Building Boundaries

During a recent therapy session, I realized I struggle with boundaries–specifically with the family I grew up in.

Instead of setting up actual boundaries, my biggest defense is to not talk. I avoid answering the phone when certain people call, or answering text messages, etc. Because rather than risk hurting someone, it’s easier to not talk, which avoids confrontation.

Why is this?

Of course there’s the fallout from being sexually abused as a child–which obviously violated some very personal, base-level boundaries. No one stopped it either, nor did they help put in boundaries to create safety. Then I realized we didn’t have many boundaries put in place beyond the natural ones in place from our LDS belief system. While those guidelines from church are excellent, we lacked other necessary ones.

We didn’t have set bedtimes, or really strong curfews. No one told me to brush my teeth or do homework. We rarely if ever had dinner sitting at an actual table as a family. We were not allowed to close our bedroom doors (fire hazard and it didn’t let our swamp cooler flow air through the house). Perhaps this speaks more to the dysfunction of my childhood than anything else, but I can see clearly now the absence of structure, rules, or boundaries.

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But how can you set boundaries with people who have violated major and more minor boundaries? How can you avoid falling into those learned roles from childhood or later in life, even after many years have passed?

Boundaries help us feel safe, and if we don’t have them, the world around us feels chaotic and scary.  

Guys….I’m not good at setting boundaries and knowing I need to take a stand to set them amps up my anxiety. Not only that, but I don’t know where to start or how to go about asserting my own needs.

I think this is really important to understand. From the Heal for Life Foundation:

Any type of abuse, physical, emotional, or sexual, is a boundary invasion. Victims of abuse experience a loss of control over their own bodies and lives. Children who grow up in homes that don’t function well in terms of communication or understanding where physical, mental, and emotional boundaries are not respected, often become confused, vulnerable, and insecure. Sadly, these children often do not even attempt to defend their rights to individuality as they have not learned they have any.

Violent acts of assault or trauma, and extended periods of emotional or sexual abuse, have significant enduring negative effects on the development of boundaries.  Children who have been abused often are not allowed to, or are never given the chance, to learn their boundaries. For example, when a child is sexually abused this leads to confusion over the very basic rules of ownership of the body. Instead of learning that their body is their own and no-one else is allowed to touch it without the child’s permission, they learn that their body is to be hurt, abused or manipulated by others. They learn that their bodies are not their own. Their boundaries are variable or non-existent.

Boundaries are not just physical, they are also emotional, mental, and spiritual.

You may need to adjust your boundaries if you notice:

  • You feel uncomfortable or unsafe, but stay in the situation anyway because you don’t want to “make a scene.”
  • You stay around people or places even though you experience anxiety or discomfort around them.
  • You’re always worried about saying no to someone or disappointing them.
  • You agree to something you wanted to say no to, or goes against your own beliefs/feelings.
  • Someone causes you to feel poorly about yourself consistently.
  • You put needs of others above your own, which causes you physical or emotional pain.

Setting boundaries will require us to be firm. It may be really uncomfortable and some people may get offended, but you cannot sacrifice your sense of safety to please someone else. Some helpful phrases may be:

  • No, I don’t want to hug you.
  • You can visit for 1-2 days, but that’s all I’m willing to allow.
  • You may visit, but you’ll have to stay in a hotel.
  • That is not okay and I will not tolerate it.
  • You can’t tell me how to think or believe.
  • No, thank you.
  • You are not welcome here.
  • Don’t touch me.

There are many more phrases you can use that fit your situation. Try role playing with a friend or someone you trust to get comfortable being assertive. With family, it may be helpful to add something like, “if you want any sort of relationship with me, you’re going to have to respect my boundaries. And X, Y, Z are not acceptable.”

Don’t back down. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to protect yourself from more pain and hurt. Don’t stay where you don’t feel safe just to be nice or because you’re worried about hurting others’ feelings. Your well-being is vital.

You are worth it. You deserve safety and peace.

 

If you’ve successfully set boundaries (or are working on it), I’d love to hear about it–especially because I’m still navigating this myself!

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4 comments

  1. I have been working hard at that all my life and it still feels ‘wrong’ to speak up and to respect my feelings, needs, and wants. Rather than keep pounding at it without easy success, I need to be much more forgiving towards my inability to do so.
    It would have naturally developed in childhood. Neglect towards the traumas suffered due to the embarrassment of the truth being known taught me the opposite; that I had no place in this world, didn’t matter, wasn’t loved, and was last on every list. That any help for me in any way was wrong. That I in fact was wrong and less than everybody else. It became a part of me. It is not something easily shifted for me and accepting that it will continue to be a struggle and learning to love myself anyway… that is the gift I try to give to myself. Accepting it is there and why. Compassion for self.
    That doesn’t mean I haven’t spoken up. I write out letters of what I need to say. That helps it evaporate, but if not, I find that saying what I practice to the one needing to hear over the phone is a safe way for me where I can be strong and unfettered by the other person’s resistance. That I can be heard whether they like it or not.
    Or if in person, practicing it first either out-loud, and/or writing out how I feel and how say it best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s crazy how much our childhood impacts the rest of our life. If we had a safe, loving environment where our needs were met, generally we become healthy adults. If we were abused, neglected, abandoned, or otherwise treated like “less than,” that has a long-lasting negative impact. We have to continually strive to overcome the negative effects. And you’re exactly right” we need to have compassion for ourselves as we work through the trauma.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with the idea of writing it down ahead of time for phone calls so I can stick to it (read it) when my brain starts to freeze while talking with the one pushing the boundaries—I have done this before. But I also have trouble writing it down because it’s a real challenge to even know how to respond, so asking my husband or another trusted friend for advice on what to say has helped. I also like to remind myself that God sets boundaries, so it’s definitely not “wrong” to do so.

    Strange, but I have felt that boundaries was one of my strengths, and maybe in a way it has been—like when I notice someone else’s boundaries being invaded, I am quick to defend them. But reading through “You may need to adjust your boundaries if you notice…” I realized I feel 5/6 of the items on a regular basis. I always feel like I’m in trouble when I stand up for myself, but maybe it’s okay for me to do so on a more regular basis for a change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Boundaries are so tricky to navigate! I was the same thinking I was good with boundaries, but looking closer at it, I’m totally not. After therapy yesterday, I feel a lot more okay with actually asserting some in the future.

      Like

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