Interpersonal Boundaries: How Trauma Keeps Us Silent

by Morgan Concepcion, LCPC

What are personal boundaries?

Personal boundaries are what separate us from other people and things and help us form a distinct identity.

Boundaries help us protect ourselves.
Boundaries help define what belongs to you and what belongs to someone else.

Boundaries can define what is “ok” and what is “not ok.”

Boundaries help others know what you want.

Boundaries can show what is important for you in relationship.

Boundaries are personal. Your feelings, your body and your boundaries belong to you as a person, no one else.

                                                                 What is trauma?

Simply stated, trauma is the effect of an experience or event that overwhelms our sense of safety, often to the point where the world, the future, or other people are no longer seen as positive or safe.

Traumatic circumstances can involve physical or emotional harm or threats of harm, and can be brief or occur for years. Natural disasters, war, domestic violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, financial intimidation, personal injury, illness, job loss, and death are some of the experiences that can bring trauma into our lives.

The effects of trauma can take many forms including flashbacks, nightmares, angry outbursts, heightened anxiety, avoidance of people or activities, depressed mood, trouble connecting in relationship and more. Trauma often leaves a sense of powerlessness, a belief that a person should have avoided or prevented the traumatic experience. This feeling of powerlessness can affect how we interact with our world.

Trauma can damage boundaries.

If you have experienced trauma, you may be less likely to actively defend yourself, your desires, and your personal boundaries in new situations.  Trauma impacts the way you understand and relate to your own boundaries.

Experiences that are very painful, or overwhelming, can flood your awareness and you may forget that you can say “no” to others who ask too much of us, don’t see or respect our boundaries.  This behavior is sometimes called boundary pushing or boundary crossing.

Boundary pushing and crossing can cause emotional damage. The damage is to our beliefs about ourselves: our belief that what we want or need or feel matters.  Trauma can cause us to replace a healthy sense of our boundaries with a new belief that others are more important than we are, and we need to keep other people happy and “not make a problem.” That way, we hope, others won’t violate our boundaries.

How do you know when boundaries are crossed?

Feelings are messages from the subconscious and in the case of trauma can be reactions to danger. Feeling angry, afraid, frustrated and uncomfortable are signs that your boundaries may be pushed or disrespected in some way.

When your boundaries, personal space or body are disrespected or intruded upon by another, it can feel scary, invasive, forceful, painful, humiliating and more.

Examples of boundary pushing and boundary crossings:

  • A person corners you and won’t stop talking to you.
  • Your boss looks you over or makes comments about your appearance and asks: “Are you going on a hot date tonight?”
  • A friend often calls you for an hour and only talks about themselves and their relationship issues.
  • A coworker stops by your work space and starts picking up items on your desk and rearranging them.
  • Someone stands uncomfortably close to you and doesn’t notice when you back away.
  • A new person suddenly hugs you when they are introduced and says: “I’m just a hugger.”

 So, what happened?

In each example above, one person’s physical space, time, belongings, feelings or body were for a moment “trespassed upon” by the other person.

Trespassing means pushing into or crossing over a physical or subjective limit, like someone who stands too close to you or asks questions that feel too personal or private.

If you or your boundaries were violated by a family member, a person in authority, or a bully, you may have learned quickly how to avoid getting hurt again by being quiet and unnoticed, instead of speaking up for yourself, saying no or getting help from others.

This is the vicious circle of trauma: boundaries are violated, in pain, we withdraw and don’t speak up or get help; this makes it likely that future boundary pushing or crossing will erode our limits further, exacerbating our trauma and sense of helplessness.

Why should I talk about my boundaries?

You have a right to talk about your boundaries, to share how you experience others interacting with your boundaries and to have your concerns addressed respectfully.

Boundaries define you whether you talk about them or not. The best way to get what you want with regard to your boundaries or limits is to ask. Talking about your boundaries helps you to practice asking for what you want and learn more about how others experience you.

What if I don’t feel safe to talk?

You may not want to talk about boundaries because you feel unsafe. That is an important emotional signal that might be saying “Pay attention,” “Slow down,” “Back up,” or something similar.

Feeling unsafe to “speak up” might mean you’re in an unsafe situation, and need help to get out of it or to change something in yourself or the environment.

If you feel unsafe, don’t press yourself to continue in the situation, conversation or activity.  Instead, seek out someone who you can trust to get support or help addressing your concerns.

Even without words, you can act in a way that respects your right to have boundaries.  Pausing, taking your time to respond to requests or questions, dropping eye contact, leaving the situation, moving closer to someone with whom you feel safer or reaching out physically to a supportive friend or relative are ways to take time and space for yourself.

Again, why are boundaries important?

Protecting ourselves is important. That is why learning about and finding ways to heal from trauma, strengthen and honor our boundaries is critical.

Many of us who have been hurt, traumatized or violated in some way, stay silent and accept “hurting a little to not make it worse.” We avoid the risk of “real” consequences at work and in personal situations and try to ignore the ways others step over our boundaries.

Trauma may have taught us that we’ll be hurt more by standing up for ourselves.  Sometimes we don’t speak up about our feelings because we’re afraid to hurt someone else. So, many of us have areas in our lives where we need to repair the damage done by traumatic events or situations and restore our boundaries. This takes time but can be done.

What next steps can I take to firm up my boundaries?

  • Bring your attention to areas where your “personal boundary lines” have been pushed or crossed before.
  • Identify to the best of your ability how, when & by whom boundaries have been crossed.
  • Ask yourself: “What do I wish would have happened instead?”
  • Reach out to someone you trust, or believe has your best interests at heart. Talking with a safe person can provide support, help to brainstorm solutions, or identify other resources you may need.
  • Begin moving forward in positive ways towards setting clear limits and communicating about your boundaries.
  • Seek out a therapist or counselor who can help you to sort out your experience and begin the healing process.

You have the right to be valued and protected as your own person, with your own desires and boundaries in relationships.

Defining and respecting your boundaries can be the bravest and best next step for your life.

If you need help assessing whether your boundaries have been violated or want support in recovering from trauma and past transgressions, call LifeWorks for an appointment with a therapist, 847-568-1100.

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Meet Jacque Pfeifer, MAMFT

Preferred pronouns; she/her or they/them

Jacque Pfeifer, MAMFT is one of four therapists to join LifeWorks this year through the Green House, our postgraduate psychotherapy training and mentoring program.

What first drew you to the Green House?

Initially, I was drawn to the Green House program because I am passionate about working with marginalized communities, especially the non-monogamy and LGBTQ communities. As I learned more about the Green House and the clinicians who developed it, I confirmed this opportunity would be an asset for me as a couples and family therapist.

As a new clinician, I believe that it is my responsibility to continue to embrace, understand, and mold my therapist identity as well as continually challenging myself to be a culturally sensitive, socially just therapist.  Lastly, coming from a child welfare/community mental health background, I was enthralled to have the opportunity and privilege to gain more experience working with long-term clients outside of an agency setting.

Tell us about your goals, challenges and aspirations—what are you hoping for in 2017 and beyond?

Hmmm… 2017.  2017 looks like it has a lot to process already. With all of the political turmoil and confusion, I am trying to find some peace and grounding in my therapeutic practice, both here and at the agency where I am currently practicing. I think that LifeWorks is providing a helping hand in giving me some much-needed balance and structure.  I am hopeful that this year of learning will provide a gracious next step regarding my self-work, in order to move forward in my role as a therapist with intentionally and raised consciousness.

What are you most looking forward to in the Green House?

I anticipate using this training to become a more skilled and aware clinician within the marginalized communities that I want to support. I am excited about diving into process work and depth psychotherapy and incorporating that into my long-term practice. I am naturally partial to a more in-depth relationship with my clients, to helping them understand what may not be fully in their awareness in hopes of guiding them through the chaos and supporting their healing from the trauma and confusion of their past. I have always felt drawn this level of commitment to my clients and wanting to sit alongside them in their healing. I am also looking forward to connecting deeper to my cohort of colleagues and to collaborating with them through my Green House year as well as throughout my career.

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Connecting with Personal Power After Abuse, Trauma, or Marginalization

Why do some people abuse power while others don’t? That question is at the core of POWER: A USER’S GUIDE, the latest book by coach, facilitator, educator, and author Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

As its title suggests, Power: A User’s Guide is a how-to manual for anybody—parent, boss, teacher, politician, social activist—for whom wielding authority justly and effectively is a daily necessity and a daily challenge.

In this video, together with LifeWorks’ Cindy Trawinski, Julie discusses the nature of personal power and how therapy can help those who have struggled with trauma, abuse, and marginalization connect with their deepest selves. According to Julie, personal power is an inner source of strength that can never be taken away, although it sometimes manifests in surprising ways.

The conversation was recorded at LifeWorks’ offices in Chicago, during Julie’s visit in 2016, when she spoke before KPACT: a networking & dialogue group for Kink and Poly Aware Chicago Therapists, established by LifeWorks.

More information about Julie, the book, and KPACT can be found here.  

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Meet Meryl Morris, LCSW

Preferred pronouns: she, her, hers

Meryl Morris, LCSW is one of four therapists to join LifeWorks this year through the Green House, our postgraduate psychotherapy training and mentoring program.

What first drew you to the Greenhouse?

I first became aware of LifeWorks after meeting Rami Henrich and Cindy Trawinski at the 2015 Alternative Sexualities Conference. They invited me to a KPACT seminar and I remember my surprise.  I had found a practice that specialized in helping groups of people who for many reasons may have had to keep parts of their lives secret from family, friends, society and even from their therapists.  The people and lifestyles that LifeWorks embraces – LGBTQIA, polyamory and non-monogamy, kink and BDSM, trans and genderqueer– included my colleagues, my friends, friends of friends, partners of friends and many acquaintances. I have heard their struggles, I knew my own. Marginalization was not new to me, it had always been a part of my life. I felt a kinship with the population they served.

I am a licensed clinical social worker and have for many years wanted to find my way back to doing therapy and to create a safe space for people to talk about those secret lives and struggles. I knew that I needed a way to hone my therapeutic skills and combine them with all I had learned through my work as a mediator with families for many years. So, I was delighted to find out that LifeWorks had a new program that offered what I had been searching for. I loved the idea of getting the training I needed and collaborating with brave and wonderful therapists who were embracing the idea of creating a sex-positive and life-affirming space for their clients.

Tell us about your goals, challenges and aspirations —-what are you hoping for in 2017 and beyond?

My goals are to integrate all that I can from my training at the Green House with the knowledge I already have to become a therapist that can help make a difference in others’ lives and to use who I am and my own experiences to form  my identity as a therapist. I also want to challenge myself to use not only my strengths, but my weaknesses and my life experiences to collaborate with my clients on their journey to self discovery and healing. I am hoping to build a foundation for a private practice serving people who at times feel marginalized for how they relate to society or for who and how they love. I want to participate in creating a safe, inclusive, sex-positive space for people to explore themselves free from judgment and rejection.

What are you most looking forward to in the Green House?

I am looking forward to embracing and being an integral part of LifeWorks’ mission. I am hoping to collaborate and learn with my three colleagues in the Green House and with the therapists at LifeWorks. Expanding my knowledge base and getting to know all of these talented clinicians is very important to me and represents a very important part of my future and growth not only as a therapist, but as a person.

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Refueling: A Guide for Self-Care

by Elizabeth Duke, PsyD

As a therapist, I focus on self-care a lot because I think it’s a vital life skill that no one really teaches us to do for ourselves.  

Self-care allows us to have emotional energy to respond thoughtfully to life’s bumps and obstacles instead of reacting without awareness. That reservoir of emotional energy gives us space to make lasting changes within ourselves. In my experience, self-care often needs to ebb and flow with stressors in your life.  So if your daily self-care practice is exercise, and your stressors increase, you probably need to up your self-care game.

In my humble opinion self-care is a seriously big deal.  As far as I know it’s not consistently or intentionally taught in pre-school, grade school, high school or at the university level.  It’s rare that our care-givers show us how they care for themselves, much less talk to us about it.

For some, engaging in self-care feels self-indulgent, or like a waste of time. For others, it’s all too easy to label ten hours on the couch as self-care, when it might be called avoidance, if we were honest with ourselves.  It’s complicated though, because sometimes a measure of avoidance is necessary and sometimes a dollop of distraction is what gets us through. Self-care is not an all-or-nothing process. It seems to requires insight, awareness and balance to thread this needle.

Sometimes self-care is hard because it’s just hard, and other times its’ hard because the thing you’re trying to do isn’t feeding you. For example, some people find volunteer work extremely rewarding, while others find it draining, and still others find it taxing but feel accomplished and happy about it at the end of the day.  So, determining what self-care looks like for you can involve some trial and error.

As our good friend (I wish) Brene Brown would say, our culture often holds out exhaustion as a status symbol.  We view busyness, packed schedules, and barely enough time to sleep as a sign of our achievement, effortfulness and hard work. Which, unfortunately means that many of us are socialized to fundamentally misunderstand the impact of, and need for self-care.

See how nuanced it is? It is different for everyone, so it’s tricky to prescribe and even harder to try to mimic self-care if you do have a rare sighting. Finding what works for you is not easy, and it requires trial and error along with introspection.

To get started, you can try journaling about the questions below:

What are you trying to get from self-care?
A more authentic you? Energy to field the stressors of tomorrow? Increased insight? Breathing room? A calmer sense of self? Your self-care should be in line with what you need.

What has worked for you in the past?
Even though self-care is fluid and dynamic, it might help to have a starting
place. What things did you enjoy as a child? Did you play sports? Enjoy
science, art or nature? What did those things give you, and what might they
look like now?  What was helpful in the past when you encountered difficult
times?

**If the first thing that comes to mind here has been self-destructive for you, take it a little further… for example, what did you get from excessive spending? A chance to create a new persona every day? Connection with strangers? Release from day to day worries? Unfettered engagement with passion? Look for the meaning of what’s worked for you, rather than the thing itself.

What drains you?
Do you enjoy time around people, or does it drain you? Do you feel invigorated by creating a meal or is it overwhelming?

**Sometimes self-care requires intentionality and that should not be mistaken for “draining” activity. It’s often difficult to motivate yourself to clean, but afterwards you feel much better. Think about this in terms of how you feel after you do something versus the energy it might take to get yourself to do it.

What makes you feel most alive?
This is my favorite question. It’s not always possible to do the thing that makes you feel most alive, but this is a helpful place to start. For some this might be the closing night of a show. Every day can’t be the closing night of a show – the excitement, the feeling of accomplishment, the camaraderie, and the closeness to those who helped make it happen. But you might be able to create or find elements of it – cultivating friendship by making a standing friends night each week, taking a moment to appreciate the small things you achieve and do each day, learning a new skill (knitting, guitar, woodworking), or going to more artistic events around the city. Try to take something that makes you feel alive and break it down, identify what it is you get from that experience and see if you can access that in some way on an ongoing basis.

When do you need self-care?
This is a tough one. Predicting what things are likely to suck your emotional energy is an ongoing process because stress is moving target.  However, it’s worth noting the times of day you feel most energized and most tired. If you struggle with feelings of self-deprication/anxiety/loneliness/fill-in-the-blank, when does that feeling occur most often? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you spend a day surrounded by people and then need alone or quiet time to recover? If you work on your own all day, do you crave contact and interaction to re-charge your battery after work? Answers to these questions can provide hints about the self-care you may need or want.

Does your self-care fit into your day?
Make your self-care work for you. If you love dancing but you can’t find classes that fit your schedule, consider employing your headphones and an empty living room. If you compose music as your self-care, make sure you carve out time in your day for this priority.

What if my self-care becomes unhelpful?
Shout out to all my fellow perfectionists. Self-care becomes unhelpful when it begins taking on a life of its own.  So, if you’re gardening as self-care and you start getting discouraged that your community plot isn’t as robust as the one next to yours. Be on the look out for self-care becoming something you have to tick off your to-do list, or creating comparison-itis. You’ll also want to be on the look out for self-care becoming isolating or the only thing you want to do.

Finally, what would you do if you were completely free to truly care for yourself in this moment? Do a little of that now and notice how you feel.

Remember, no one knows what feeds you better than you do. Creating and tending to the process of self-care is an ongoing process that requires you to check in honestly and see how things are going occasionally. If you find yourself overwhelmed, snapping at loved ones, engaging in black and white thinking, over-striving or whatever your personal red flag is… you probably want to do a self-care tune up.

Best of luck on the journey my friends.

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Caring in Uncertain Times

Photo Credit: Génesis Gabriella CCO Public Domain

We are pleased to share this post by Jacqueline Boyd from The Care Plan.  Jacqueline is a tireless advocate for healthcare needs of the elderly and LGBTQ+ community providing guidance and planning for her clients. 

by Jacqueline Boyd

“How will changes to the Affordable Care Act affect my insurance coverage?”

“Will my 85-year-old parent be able to get coverage with so many preexisting conditions?”

“Should I push to get my gender affirming surgery now?”

“How can I access HIV care if funding is cut and my medical services are no longer covered?”

These are a sampling of questions posed by members of The Care Plan network over the last few months.  The Care Plan serves individuals from all walks of life and advocates on their behalf. We keep a measured eye on the political landscape for our family caregivers and LGBTQ+ clientele. It is our goal to provide our clients resources to move forward with a greater degree of comfort and clarity.

For the estimated 9 million Americans who identify as LGBTQ+—who are at higher risk of chronic illness, HIV, substance abuse, suicide and many other disorders—access to affirming health care is critical.  Likewise, approximately 44 million Americans are providing unpaid caregiver support to another person.

Across the country, people are searching for answers about how to navigate care in a time of uncertainty.  For those who coordinate care for themselves or a loved one, here are some basic tips for navigating the waters ahead:

1. Stay Informed
Seek out objective news sources to stay abreast of changes that could affect you or your family. The reality is many people are overwhelmed by the amount of news available. We recommend choosing a credible outlet that provides information on both local and national levels. You can also identify your favorite health writer and follow them on social media. Some of our favorites are The New York Times, Huffington Post and Medicare.gov.

2.  Advocate
Prepare to defend your resources and speak up for those of others. Raise your voice to create sustainable solutions on a national or local scale. Many of the proposed changes are likely to fall to state governments to sort out, particularly Medicaid expansion coverage. If you have the energy, take time to reach out to representatives or join an advocacy group on the issues you feel passionately about. AARP is well versed on state-level legislation and can provide resources and direction on advocacy.

3.  Connect
Gain strength by finding informal sources of support. Whether it is prioritizing time with family and friends, showing up for community events, or getting creative about caring for a loved one, take the time to connect. If appropriate, take the opportunity to gather the people closest to you to take the next step: to become family-of-choice, and verbalize what that means. Connection with people who care about you will provide a support system in the face of any number of challenges.

4.  Plan Ahead
There is no time like the present to address long-term care plans. If you don’t have a Power of Attorney, a will, or an estate plan, now is your opportunity to put financial and legal protections in place. Find out how the loved ones in your life feel about accessing health providers, what role they want you to play in their care, and what critical decisions you should be aware of.

The Care Plan is available to partner with you in addressing current and future challenges. At a time with more questions than answers, the power of human connection can heal and move us all forward.  For expert guidance or questions on the road ahead, contact Jacqueline at 630-479-0083, or write to [email protected].

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How Therapists Can Keep from Misusing their Power

Why do we sometimes misuse power even when we know better?  That question is at the core of POWER: A USER’S GUIDE, the latest book by coach, facilitator, educator, and author Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

In this video, Julie speaks with LifeWorks’ Cindy Trawinski about power dynamics in therapeutic relationships, as well as how therapists can keep from misusing their power. The conversation was recorded at LifeWorks’ offices in Chicago, during Julie’s visit in 2016, when she spoke before KPACT: a new group for Kink and Poly Aware Chicago Therapists, established by LifeWorks.

More information about Julie, the book, and KPACT can be found here.  

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Meet Sarah Hemphill, MSW, LSW

Preferred pronouns: she, her, hers

Sarah Hemphill, MSW, LSW, is one of four therapists to join LifeWorks this year through the Green House, our postgraduate psychotherapy training and mentoring program.

What first drew you to the Green House?

Coming from a background in medical social work, I was drawn to the Green House as a space where I could gain experience providing long-term psychotherapy.  While I love the intensity of working with medical patients, I was looking for the space and tools to go deeper with my clients than the brief interventions possible in a hospital setting. Speaking with last year’s Green House therapists, I realized that this is the very space I had been looking for where I can grow into new experiences while staying true to my values as a therapist.

From the beginning of my education and career I have been drawn to work with sexuality and marginalized groups, especially those in the non-monogamy and sex-worker communities. This has dovetailed with my work in reproductive health and creating space for LGBT and sexual minority patients, but I have had limited opportunities to collaborate with professionals intentionally serving these populations. For the past several years I had been impressed by the intentionality with which LifeWorks was focusing on LGBT, kink, and non monogamy, and pleasantly surprised to hear that they were also, of late, reaching out to the sex worker community.  Stepping away from work with those in acute physical trauma, I am looking forward to holding the same trauma-informed skills for people who may have faced potentially subtler social and inter-personal traumas.

Tell us about your goals and aspirations—what are you hoping for in the rest of 2017 and beyond?

I think that if I were able to tell myself one year ago that at this point in my career I would be sitting across from my current clients and learning alongside intelligent and intriguing colleagues, I would have thought it was too good to be true!  So, I am hesitant. I don’t want to sell myself short for where I may be by the end of the Green House.

That said, I want to use my time in the Green House to do the internal work to make sure I am moving forward in my role as a therapist with intentionality. I aim to use this time to try on some new approaches in order to feel out a path that feels right for me, and to be purposeful about serving my clients and impacting communities in ways that are most beneficial for those who need it.  Hopefully, this will mean not only gaining tools and practice to better serve my clients but also learning how to better collaborate with others in the world beyond. I’m not sure where this journey will take me, but growing, stretching, and improving in these areas feels right and necessary right now.

What are you most looking forward to in the Green House?

I already love getting to know other LifeWorks therapists and seeing glimpses of how they think about interacting with clients and each other.  I find people to be the most fascinating, complex, and wonderful thing about the world—surprise, surprise, probably why I became a therapist!  I admire the dedication to cultural humility, open-minded views, and overall joy that I have seen at LifeWorks, and I am thrilled to learn from and grow with such a talented group of other clinicians.

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The Distinction between Personal and Positional Power

Why is learning about “personal” versus “positional” power so important? That question is at the core of POWER: A USER’S GUIDE, the latest book by coach, facilitator, educator, and author Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

As its title suggests, Power: A User’s Guide is a how-to manual for anybody—parent, boss, teacher, politician, social activist—for whom wielding authority justly and effectively is a daily necessity and a daily challenge.

In this video, LifeWorks’ Cindy Trawinski asks Julie about the distinction the book makes between “personal” and “positional” power and how to develop personal power.   This interview was recorded in 2016, when Julie was in Chicago to address KPACT: a professional organization for Kink and Poly Aware Chicago Therapists, established by LifeWorks.

More information about Julie, the book, and KPACT can be found here

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The Saint Aside

by Brandon Haydon, LCSW


And if I say
it’s alright
to love
another one
I will smile with
calm dignity shift
wince to wisdom grin
feign peace in your pleasure
reach back to pat
for a mind as open
as the wound in my chest
and I’m grasping
your fingers for blades
your swell and gaze
but I was pierced from within
caught dancing at the duel
between human and fancy
sang swords like mirrors
and every stroke gleams
with that dread reflection
as either victor would mean my murder

“I know you burn without malice, but burn as you must”
is the martyr’s regard of the fire
that even if it could pity
could not cease to be fire
I see devotion
is a creature
we can conjure but not keep
if its whim is in distance
And no hand red or black
can guide your desire

Passion as pilgrim
fervent and wanting
who must indulge each relic that passes
or risk some missing blessing
to pass up a sacred presence
on account of comfort
and in any case
not all sacraments taste the same
and I hear every saint
gets a temple
to see the worship return…
content will I be
that you whisper a prayer
at my shrine
aside the road

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