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Setting Boundaries can be Difficult with a History of Trauma

Updated: Feb 28

Image by luxstorm from Pixabay

When you are recovering from trauma in your past, it can be difficult learning how to assert yourself and set boundaries to protect your mental health and safety. You may find yourself feeling unsafe in situations that don't disturb other people. It can feel impossible to say no when you have been taught all your life to be a people pleaser.

Learning to set healthy boundaries for yourself in your relationships is an important step towards healing from trauma. This can prevent you from getting into similar situations again where you are setting yourself up to get hurt. You can learn to recognize red flags earlier, and to protect your mental health.

Breaking free from harmful relationships that may have contributed to trauma and PTSD helps you to take back control of your life. But when you first start to assert boundaries, it can feel strange. You may not think you deserve to set boundaries, or to be able to tell people no. This is uncharted territory for those of us who grew up with narcissistic abuse or other childhood trauma.

Your needs matter

The first step towards being able to set healthy boundaries with others is recognizing that your needs matter as much as anyone else's. It is your job to take care of yourself, and to keep yourself safe. You deserve to have relationships where you are treated with kindness, love and respect.

It can be difficult to acknowledge that you are a person who deserves to have their needs met. According to Tiny Buddha,

Most of the time, the thought of saying no—to friends, family, lovers, and colleagues—simply didn’t enter my mind space. No matter how uncomfortable or unsafe I felt, the only future that felt available to me was one in which I pleased the offending person and later felt victimized and resentful.
Other times, when I felt brave enough to simply entertain the notion of saying no, I felt a heaviness in my chest and a closing in my throat. The words literally couldn’t escape my mouth.

If you have been through trauma, the thought of standing up for yourself may never even enter your mind. You may put your needs so far on the back burner that you are completely out of touch with what they are. Often, it can take something drastic happening in our lives for us to be able to realize that we deserve the same love and care that we naturally give to others.

For me, a turning point came when I decided to leave the relationship with my ex-husband. It was our 10th anniversary, and I didn't want to celebrate. All I could think was, "I don't want to spend another 10 years being this miserable." I began to entertain the thought that maybe I deserved to be happy.

I had joined a band, and he wanted me to quit. He said it was taking up too much time. In the past, there were other things I had given up for him. Getting a Master's degree, working on a political campaign, my goals, my friends, my sleep. I realized, it was time for me to finally put my foot down. I wasn't going to quit. I wasn't going to give up my dreams again to stay miserable.

So I left. I decided to try life on my own, and to meet my own needs for the first time. I made a decision that my happiness mattered, and I wasn't going to let other people stand in the way of that anymore.

Leaving wasn't easy, and my messy divorce took over a year to complete. However, the idea that I was a worthwhile person who deserved something good out of life was the beginning of a transformation, and the start of my healing journey.

Wherever you are in life, you can decide to take your power back, even if you have spent your whole life giving it away the way that I did. Today can be the day that you decide your needs matter. You can decide to take charge of your own happiness, and take all of your life decisions out of the hands of other people.

It isn't going to be easy, and people pleasing tendencies and limiting beliefs are still going to pop up. Whether you are leaving a job, relationship, family or other situation that is harming you, believing in yourself and your worth is the first step.

Setting Boundaries

Boiled down to its simplest essence, setting boundaries means saying no to anything that disturbs your peace. You get to decide what you do or don't want to do. You get to decide how you will allow others to treat you. You get to decide what type of actions are deal breakers in your relationships. Then, you get to start saying no.

Remember, "No." is a complete sentence.

You don't have to explain or justify your reasoning to anyone else. You have agency and autonomy as a person, and you get to decide how you want your life to be. Just the fact that something or someone isn't serving to create good in your life is enough of a reason to say no. And, "I don't feel like it" is a valid reason. If something doesn't feel good to you or align with your values, you can say no.

According to Northside Psychology, here are 10 ways to start setting healthy boundaries after trauma:

  1. Understand Your Personal Limits

  2. Clearly Define Your Boundaries

  3. Communicate Assertively

  4. Consistency is Key

  5. Practice Self-Compassion

  6. Seek Support When Needed

  7. Prepare for Pushback

  8. Give Yourself Permission to Adjust

  9. Reflect on Your Relationships

  10. Celebrate Your Progress

When you have been through trauma, you may have either the tendency to hold people at arm's length and push them away, or to do whatever other people ask you. Personally, I fluctuate between the two extremes, which can make relationships difficult. After trauma, you are learning to redefine safety for yourself, and learning to set healthy boundaries is key.

In order to start forming boundaries, you can journal and reflect on what you want your relationships to look like. Decide what is most important for you to feel safe in a relationship. Then, you can begin to communicate your needs to the people in your life.

Being able to communicate assertively can be difficult for those of us with a trauma history. However doing so can help to improve our communication, relationships, and allow us to assert our boundaries.

Once you set a boundary, it is important to enforce it consistently. Otherwise, people are still going to walk all over you. Whether it is a decision to end a visit or phone call if someone is speaking to you in an abusive manner, make sure that you stick to your decision and do what you have said you will.

It can be extremely helpful to work with a professional like a therapist, life coach or psychiatrist as you are going through this process for the first time. They can provide you with feedback in situations where you feel unsure, and help you feel safe and supported, and like you are making the right decisions.

When you first start to assert boundaries, people in your life are likely to push back because they benefitted from your lack of boundaries. These are likely people who have taken advantage of you in the past. Make sure that you stay firm, and walk away from a situation if it escalates. Keeping yourself safe is always the priority!

Learning to set boundaries in a healthy can be very difficult, and sometimes a situation may not go as planned. You may cave in to pressure to do something you don't want to in order to keep the peace, or react explosively to protect yourself. This is normal, and the more you practice, the better you will get at expressing yourself assertively.

If there are relationships where your boundaries are continuously being disrespected, even if you express them numerous times, you may want to consider if these relationships are unhealthy to continue. In some cases, you may want to reduce or discontinue contact from some people.

Every time you successfully maintain a boundary, be sure to celebrate the win. This is something that was likely difficult to do, and you made it! Do something good for yourself, and acknowledge that you are making progress towards healthier relationships!

You are learning and growing

When you first start to set boundaries, it can feel extremely difficult and frightening. For those of us with a history of trauma, it can be extremely anxiety-inducing, and make you feel full of panic the first few times you try to do this. Saying no is hard when you have always said yes in the past.

It is normal to be afraid of what will happen when you say no to someone. You can rehearse what you will say beforehand in therapy, or by saying things over to yourself in the mirror. To reduce your anxiety, you can also make a plan of how you will exit a situation safely if someone has an explosive reaction.

You can ask a trusted friend or family member to go with you if you are afraid of what will happen. Or, you can ask someone to come in to therapy with you to discuss things with the therapist to mediate. If you are in a high conflict situation like a divorce, you can also get legal council to assist you, or request a victim advocate.

Every situation is unique and different, and maintaining physical and emotional safety is very important. Give yourself some grace if you go back to reacting the way you did in the past when you are feeling threatened.

To prepare yourself for the most difficult situations, practice saying no in situations where the stakes are low. This can be saying no to a night out with friends, a second helping of dinner, or something else where you aren't likely to get push back. By saying no more often, it strengthens your confidence to do it when stakes are higher.

Boundaries help to keep you safe

As you begin to develop healthy boundaries with others, you will be able to keep yourself safe in your relationships. This allows you to have a greater sense of self confidence and autonomy. It allows your nervous system to relax, and come out of survival mode. Your anxiety and hypervigilance may reduce as well.

According to Very Well Health,

When Unhealthy Boundaries Become Abusive

This behavior is not healthy and may cross the line into abuse:

  • Violating your physical safety

  • Exerting excessive control of your life

  • Constantly scaring you

  • Being hyper-controlling and preventing you from doing reasonable things you'd like to do

  • Forcing you to do things you don't want to

If you are currently in a relationship where your partner is, or if you or someone you care about is being abused, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788.

You always deserve to feel safe. If someone is threatening you in any way, it is important to seek out help. Calling the Domestic Violence Hotline is a good start, and they can help you with safety planning and learning how to exit a relationship that is dangerous for you. If you are in physical danger, you can also call your local emergency number for police assistance. No one should have to live in fear!

Once you have found a safe place to call home, setting proper boundaries can help you for the rest of your life. This can prevent you from getting into unsafe relationships again in the future. For those of us who have been through trauma, this is a huge step towards creating a better future!

If you have questions you would like me to answer, leave me a note in the comments! I am happy to write more to address your needs in a future blog post.

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