Interpersonal Boundaries: How Trauma Keeps Us Silent

Photo Credit: Alone by Stewart Black via Flickr CC BY 2.0

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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About Morgan Concepcion, LCPC

Morgan Concepcion joined the LifeWorks Psychotherapy team in June 2016. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and has clinical experience working with persons in the LGBTQIA communities, multicultural and interfaith counseling, immigrants and asylum-seekers, and smoking cessation. She has coordinated with the National Immigrant Justice Center at Heartland Alliance, local domestic violence shelters, community mental health agencies, and local health departments. She is a member of the Illinois Counseling Association (ICA), the Illinois Mental Health Counselor’s Association (IMHCA) and Kink & Poly Aware Chicago Therapists (KPACT).