Boundaries and PTSD: Why You Need Them, How to Set Them
For those of us living with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), setting boundaries is crucial. Crucial, but also difficult. Trauma survivors with PTSD are commonly plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness, which can make the idea of standing up and setting boundaries feel futile or terrifying. It gets especially difficult when people don't respect those PTSD-related boundaries, which is a pretty common experience. Boundaries are broken, forgotten, or ignored all the time. Having to set--and then later repeat--your personal boundaries is exhausting. Living with PTSD makes setting boundaries imperative.
Why Is Setting Boundaries for PTSD Sufferers So Important?
Boundaries are important in PTSD recovery for a number of reasons. First and foremost, trauma represents a transgression of personal boundaries even if the trauma was not interpersonal. If it was the result of a natural disaster, for example, your personal boundaries were still violated. We tend to think of boundary violations as intentional acts committed by other people. Sexual assault is an example of a boundary violation that is committed by another person. But even if your body is pushed down during a tsunami, your boundaries were transgressed. You were robbed of your personal autonomy and forced into a terrifying situation. Your boundaries weren't crossed by a sentient being who intended to harm you, but that doesn't change your personal experience. After experiencing a trauma that made you feel helpless, the ability to set your own boundaries and see them respected becomes essential.
Boundaries also take on heightened significance for people with PTSD because they challenge the negative assumptions trauma survivors often form about themselves. For me, a physical and sexual abuse survivor, my early recovery was marked by a feeling like I didn't deserve to be respected or valued. My desires and personal space were violated so often and for so long that I began to believe that reality was my status quo. Even now, 10 years after the end of my abusive relationship, I catch myself sometimes allowing other people to dictate my experiences based on their desires instead of my own. Setting clear boundaries with myself and with others is a solid way for me to combat these self-doubting tendencies.
How to Set Boundaries When PTSD Is Your Struggle
Okay, so now we understand why boundaries are so important for those of us living with PTSD. How do we actually go about setting them? Setting boundaries is something I struggled with for years. Only recently have I felt like I'm starting to get the hang of it. For a long while, I didn't set boundaries. If I felt uncomfortable in a situation, I just dealt with it. This put me in some pretty compromising and potentially dangerous situations in my early 20s. It was not a healthy way to go about life. I wasn't acting that way out of recklessness, I just genuinely did not know how to stand up for myself or believe that I was even worth the effort of figuring it out.
Eventually, that changed. I moved into a different phase of my PTSD recovery, one that was marked by intense, broiling, self-righteous anger--I wanted my abuser to suffer. I could not stand feeling as though I'd been wronged in any way. I still don't like feeling like I've been treated unjustly, but I'm getting better at identifying when I am being truly wronged, or when someone has just made a mistake. When I was in that super angry phase, I set boundaries alright, but I was overly aggressive about it. While I'd been overly timid in the past, during this phase, I blew up on people. It was as though I expected them to magically know my personal boundaries before ever expressing them; and when these people did something to infringe upon my boundaries, I yelled about it. That's not appropriate either. Some boundaries are obvious and universal, like basic sexual and physical autonomy, but individual boundaries differ and yelling at people for not psychically knowing yours is not a fair or viable form of boundary-setting.
I've found it works best to be direct, firm, and polite when setting boundaries. A simple way to accomplish this is by talking about your own feelings, rather than pointing to another person's behavior as the problem (unless pointing out his or her behavior is unavoidable). For example, I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and he began talking about a popular addiction recovery group whose beliefs I don't agree with. Normally, I can handle people talking about things I don't agree with, but at that moment I was dealing with a particularly stressful family matter, and the controversy raised by this topic incited some intense anxiety in me. So I said to my friend, "I'm feeling some anxiety about this topic. Could we talk about something else?"
I didn't blame him for bringing up the subject; instead, I acknowledged that the issue was my personal anxiety and asked in a direct but polite manner to talk about something different. Guess what happened? He shrugged and started talking about something else.
It can be a little uncomfortable to be intentionally direct at the start, but I promise it's worth it--and it gets easier the more you do it.
When People Disrespect Your PTSD-Related Boundaries
An uncomfortable truth that all humans have to face is that fact that sometimes our boundaries are not respected by the people in our lives. Sometimes that is intentional. A mugger who pushes his victim to the ground and snatches her bag is intentionally violating her obvious, personal boundaries. A schoolyard bully who keeps calling another kid by a nickname he stated he dislikes is purposefully ignoring his set boundaries. An older sister who keeps trying to set her younger sister up with a guy she doesn't like is ignoring her expressed boundaries, even if her intentions are loving.
Often, people violate boundaries unintentionally. People are preoccupied with their own issues. A friend may be so engaged in a debate you're having that he doesn't realize you need to end the conversation. A co-worker might be too stressed by a deadline to remember that you asked him not to walk into your office without knocking. There are myriad reasons why people disrespect clear boundaries and many of them are benign. That doesn't change how it affects you, though. If you have PTSD, boundary violations can be extremely stressful.
If you think someone has disrespected your boundaries unintentionally, it's worth giving her a chance to correct the behavior. Set the boundary again. Try using different language; maybe what you said previously wasn't as clear as you thought it was. You don't owe anybody an explanation as to why you want your boundaries respected, but if you think this person is violating your boundaries accidentally, helping her to better understand the importance of your request could help the mistake from repeating. For example, "Being touched is triggering for me. I know you don't mean harm, but please do not touch my arm when we talk."
It's up to you whether you feel comfortable providing an explanation or not. It could be helpful, but if it makes you uncomfortable, just repeat your boundary without the explanation. It also helps to remind yourself that you are safe and in charge of your body.
If you think someone is intentionally violating your boundaries, or if you've asked again and again and he's still not getting it, then it's time to walk away. That can mean physically or figuratively. I had a friend recently continue to push a text debate I was too distressed to engage in. I repeatedly told him that I didn't have the energy to debate and needed to end the conversation, but he kept nitpicking over little things I'd said. Eventually, I physically walked away from my phone so that I wouldn't continue to see the texts. I could have also blocked him if leaving my phone wasn't an option.
My friend eventually apologized once he realized that he made me feel disrespected. But some people won't ever apologize, those are the people to cut from your life (How to Cope with Toxic People in Your Life). If you know someone who repeatedly disrespects your boundaries and shows no signs of caring, it may be time to walk away from that relationship for good. If it's someone you can't leave, like a boss or co-worker, report them to the proper authorities if you can, and try to limit contact with him as much as possible.
Boundaries are important in PTSD recovery. Surrounding yourself with supportive people who respect your boundaries is essential to the healing process.
Brico, E. (2018, June 13). Boundaries and PTSD: Why You Need Them, How to Set Them, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, August 7 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2018/6/boundaries-and-ptsd-why-you-need-them-how-to-set-them
Author: Elizabeth Brico
Wow, I have been looking for an explanation like this for a long time!
I had not made the connection between PTSD and my "skill gap", as I have termed it, in setting boundaries.
Thank you for writing this.
Thank you very much for this!