiss on a misty morning. When our boundaries are fluid, we can respond to the specific situation in which we find ourselves, while also adhering to our general preferences and expectations to relationships. Maybe the particular issue facing us will work best with a soft stream redirecting the energy, and maybe it needs a waterfall torrent of strength to establish our presence. Liquid in nature is constantly evolving in response to the energy and forces surrounding, and so can we.