I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about boundaries. Simply put, boundaries are limits we set in place to protect ourselves and our uniqueness, that let other people know how we will and will not be treated. (And when we don’t have good boundaries of our own, we tend to trod all over other people’s personal space, ie., be more likely to violate others’ personal boundaries). (For a more detailed explanation of boundaries, you might want to check out this article: http://www.essentiallifeskills.net/personalboundaries.html.)
My childhood experiences in my family taught me, implicitly, that it was unimportant to have boundaries and that my boundaries were not important. During my childhood I took that message in, implicitly. By implicitly, I mean that I didn’t have the words or mental concepts to take in this message about boundaries generally and my boundaries in particular, but it was something that I learned to understand to be true, through my parents’ actions towards me and the consequences of my behaviours.
I would say that children’s boundaries can be violated a little or a lot and in many different ways. In a non-abusive family, there are bound to be some boundary violations, simply because we are human and we learn and grow as we go along. Because I was abused in my family, my own boundaries were violated profoundly.
There are a number of sad things that happen when a person has an implicit understanding that their boundaries are unimportant. Or at least, sad things that I’ve experienced.
One is that I haven’t been great at really knowing what I like, what my passions are. That is sad, because if we don’t know what really floats our boat, then we can’t really be fully ourselves, live fully alive.
My attention in my childhood was gobbled up by my father. I didn’t have much opportunity to explore simply what it was like to be me and to be supported in that by my parents. As I grew older, because I had internalized rigid expectations of myself — and because I was traumatized — I also wasn’t able to or didn’t allow myself much freedom to explore what I liked. Since understanding this about myself — really understanding it, at the level of my body and implicit knowledge and not just something I know as words and a concept in my head — I’ve decided that I’m going to try to do more of that, now.
Part and parcel of knowing what we like is knowing what we don’t like. There’s a trendy saying going around now that is, “If it’s not a hell yes!, then it’s a no.” I’m going to try listening to myself more, and try to base more of my “yes’s” on “hell yes’s!” And, more of my “no’s” on whatever isn’t a “hell yes”. (Not all of them, of course, because obviously there are some things that we have to do.)
Having said all of that, it’s next to impossible to know in your body what you like or don’t like when you’re constantly in survival mode, with PTSD. When the mind is feeling terrorized and the body is in fight, flight or freeze mode, where is the freedom of choice to decide what’s a yes and what’s a no? It takes relaxation and calm in the body and in the mind to really know what you like and don’t like. It takes relaxation and calm, in the body and in the mind, to really know who you are, fully.
I’m only able to consider some of these things now more fully because I’m making progress, a little bit of progress, one day at a time, in my recovery from PTSD.
But my PTSD and flashbacks sometimes teach me about my boundaries.
Take yesterday, for example. Yesterday I had decided in advance that I would do my laundry, which for me means gathering up my stuff and driving into town to the laundromat. My thought was that I would get at this first thing in the morning.
However, when I woke up, I shifted my priorities; I decided I wanted to spend some time reading my book instead.
This simple act of shifting my priorities to reading my book instead of doing my laundry triggered a bad emotional flashback.
Most of me became locked in terror. I was disoriented in time and place; parts of me thought I was back in time in my childhood and in my childhood environment and being abused by my father “for not working hard enough.” (He continually flew into lengthy rages at me — they could last for days — because in some way, shape or form, I wasn’t “doing enough.” Anything could trigger him. He was completely irrational and could not be assuaged from his mission of terrorizing me into abject submission.)
During my flashback, my fear distorted my thinking: I started having thoughts verging on paranoia about what neighbours might think about me if they dropped by my home and noticed I was relaxing when there was work to be done. I started to obsess fearfully about the possibility of receiving a phone call from a company about some forms they need from me. I had to turn off my phone.
I wasn’t able to come out of my flashback yesterday. It lasted for a few hours.
But today, I feel differently. Today, I know, in my mind and in my body, that I have choices.
There are all kinds of reasons why I decided yesterday that I wanted to read my book, not the least of which was because it was enjoyable and relaxing.
But also because (a) I find it therapeutic and it helps me not feel as alone in my situation — it’s a memoir about an individual in an extremely dysfunctional family (b) I’m interested in the writing process and in order to write well you need to read a lot of other good writing; and (c) it’s well written and done with a lot of humour.
But none of those reasons are important, as far as other people go.
What matters is that it was important, to me, to read my book. Having a boundary, an embodied boundary, is knowing — really knowing — that I don’t necessarily need to justify or explain my personal decisions to anyone else.
My decisions are important because they’re mine.
In fact, there is no me, no mine, without boundaries.
My boundaries are and always were important.
No amount of trying to reason with my father back then would have stopped him from abusing me nor would it have made him allow me to read a book if he thought I should have been working or to ask me in a mature and respectful, age-appropriate way to do whatever else he as my parent may have deemed it was important for me to do.
But today, I can talk to my younger self, my younger “parts.” I can help then understand what they never had a chance to learn: You are important. You are unique. You are you.
You have boundaries.
You are beautiful.