Boundaries and Relationships
This post addresses the role of boundaries as instrumental to healing trauma, especially childhood trauma. Boundaries are the limits that help to define the self. They create the distinction, “this is me and that is you.” Boundaries are meant to be adaptive and responsive to our environment. For example, when you feel safe, your boundaries can be more flexible allowing for greater emotional or physical intimacy with another person. However, when you feel threatened or are unsafe your boundaries become more defined and can help you protect yourself by saying “no, this doesn’t feel good.”
“Without a boundary, you will be more likely to give in to others. With too rigid of a boundary, you risk feeling isolated. Having clear boundaries helps you adapt the level of emotional or physical intimacy in the moment. Healthy boundaries help with decision making and allow you to take responsibility for your actions and thoughts. Maintaining successful boundaries involves accepting the fact that you cannot please others all of the time. They help you ask for what you need, even though you may be told no or risk feeling rejected. Ultimately, healthy boundaries facilitate self-respect and a sense of your own worth.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
The Origins of Self
Boundaries are first learned in the earliest of relationships; by how parents or caregivers related to us as infants and children. All infants have natural, inborn rhythms for connection and disconnection. Ideally, a parent or caregiver attunes to the cues of the infant or child—meaning that the parent is responsive to the infant’s cues for connection and honors the infant’s natural need for space. No parent is perfect and it is normal to misread or misunderstand a child’s cues. In fact, ruptures are a normal part of parenting and in small doses can actually strengthen a child’s resilience and capacity to tolerate stress. This process necessitates a commitment on the caregiver’s part to repair the injury until safety and reconnection are re-established.
Dr. Ed Tronick, parent-infant mental health specialist, explored the cues expressed by infants to signal their needs for contact and space. For example, infants will coo or smile to express a desire for engagement and will avert their gaze or turn their head to the side to signal a need to disconnect. He also looked at the behaviors of depressed mothers. Tronick observed that these mothers were less likely to be attuned to a child’s cues for connection or disconnection and were more likely to violate boundaries.
According to Jack Rosenberg and Majorie Rand, somatic psychologists and founders of Integrative Body Psychotherapy (IBP), boundary violations in early childhood have three common patterns: invasion, abandonment, and a combination of the two.
- Invasion: An invasion boundary violation is the result of a caregiver who consistently misread your signals for disconnection. The parent may simply not recognize your need for separation or a parent might be using connection with you to soothe his or her own need to feel loved. Invasion can also be the result of abusive situations. If you felt invaded as a child you might have a tendency to withdraw from relationships by developing a rigid boundary style. Maybe you have constructed walls around your most vulnerable feelings. When boundaries are too rigid, you can become isolated or carry a belief that you always have to take care of things yourself.
- Abandonment: An abandonment boundary violation is the result of a caregiver who was not responsive to your signals for connection. As a result, you learn to override your own natural rhythms of connection and disconnection; a survival instinct that propels you to seek connection at any cost. The impact of abandonment is that you learn to have a more diffuse, less defined boundary so as to adapt to the needs of others. If you have this unbounded boundary style you may feel hesitant to set limits with others for fear of rejection. You might have a tendency to merge with others and in doing so, lose a sense of yourself for the sake of a relationship. You might be prone to taking care of others in lieu of yourself which can result in resentment and anger.
- Combined Invasion and Abandonment Injury: A combined injury is the result of a caregiver who inconsistently alternated between being invasive and unresponsive. As a result, it is difficult to find a reliable strategy to meet your needs for both connection and disconnection. This third and most common boundary injury can lead you to alternate between your longing for connection and your desire to push people away when they get too close in a way that feels unsatisfying or disorganized.
Everyday Boundary Practices
Boundaries are meant to be flexible enough to allow for intimate connections with others. Ultimately, healthy boundaries require that you tolerate both closeness and separateness. Somatic psychology actively engages boundary explorations that helps you to increase awareness of the cues in your body that hep you recognize the quality of your boundary. Here are 5 practices that you can practice at home to develop healthy boundaries:
- Body Awareness: Strengthen your boundary awareness by exploring the cues in the body that give you feedback about your needs or limits. Setting clear but flexible boundaries involves listening to and respecting your somatic cues. Strong sensations often serve as important signals that can help you recognize when your boundary has been crossed.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness of your beliefs and behaviors can help you to slow down the automatic reactions you have in the world. See if you can increase your self-awareness about what is motivating your actions. Become curious about your habits in relationship. Notice the thoughts and beliefs that you hold about yourself. As with all mindfulness practices, remember to come from a foundation of self-compassion and non-judgment.
- Practice saying “No”: An essential boundary skill is the ability to say no when something doesn’t feel right to you. Watch for a tendency to say yes without thinking things through.Practice upholding your limits in small ways like returning food at a restaurant if it isn’t cooked right or declining an invitation when you would rather spend an evening at home. Recognize that others may be disappointed with your choices, but this does not necessitate you giving in.
- Honor your “Yes”: Healing involves your commitment to self-care and a willingness to turn toward your Yes. This process requires that you acknowledge your own needs and recognize that others can and want to provide for you. You are worthy of respect and love. It can be vulnerable to tune into your own needs and this can feel uncomfortable at first. Again, practice self-care in small ways like giving yourself permission to taste several flavors of ice cream before choosing your favorite.
- Ask for what you Need: Practice making requests. This process requires tolerating your own disappointment when requests are denied. Moreover, if your request is honored, you may need to challenge yourself to tolerate the closeness of someone taking care of you. Advocating for your needs is a way of acknowledging that you are worth being cared for.
Want to learn about healing complex PTSD?
Connect to this post? This was an excerpt from my book, The Complex PTSD Workbook, now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out and increase your toolbox for healing. Whether you are a client or a therapist this book will offer a guided approach to trauma recovery.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.