Also: This discussion may seem to move “backward” as I’m describing boundary violations before I talk about healthy boundaries. The reason for this setup is that I want us all to have a common understanding of what a violation is – and many of us may not even recognize that our boundaries were violated. So we start with a common awareness, and will move to a discussion of healthy boundaries from there.
Ways Our Boundaries Get Broken:
Ignoring someone’s healthy boundaries is a sign of disrespect at the very least and is abusive at the worst. Ignoring someone's boundaries may also be tied to anger, insecurity, substance abuse, or an inability to recognize and respect any boundaries (including their own). Unfortunately there are many, many instances – far too many to list here – when someone’s healthy, human rights and needs have been physically and metaphorically run over.
Child abuse – physical and sexual – are severe, physical boundary violations. Emotional/verbal abuse is a severe psychological boundary violation. These violations *always* traumatize the victim. The level and type of trauma varies, but it is there. Relationship and elder abuse have the same pattern and consequences – the body and the right to control your body is taken from you without your consent, and that is, pure and simple, a violation and abusive. Beyond standard and accepted care issues, any time someone does things to your body without your consent, that is a violation. I’ve heard many people reframe these violations in many terms such as “discipline,” “seduction,” “she wanted it,” “he deserved it,” “she was leading me on,” “I had to bring him in line,” – there are as many excuses for perpetrating violence as there are perpetrators. Beyond the obvious trauma of the physical invasion and violation, there are often long-standing psychological scars and wounds, which are often made worse by further psychological and emotional boundary violations.
Emotional abuse wasn’t even on our “radar” until about 30 years ago. I remember as a child watching one of the first “awareness” public service messages and thinking, “So, THAT’s what it is - that's what's been happening.” Emotional and psychological abuse have been part of the fabric of our families and our society for likely as long as we’ve had families and societies. It’s unfortunate and tragic that some people need to hurt other people – physically or emotionally – but there are people who do that. WHY they do it could be a book, and part of it may be another post entirely, but for now, let’s understand that they do exist.
So, what are these kinds of abuse? Emotional abuse is abuse that focuses on the person’s sense of self, sense of worth, and ability to function as a whole, worthy human being in our world. Comments like “If you’re so smart, why do you do such stupid things?”, “You ruined my life”, or “You’re nothing without me. You’d have nothing if it weren’t for me and you’d fall apart if I weren’t around” all count as emotional abuse. When these are perpetrated over the course time, one’s self-esteem, self-worth, and ability to function independently are compromised. I’m often asked why women who leave partners that batter them tend to go back to those partners…it’s a combination of many factors, but among them is that over time, they’ve come to believe these negative, horrible things about themselves that their partners and/or others have told them. Calling names, refusing to acknowledge your needs or even acknowledge you as a person, or talking to others about your perceived failures – all of these over time leave scars. These scars are on the inside, though, and aren’t easily seen – so we who have them tend to hide them as well as we can.
Many of us were victims of these kinds of abuse when we were children – this abuse was likely perpetrated by someone we should have been able to trust – parents, extended family, teachers, neighbors…and the fact is, we couldn’t trust them. We learned that our needs, our wants, and things important to us didn't matter and that what mattered was the needs and wants of the people who hurt us. As children, we were way more likely to try to please others (“the good child” – If I do what they want, maybe they’ll like/love me and I’ll know what I’ve been doing wrong) or act out (“the bad child” – It doesn’t matter what I say, need, feel, or do because I’m going to get punished one way or another anyway, so I might as well do what I want). There are/were people who fall in the middle, too – trying to look like the “good person” on the outside, but perpetrating themselves or acting out when they think it is safe to do so. These certainly aren’t the ONLY outcomes of childhood abuse – some of us are resilient and survive and thrive anyway. There are always scars though, and being able to recognize, set, and hold to healthy boundaries is one of the most common consequences of these types of violations and abuse.
Not all trauma and/or boundary violations occur in childhood, either…rape, spousal abuse (especially if passively condoned by family members who are aware, or if the abuse has gone on for a long time), other violent crime, other nonviolent crime – Identity theft comes to mind as an example of a crime that can lead to feeling extreme boundary violations. Your very legal life has been hijacked! Military personnel who find themselves in a situation where they must follow orders or risk the consequences associated with not doing so (and they can be very severe, especially the unofficial sanctions) experience boundary violations – their sense of what is right and wrong is overthrown and minimized in the service of the military action or exercise. Elder abuse in care situations also comes to mind, as does harassment in the workplace or being stalked. There are a myriad of situations where our personal boundaries can and are violated.
Cloud and Townsend have a neat way of understanding people with boundary problems – both violators and those whose boundaries have been violated. Their chart is reproduced in the Word file below. They talk about different ways we respond to boundaries - whether or not we can hear "yes" or "no" and whether or not we can say "yes" or "no." This chart is a good way to think about how boundary violations work. Chances are most of us have fallen in one or even more than one of these at one time. I can tell you, I'm a great compliant/avoidant, and it’s taken a LOT of work to become different in that regard. The real problem comes when we’re stuck in one or more of these and are not able to set, maintain, or respect other people’s boundaries.
Ok, now that we have a sense of what it’s like when boundaries are violated, let’s talk about what good boundaries look like. One thing Cloud and Townsend emphasize over and over is knowing where “we” end and where everything else begins. People who violate boundaries don’t get this, and people whose boundaries were violated also have a hard time “getting” this. (I use “getting” to mean a gut-level, emotional AND mental understanding.) A boundary is knowing where *I* end – what I can control, what I can do, how I feel, how I react – and where everything else begins (e.g., what I can’t control, what other people feel, say, or do.) This truth is the essential core of what a boundary is. Again: A boundary is where I end, and everything else begins - it's a rule I set for where I choose to let in or keep out other people or things.
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org