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Reclaim & Recover: Setting Healthy Boundaries

Boundary systems are invisible and symbolic “force fields” that have three purposes: 1) to keep people from coming into our spaces and abusing us, 2) to keep us from going into the spaces of others and abusing them, and 3) to give each of us a way to embody our sense of “who we are”. --- Pia Mellody

Once we have begun to self-esteem and affirm our own value, we have to have boundaries in place to protect and respect the valuable person we are. Trauma and heartbreak can result in skewed boundaries. When we believe we have no value, our boundaries may become completely permeable. Conversely, our boundaries may become completely impenetrable as a way to protect ourselves from further pain. Sometimes we move between the two extremes, vacillating back and forth between permeable and impenetrable boundaries.

Here’s what this looked like in my own life. After the assault in college, I didn’t understand what healthy boundaries were anymore. I felt like I could not protect myself and I felt that I no longer deserved to have boundaries in place to protect my body because my purity had been compromised. There was no longer anything valuable to protect. When I got married this was disastrous for physical intimacy. Any physical touch was tremendously triggering. My body was so afraid that I could not protect myself that I began to just freeze anytime I thought sex was on the table. My body tensed, my hands clenched, I squeezed my eyes shut and I froze. I had no understanding how to negotiate healthy physical boundaries with a partner so I locked my husband out.

This constant feeling of fear continued after my divorce and my boundaries went from impenetrable to completely permeable. I was listening to that shame mantra of being a worthless failure. I didn’t feel deserving of respect or protection because I was dirty and used. This translated into indiscriminate hookups. I wasn’t personally interested in sex; it felt dangerous and scary and violating but I felt like that was all I was good for so I put myself in situations that reinforced the idea that I was a worthless failure. I was so afraid of being hurt again that it felt easier to plan it so that at least I was in control of the hurt somehow. At the same time, I completely shut out healthy relationships because I was so afraid of being rejected. I stopped talking to old friends and made no effort to make new ones. I protected myself within the walls of my apartment where I could be alone and safe.

When I finally got tired of this sad story of a sad, lonely girl with no value, I had to start setting healthy boundaries. I needed boundaries that let safe people in to provide care, support and joy and to keep out those who did not affirm my value. I also needed boundaries that governed my behavior so that I was protecting and respecting others. I stopped putting myself in situations that were painful and scary and that triggered shame. I stopped accepting messages that taught me that my value was defined by my purity. I started reaching out to safe people for support and reaching out to new people to build friendships, I started sticking up for myself, I started walking away from toxic relationships, I started being intentional about showing others care and respect and I even started managing my time in a way that worked best for me.

When we lack boundaries we feel disempowered because the world is acting upon us and we have no control. Building boundaries around our external and internal worlds helps us take back control. When something is happening that is painful or disrespectful or otherwise damaging, boundaries give us a framework in which to say "No" and walk away. Healthy boundaries also give us a framework in which to assess people and situations for safety. With healthy boundaries we let healthy people and information into our lives to bolster our strength and our resilience.

Healthy boundaries are a critical part of reclaiming our value and recovering our identity. Unhealthy boundaries reinforce our shame mantras while healthy boundaries challenge those negative views about ourselves and affirm our value. Healthy boundaries help facilitate healthy vulnerability. External boundaries help us define the level of closeness we want with other people based on who they are and what role they play in our lives. Internal boundaries help us manage what information to internalize and what information to release. With healthy external and internal boundaries, we build credibility with ourselves as we learn to advocate for ourselves and learn to treat others with that same respect. Unhealthy boundaries keep us stuck in the muck because we are continuously re-triggered, re-injured and re-affirming negative beliefs about ourselves. Healthy boundaries help us move forward because we are protecting and valuing ourselves.

Journal prompt:

· We have to begin behaving like we are valuable and healthy boundaries help us do that. A good way to begin setting healthy boundaries to protect and respect ourselves is to ask “does this person/thing/activity affirm my value?”

a. Are your boundaries permeable or impenetrable or both?

b. Do the people in your life affirm your value?

c. Does the way you behave affirm your value?

d. In what ways do you need to adjust your boundaries?

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