Boundaries: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog
No matter what the time of year, survivors are often faced with “family” gatherings that can elicit feelings of excitement for some, dread for others and both for some of us. The upcoming Passover and Easter holidays are no exception. I have recently explored keeping healthier boundaries in place that allow for room to breathe and reciprocity.
Boundaries, what exactly does that word mean? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits. Personal boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people.”
As a survivor of sexual violation over time by my minister, I learned different boundaries than most kids. Being victimized made me feel, “if you want to use me, that’s okay, I have very little value anyway.” After getting away from my abusive situation I put up some very thick walls that looked remarkably like a fort. I learned if I keep people completely away, then I can be safe. I was also willing to fight and destroy anyone who challenged my walls or me.
Those walls were my boundaries and in my mind, they made me safe. Cross them at your own risk! The problem for me and many other survivors is that those are not “normal boundaries” and therefore no one else knows where they are until they bump up against them. I must say this has made long-term relationships difficult at best. After I blow up, people often wonder “What was that about?” or “What did I do?” or “I wonder what’s wrong with him?”
The boundaries that my pastor/mentor/abuser broke were replaced with trauma-informed defenses. If you were going to be around me in my younger years you better get used to short limits and intolerance on my part.
What I have discovered of late is that when I hold onto my survival boundaries, I end up standing alone and wondering why no one understands my position. A critical look in the mirror seems to indicate that I am not setting healthy boundaries. A healthy boundary is one that has some movement in it and allows for continued involvement with others. Historically if you crossed my walls, I was done with you. Over, outta here, I don’t care if I ever see you again.
Now I find I want to stay in relationships with others. The problem is I often still fall back behind my walls when I feel I have been treated unfairly. I have only found one thing that works. If I want to stay in a relationship, I need to take a step back and own up to my contribution to the conflict. Sometimes it’s hard for me to see it at the time, but an apology goes a long way. It’s funny how different things can look when you are not defending your territory and you set your weapons down. It is also not necessary for the other person to admit what I think they did wrong.
I am not suggesting anyone allow himself or herself to be abused in any way. I am saying that if I want to have long-term relationships, I have to get off my warhorse to learn new behaviors about healthy boundaries, ones that protect, but do not restrict.
Being around our family of origin is a potentially difficult and vulnerable time for most survivors. I hope to be able to take my own advice and stay out of my fort. I can learn language like “It hurts my feelings when you talk to me that way.” Or, “I feel invalidated when you say things like that and don’t listen to what I have to say.” And the pinnacle of my learning curve (may I someday attain it), it’s okay, this is not a fight and I have no need to suit up.
By Randy Ellison
Speaker, writer and author of the book Boys Don’t Tell: Ending the Silence of Abuse, Randy Ellison is a child-sexual-abuse, victim’s advocate and an activist promoting cultural change working with local, state and national organizations. Randy also works as a consultant for nonprofits dealing with awareness and prevention of intimate violence. He addresses abuse prevention and healing for survivors from a survivor’s perspective. Randy is a member of the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force. He maintains his own website boysdonttell.com