There is a lot to say about having healthy boundaries. They keep us out of bad situations; help us navigate social situations; help maintain a lifestyle that isn’t overwhelming. A lot of us struggle with boundaries. Boundaries may be stronger or weaker depending on whether or not we are engaging with our children, parents, friends, colleagues, or the general public. Oftentimes, we tend to judge people based on how clear or strong their boundaries may be.
For trauma survivors, boundaries can be scary. Boundaries for someone who has experienced interpersonal trauma can feel like being faced with a high wall instead of a fence. A fence can be seen through while a wall blocks all view of the world.
For many years children were not allowed to have boundaries and, in some families, they still aren’t allowed. “Kiss your Aunt Sadie! She is just being nice!” “Give your Uncle Barry a big hug!” “Don’t be so shy. Stop it. Just do it or else!” “Sit on Grandpa’s lap and be a nice girl/boy!”
Those situations may seem harmless but children have been taught early that they are not allowed to say “no” and there will be consequences if they do.
Perpetrators look for children who haven’t been allowed to say “no.” They also look for children who have learned that it is the child’s responsibility to manage the well-being of the family by keeping secrets and not making waves. Children are sought after who are swimming in a vast sea of ambiguity rather than a clear defined personal space.
The analogy for this experience is that of the Hardboiled Egg. The Hardboiled Egg starts out with a smooth perfect shell but as time goes by the shell is cracked by the desires of the adults around it. As it grows older it eventually has lost most or all of its shell and is now vulnerable. Perpetrators look for vulnerabilities and it now faces the judgment of people who can’t understand why it continues to get bruised and dirty.
Trauma survivors are often judged for having poor boundaries. “Why do you continue to date men who abuse you?” “Why don’t you leave?” “ Why do you continue to take that person’s calls?” “Why didn’t you just tell them ‘no’?” “You should’ve known better!” “You need better boundaries!” Survivors feel that their lack of boundaries is the reason that they were hurt. The blame ends up on them instead of on the person who hurt them.
Boundaries are of no use to perpetrators and they work hard to make sure that a child or adult victim recognizes that they are safer without them. “If you are nice to me, I will be nice to you and I won’t hurt you.” “Don’t tell your mother. This is our little secret” “If you don’t take my calls, I will come find you.” “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t do that.”
When I was a substance abuse counselor I was working with a woman who was trying to stay sober while staying away from her abusive boyfriend. He lived a couple of hours away and threatened both her sobriety and her physical safety. During a one hour session he called her cell phone at least twice and she told me that he called her at least twenty times a day. I was frustrated because I saw this as a lack of good boundaries on her part. I asked her why she didn’t block his calls. I doubted her resolve to stay away from the relationship. I was judging her.
She explained to me that if she blocked him he would start to physically look for her. If he was able to talk to her a couple of times a day and was reassured that she was coming back (even if she wasn’t) he did not get anxious. In addition, she informed me that she would feel more anxious and fearful if she was unable to talk to him. She needed to know his mood and his intentions in order to feel safe staying away. If she built the big boundary wall she would feel less safe. It seems counter-intuitive, but to the survivor it makes perfect sense.
If a child is not is a safe and stable environment with a loving caregiver they may not be able to develop strong boundaries. When the child becomes an adult and is confronted with the concept of boundaries they find the idea difficult to understand. Why would you tell a person “no” if there is a possibility that they will get angry and hurt you? Why would you stand up for yourself with a bully if there is a chance that the abuse could get worse? Why would you leave if your partner has told you he will kill you or your children if you do so? The world that a survivor lives in does not feel safer if they put up boundaries.
So why bother talking about boundaries? There is a time and a place for boundaries. However, as many trauma experts tell us, a person does not begin to heal from interpersonal abuse and violence until they feel safe and stable. Safety and stability in mind and body are only created when there are systems in place in the community and family that provide accountability for the perpetrator and safety for the victims. Until then, a survivor is going to do what they have learned to do in order to stay safe. Those survival skills may include being nice to the abuser, calling the perpetrator after an assault to try and normalize the relationship, lying to family and friends about the abuse, refusing to call the police, and submitting to unwanted advances.
This feeling of safety and stability may take a long time. It may not happen while a person is living in shelter or attending a support group or working with a counselor. Instead of insisting that a person learn to have better boundaries (heard as “if you had better boundaries you wouldn’t have gotten into this situation in the first place”) it may be helpful to explore how these survivor skills contributed to resilience and safety. As time goes on, when the person is ready, then other skills such as boundaries can be learned but a person should be able to celebrate how they survived the abuse without being judged.