Our experiences with others have a significant impact on our day-to-day life. The relationships we foster with the people around us shape who we are and guide our social behavior, self-beliefs, emotional needs, and empathy. With each new interaction, we learn things about ourselves, those we engage with, and relationships in general.
This human connection and interaction can play an especially important role in the healing journey for a survivor of child sexual abuse. Having a sense of support and community is essential to managing the effects of trauma, particularly loneliness, shame, depression, and anxiety. There may be people in your life who already provide you with this support, or who have shown the potential to do so. There may also be people in your life who can have an adverse effect on your healing, causing you additional distress and even exacerbating certain symptoms. As important as it is to foster relationships of support, it is equally important to identify and manage those relationships that can create further stress and pain.
So, given that no two relationships are the same, how do survivors navigate through each one—all the while keeping their healing in mind?
The answer is boundaries.
No matter the relationship (familial, casual, intimate, professional) or how that relationship is connected to your trauma (a friend from a support group, a spouse trying to understand your triggers, a family member who responded negatively to your disclosure), having healthy boundaries is essential.
What Is a Boundary?
A boundary is a line or limit that separates what you’re okay with from what you’re not. Think of it like a fence with a gate. Everything inside the fence is what you like and want to embrace in your life. Everything outside the fence is what you don’t like and don’t want to be part of your life. The best kinds of fences have gates that allow room for flexibility in who can come in and go out to honor changing relationships, circumstances, and healing. While rigid fencing can lead to isolation, weak fencing can lead to trespassing.
A survivor may have more rigid boundaries because of how severely they have been hurt and betrayed in the past. This betrayal may have come from not only the person(s) who abused them, but by their loved ones who did not protect or support them. Through these experiences, the survivor may maintain rigid boundaries in order to protect themselves from further hurt and disappointment. Keeping your guard up does serve an important purpose and needs to be used in certain situations. However, the same unyielding barriers that protect one from danger can also make it more difficult for the survivor to create new relationships, foster trust, and form a network of support.
Individuals who have more rigid boundaries often:
- Use boundaries to push people away.
- Use boundaries to try controlling other people.
- Are not open to hearing others’ viewpoints.
- Are overprotective of personal information.
- Aren’t willing to appropriately adapt boundaries to different contexts.
- Say no to things simply because they are outside of their comfort zone.
- Seem detached.
- Believe their own boundaries are more important than others’ boundaries.
On the other end of the spectrum, a survivor may have weaker boundaries because they have come to believe that their boundaries do not matter. The trauma of their abuse may have impacted their level of self-worth and reinforced the belief that their wants and needs are not as important as the wants and needs of others. They may have lost hope that the world includes individuals who will respect and protect them. And while survivors with these weaker boundaries may be more open to connections and relationships, as well as attuned to the needs of others, they are also at a higher risk of being mistreated or even revictimized.
Individuals who have weaker boundaries often:
- Don’t set boundaries for fear that others won’t approve.
- Are controlled by other people’s behaviors and opinions.
- Accept abuse or disrespect from others because they feel it’s what they deserve.
- Overshare details of past trauma with others, even new acquaintances.
- Feel it’s their job to fix everyone else’s problems.
- Don’t say no to others, even when feeling uncomfortable or emotionally overwhelmed.
- Believe others' boundaries are important but hesitate to establish their own.
- Reinforce boundaries inconsistently or don’t reinforce boundaries at all.
A healthy boundary lies in the middle of the spectrum. They enable you to hold firm in setting limits that will help you feel secure while also allowing you flexibility to adjust as circumstances and relationships change. Going back to the analogy of the fence, a healthy boundary allows you to open the gate to new people, friendships, or support systems.
Individuals who have healthier boundaries often:
- Stand up for personal values and don’t compromise out of fear or doubt.
- Consistently communicate and reinforce boundaries.
- Are firm, but not rigid, in reinforcing personal boundaries.
- Respect their own boundaries and boundaries of others.
- Develop emotional closeness at a pace that is comfortable and best suits the healing journey.
- Share personal information appropriately with others.
- Try new things as long as values aren’t compromised.
- Place trust in those who have earned it.
How Can I Set Healthy Boundaries?
Let’s say you are struggling with the boundaries surrounding your worktime. Lately your workload has become heavier, and you’ve had to work on the weekends in order to complete everything on time.
A month goes by with no change. You start to notice that spending your weekends working is taking a toll on your family and on your emotional health. You realize that your boundaries with work are on the weak end of the spectrum and need to be adjusted toward the center for the sake of your well-being and your family.
To do this, you determine what you’d like your new work boundary to be and how you plan to set that boundary. You lay out the details in a journal:
Between a full-time job and raising a family, you are feeling a high level of stress, especially in regard to the amount of chores that need to get done. And while it would be helpful to have other family members pitch in with these chores, you somehow end up doing all the work yourself.
You realize that the expectation for you to do most of the housework—even on nights when you have worked all day and are exhausted—is starting to take its toll on your physical and emotional well-being. You decide that the boundary regarding your time and responsibilities at home is on the weak end of the spectrum and would like to change it into something healthier.
To do this, you determine what you’d like your new boundary to be and how you plan to set that boundary. You lay out the details in a journal:
Over the past year you have been attending therapy and practicing strategies to help manage the trauma of your child sexual abuse. Your partner is very supportive and has been doing all they can to help you along your healing journey and be the supporter you need.
However, over the past few months you have started refusing to go to any social engagements, family events, or work functions with your partner because you are worried about becoming triggered. Each time your partner asks if you’ll go with them to one of these social settings, you say no. And while your partner has been patient and sympathetic, you feel that your boundary may be too rigid and is putting a strain on the relationship. So you decide to adjust the boundary by laying out the following details:
Now It’s Your Turn
Next, think about an area of the relationship (or of your life in general) that you’d like to focus on and write that area down. Below are a few examples:
What Do I Do If Someone Does Not Respect My Boundary?
While it is within your power to set and communicate your own boundaries, it is not within your power how others respond to those boundaries. As you establish new boundaries, others may initially push back, question, or provide unsolicited advice. It may take time for them to adjust to the boundaries you’ve set, especially if those boundaries require significant changes on their end. Remember that it’s okay to be both patient and firm as you maintain your boundaries and allow the people in your life to adapt to your needs.
Unfortunately, individuals may not always choose to respect and honor the boundaries you’ve set, even after being permitted the time and compassion to do so. This may be because they struggle with unhealthy boundaries themselves or lack an understanding of why boundaries are important. In these instances, remember that their response is not your fault. Rather, when someone dismisses or violates your boundaries after you’ve clearly and calmly communicated them several times, their relationship may not be conducive to your needs and your healing. It’s not selfish if you decide it may be best to keep that person outside of your fence for the time being. If they later demonstrate their willingness and ability to respect your boundaries, you can always open the gate and allow them back in—on your own terms and at your own pace.
If you are concerned about a person in your life who is not respecting your boundaries and are unsure of how to manage the situation, we encourage you to seek the guidance of a mental health specialist or another third party.
If you have boundaries at either end of the spectrum, remember that moving toward the center is a process. New boundaries create change, and change can feel uncomfortable at first—both for you and for those who will be impacted by your new boundaries. Be patient with yourself, as well as firm and consistent with others, as you set your boundaries one at a time and strive to keep those boundaries in place.
As you seek to set and maintain healthier boundaries, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by identifying the areas in your life where your current boundaries may be too weak or too rigid.
- Mindfulness by being aware of the boundaries you have set and maintaining those boundaries with patience and self-compassion.
- Aspiration by establishing boundaries with the intention of making changes that will benefit your healing journey and overall well-being.