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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Teach Children the Power of “No”

We all have childhood experiences with our parents or others forcing us to hug someone we didn’t want to. But what if we had permission to say “no” when confronted with someone’s open arms?

At holiday gatherings, family reunions, or other events where adults and children will be, inevitably adults will expect hugs and kisses from children, with parents often encouraging the physical interaction. Sometimes the child knows the person well, other times perhaps not.

With a child’s will taken away from them, this makes sexual abuse more available. Before you think this is quite a jump, consider how it makes a child think if parents or other adults are always forcing hugs and kisses on them. How is that much different if someone older than them says they have to touch or be touched inappropriately to show their affection and love to another? Answer: It’s not. Giving Children the Power of _No_ (1).png

Teach your child the power of “No.” 

If your child understands they are in charge of their body and they get to decide if they want a hug or kiss, this is preparing them to say no is someone tries to get them to do something inappropriate. The power of no could save your child from sexual abuse.

As an alternative, parents can teach their child that rather than giving hugs or kisses, a high five, fist bump, or handshake is just fine. Or, they can simply say, “no, thank you” and walk away. They don’t have to have a reason why they don’t want to hug or kiss grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or close friends. This is helping your child learn that they are in charge of their own bodies.

If someone is upset over this decision, you can explain the reasoning, or just let them know that’s the way it is. I’d much rather offend an adult than risk my child’s safety.

Additionally, your child may be comfortable hugging someone one day, but not so much another day. They are figuring out their own boundaries and learning to make that choice on their own.

Also important is to teach your child to listen to their inner voice or the Holy Ghost. If they have a bad or uncomfortable feeling around someone, they need to listen to that feeling. They need to trust their instincts to stay safe.

Yes, we want to teach our children to love, but there are so many other ways to show love that do not involve any touching. For instance, they can draw a picture or write a note.

Beware if any adult wants to spend a lot of time with your child–particularly unsupervised, or if they are giving your child lots of attention or gifts. This is a big warning flag. Most adults don’t seek close relationships with children who are not their own kids. This could be an indication of grooming–carefully gaining their trust before they start sexually abusing a child.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse, you may be extra paranoid, wanting to watch or hover over your children. And really, I can’t blame you because I’m the same way. I get anxious when my children are not in sight. I don’t trust people alone with them. Be mindful of where your children are and check on them frequently. If you inner voice says something isn’t right, follow through. Do not ignore that warning voice.

Teach your children about sexual abuse and that they are in charge of their bodies. No one can touch them without their permission. They have the power to say “No” if they don’t want to hug or kiss someone, even if it’s a close relative. Children must know they can tell you if someone even tries to touch them inappropriately. Assure them you won’t ever be angry because of something they tell you.

There is power in saying “No.” Teach the power of “No” to your children.

When the Holidays Bring Triggers

I’m always excited as the Christmas season approaches. I think of decorating the tree, putting up decorations–particularly Nativities, and focusing on the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. I have high hopes for the season to go a certain way, but…When the

…then, something inside me goes off like an annual alarm (right before Thanksgiving usually). I don’t feel good inside my head. Darkness closes in around me, and instead of enjoying the season, I find myself fighting to pull myself out of the depths of unresolved emotions.

It’s odd to be fine one day, and the next suddenly feel upset, hopeless, agitated, and overcome with sorrow and not have any idea why.

For survivors of sexual abuse, this may be the norm. With 90% of childhood sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is a family member. Holidays often include family, which can cause anxiety in survivors because of the potential to have to see their abusers or be around those who did not protect them or help them when they could/should have. They may have to be in a place or around people that compromises their feeling of safety.

Another aspect that may cause is to struggle during the holidays is that our brain, mind, and body remember stuff that we may not consciously remember. Our body and mind can recall what happened during certain times of year, especially traumatic events like sexual abuse. (Side note, I read a brilliant book on how trauma affects the brain. It was both fascinating and horrible because of how much it explained the aftermath I–and too many others–have been experiencing. It’s called “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.This subconscious remembering may trigger our fight, flight, or freeze response, or bring up emotions from the past, which can be really disconcerting when you’re not sure why you’re feeling or behaving a certain way.

So, what can you do to get through the holidays?

  • Talk to someone close to you (or your therapist) and explain that you have a really hard time around holidays and/or family gatherings. Use this safe person to call or text when you need support, especially during the holidays.
  • You’re the boss of yourself. You don’t have to put yourself in situations where it’s going to compromise your well-being. If you don’t want to go to a holiday event, don’t go. If you feel comfortable saying why you won’t attend, do. But you’re entitled to take care of yourself ahead of someone else’s feelings. (I’m not just saying this while not following my own advice. I didn’t go to my grandpa’s funeral for these reasons.)
  • Make a plan. When triggers happen, you need a plan to keep yourself grounded in the present. Realize you’re in the here and now, not in the past when the abuse was happening (if you are still being sexually abused, please seek help to get out of that situation). Taking deep breaths, focusing on sights and smells around you, and noticing what you can feel with your feet and fingers can help.
  • Take care of yourself. Do things that make you feel good. Exercise, going out with friends, or doing something creative like art or writing is good for your well-being. You may need to allow yourself some extra TLC during the holidays if you’re struggling.
  • Be kind to yourself. Since the emotions stirred because of sexual abuse are not only powerful, but also very negative like feelings of worthlessness or self-hate. Combat these with positive affirmations. Focus on the good about yourself and have others help you see those things if you have a hard time doing it on your own. You are strong, worthy of love, and a resilient fighter.

Ultimately, you don’t have to do something you don’t feel comfortable doing just to appease someone else. You’re in charge of yourself. Don’t sacrifice your feelings for someone who hurts you physically and/or emotionally.

I hope that you might be able to focus on the important aspect of your holidays, rather than suffering alone and hurting because of people and events you have no control over. Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself this holiday season.

Building Healthy (& Intimate) Relationships After Sexual Abuse

When you’ve been sexually abused, it’s not over even if the actual abuse is. Sexual abuse affects us long after the incidences have occurred and have a negative impact on most, if not all, aspects of our life.

It goes without saying that dating and marriage relationships will also be impacted because  of sexual abuse. Not only is sexual abuse a betrayal of trust, but it also attacks how we feel and think about sex, making intimacy and sex within marriage often difficult to navigate. Being touched, hugged, kissed, and engaging in sex require vulnerability and trust. It can be scary to let someone get that close physically and emotionally to you after being hurt so deeply.

First, you need to make sure you’re seeking healthy connections. It’s easier for victims of abuse to fall into future abusive relationships. Healthy relationships are based on mutual trust, respect, love, compassion, and safety. Those who abuse physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexually are not candidates for a healthy relationship. Watch for red flags suchBuilding Healthy Relationships.jpg as times where you are made to feel less-than or your significant other tells you that you deserve the poor treatment for whatever reason. Those are major indicators of an abusive relationship that should be avoided.

One you’ve found someone who will love and respect you, whom you can trust (or maybe you already found this special one), you may be dating heading toward marriage or already married. This is when intimacy naturally increases and we may begin to notice problems we have in regards to intimacy, yet another negative impact of sexual abuse.

According to healthysex.com, the 10 most common sexual symptoms of sexual abuse are:

1. avoiding or being afraid of sex
2. approaching sex as an obligation
3. experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
4. having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
5. feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
6. experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
7. engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors
8. experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
9. experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties
10.experiencing erectile or ejaculatory difficulties

How can we overcome these and build healthy, intimate relationships?

  1. Realize the abuse is not your fault and the abuse is not a part of who you are, but is something that has happened to you. Feelings of shame, embarrassment, disgust, discomfort, etc. that come from being sexually abused are normal, yet not something we want to feel. As you learn about how abuse has affected you and begin to heal, these symptoms will begin to alleviate. Being a victim of abuse does not change who you are. It’s not your fault.
  2. Establish healthy boundaries. As relationships progress, intimacy usually does as well. While dating may only involve hand-holding and kissing, and marriage takes intimacy steps further, any type of intimacy can be triggering. You need to know your personal limits and honor yourself by sticking to them. You probably don’t want to tell every person you’re dating “Hey, I’ve been sexually abused, so don’t do XYZ” but you can simply say you’re not comfortable with this or that yet, but such and such is OK. In marriage, it is probably a good idea to tell your spouse about your abuse so he or she can pay attention to your cues–if you tense up or disengage mentally–then whatever is going on during that moment needs to stop. Don’t be afraid to ask your spouse to stop doing something or say you need a break because you’re being triggered by past abuse. It’s not your fault if you struggle with any aspects of intimacy.
  3. Learn to ground yourself in the present. When flashbacks and memories creep in during intimacy, make a plan for yourself that will help you snap back to the present with your spouse. Take a deep breath and latch onto your current surroundings. Communicating and being deliberate with thoughts or touch during intimacy can help keep your focus straying to past events. It’s not your fault you experience flashbacks and triggers.
  4. Learn to trust. Trust is a huge part of intimacy. Sexual abuse is a huge breach on trust and sexual boundaries, so reestablishing trust takes time. Hopefully, you’re in a situation where you have every reason to trust your spouse and you can allow yourself to open up to trusting your partner. Building trust and being vulnerable takes time, so don’t get discouraged when it doesn’t happen overnight. Start with little things that require trust and build to bigger things. It’s not your fault that trusting others is hard.
  5. Avoid behaviors that trigger unwanted memories and feelings. Flashbacks and triggers can be unpredictable, but when you notice that certain acts or touches cause you discomfort–physically or emotionally–avoid them. You may need to tell your spouse that touching you here or there or doing this or that makes you uncomfortable or triggers memories so he/she can avoid it in the future. It’s not your fault that some kinds of touch are difficult.
  6. Take charge of intimacy. This can seem a bit scary, but it’s actually empowering. Learning what does or does not feel good and allowing sexual exploration between husband and wife is a healthy way to get more comfortable with intimacy and sex. Sex should be fun, enjoyable, and bond a couple closer together. Taking charge of bedroom activities means that you get to decide what happens when and for how long. While being sexually abused, we had no control over our situation. By taking that control back, we are giving ourselves permission to be intimate in a safe environment. You are not broken if you don’t experience sexual pleasure the way you want to. It’s not your fault intimacy is difficult to navigate.
  7. Understand the difference between healthy sexual intimacy and abuse. On healthysex.com, Wendy Maltz states: “The first step in sexual healing is to learn to distinguish abusive type sex from healthy sex. If you commonly use words like, “bad,” “dirty.” “overwhelming,” “frightening,” “hurtful,” and “secretive” to describe sex, you need to realize that these are descriptive of “sexual abuse.” Healthy sexuality is something very different. It is characterized by choice, consent, equality, respect, honesty, trust, safety, intimacy, and sensual enjoyment. In the books that you read and the movies you watch, decrease your exposure to abusive sex images and increase your exposure to examples of sex in which partners are responsible and express love and caring for each other.
  8. Seek professional help. Healing from the trauma of sexual abuse is very difficult and requires therapy. This may also include seeking marriage counseling. Getting therapy is a healthy step. It means you recognize there is a problem and you want to solve it. Healing from sexual abuse will lessen the negative effects on intimacy and other aspects of your life. This is a huge step in having healthy relationships after abuse. Including your spouse in the therapy process can help him/her understand what has happened and what you’re going through better so he/she knows how to help you better. Please consider taking this big step toward becoming more whole and healing. Being sexually abused and the subsequent effects are not your fault. You should never feel ashamed for needing help to heal from these traumatic experiences.

This list isn’t all encompassing, so please continue to seek for ways to improve your relationships–especially with your spouse. There are other resources available. Healthy relationships are possible and vital to your well-being. Look for websites or books with more information and ask your therapist for recommendations as well.

Resources (remember to take what you want and leave whatever doesn’t resonate with you. Not everything is for everyone.):

Healthysex.com

The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz

And They Were Not Ashamed by Laura M. Brotherson