As a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, I often work with patients who struggle with setting and maintaining boundaries. Often when someone grows up in a violent or abusive home, they miss out on the opportunity to explore their likes, dislikes, needs, wants, thoughts, feelings, and boundaries. Boundaries are above all a skill to be learned. We do not come into the world knowing how to set limits and boundaries. The reason we swaddle babies is because they are by nature uncontained and need parents and/or caregivers to protect them and meet their needs. If we leave a baby alone in a forest, the chances of that baby surviving are pretty much zero. It’s a parents job to provide protection and boundaries for that baby and hopefully, when age appropriate, teach them to enforce those limits and boundaries for themselves.
I once brought the concept of boundaries up in a session and my patient looked at me like I was from Mars. She had no idea what I was talking about. She had also grown up in a very violent and abusive home and had learned to be quiet and polite in order to survive. She had also had a long history of violent relationships in her adult life. The very idea of being able to set a limit with someone was foreign to her.
So What Is A Boundary?
Essentially a boundary is an invisible fence that separates us from others and serves as a protective mechanism. Boundaries not only keep others from coming into our space but also keep us from intruding on others. Boundaries also help provide a sense of who we are and where we stand in the world. Boundaries allow us to identify where we stop and another person begins. Unfortunately childhood trauma can cause a lot of enmeshment which means people learn to take on the emotions of others rather than having their own. For example, if a parent is unable to contain their anger and they take it out on their child, that child is taking on the emotion for their parent. That child is unable to process that emotion because it isn’t theirs.
Boundaries include an external system and an internal system. The external system helps control distance and touch. An example of an external boundary may be choosing how close you stand to someone or asking before giving someone a hug. The internal boundary system acts to protect our thoughts and our feelings. The goal here is to be able to separate our thoughts and feelings from those of another person. The example above where the parent is taking their anger out on their child is an example of a poor internal boundary. An example of having a healthy internal boundary is someone who believes “I control what I think and feel and the same is true for you”. Attempting to manipulate or bully someone is another example of a poor boundary.
How Can I Check My Boundaries?
The external boundary can feel more straightforward. You can explore your external boundaries by assessing physical interactions with others. Questions you can ask yourself may include “Am I standing a comfortable distance away from this person?” or “Do I ask people if I can touch them before taking action?”.
The internal boundary can be more difficult to determine. A healthy internal boundary allows us to separate our reality from the reality of others. A questions you can ask yourself when you are having a conversation with another person may be “Is what this person saying true”. If it is true, I can let the information in and allow myself to have feelings about it. If it’s not true, I can allow it to pass by and not take it in. If I need more information to determine if it’s true, I can ask for clarification.
Examples of Boundary Violations
Physical Boundary Violations
- Standing too close to a person without his/her permission
- Touching a person without his/her permission
- Not allowing a person to have privacy
- Getting into someone’s personal belongings
Sexual Boundary Violations
- Touching someone sexually without his/her permission
- Demanding unsafe sex practices
- Exposing oneself to someone without their consent
- Exposing others to pornography against their wishes
Internal Boundary Violations
- Yelling or screaming
- Harmful sarcasm or passive aggressiveness
If you are struggling with setting boundaries with yourself or in your relationships and would like to know more about Shannon’s services, please reach out today for a free consultation.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.