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Boundaries after Trauma

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

A boundary is an imaginary line that separates each of us from another person. We have physical boundaries, sexual boundaries, and internal boundaries.

The purpose of boundaries is to keep us feeling safe and protected. 

Boundaries are not walls. Boundaries are flexible, and within our control to move as we wish.

If we have no boundaries then we allow people too far into our world when we don’t really want them there - and/or, we have the propensity to walk over other people. If we have rigid walls instead of boundaries, then we prevent anyone from getting close to us, or us to them.

If we have suffered any type of trauma, either Big T or Little t, then we will have had our boundaries violated. If this trauma occurred either when we were very young, or very often - or both, then due to our boundaries having been violated, we will have learned that it is ok to have our boundaries violated: it will feel like our “normal” to have a weak or rigid boundary system. Consequently we will then struggle to set or keep appropriate boundaries as an adult. 

For example, if we are sexually abused as a child, there will be a part of us that doesn’t understand appropriate sexual boundaries. We may allow people to have sex with us when deep down we don’t really want to be having sex (inability to set sexual boundaries with others). Or we might be promiscuous, even though a part of us does not want this (inability to set sexual boundaries within ourselves). We might also be frigid, not feeling safe enough to allow sexual intimacy because our boundaries need to be rigid, keeping people out, in order that we feel safe.

If we were controlled as a child, we might succumb to a level of passivity as an adult, allowing people to take advantage of us and feeling unable to say no to others’ demands; in other words, unable to set boundaries as to how we are controlled by others. If we were given whatever we wanted as a child, we might not be able to hear other people when they set boundaries because we are so accustomed to getting our own way and have done since our brains were still elastic pre the age of 7. 

If we felt abandoned as a child, or rejected, we will find it very hard to say “no” to people in adult life, because underneath will be a fear that we will be abandoned and rejected again. So we will say yes too much, we will people-please, we might be a doormat: all of these are signs of a weak boundary system. Or, we might be so rigid with our boundaries that we do not allow people to love us or take care of us because it does not feel safe enough to allow them to do this – because it didn’t feel safe enough when we were little. All of these are signs of not having a healthy boundary system. 

If we were regularly shamed as a child, we will feel like something is wrong with us in our core. Here we will have trouble setting external boundaries, but we will also have trouble with internal boundaries. It is likely that whenever someone is hard on us as an adult, we will be triggered into our self-loathing that is a result of our shaming, and we will judge and criticise ourselves as a result “I must be wrong”. This shows an inability to set internal boundaries - in other words whether I take in what you say to me about me, or whether I block it because what you have said actually says more about you than about me. Again here, we might also have wall-like boundaries preventing anyone from getting too close.

Any type of trauma, either Big T or developmental trauma, results in a boundary violation by the perpetrator. And if our boundaries are violated as a child, then we won’t understand how to set appropriate boundaries as an adult; we might not even understand what boundaries are.

One of the greatest joys in the work I do, is watching people strengthen from their core as they heal, and seeing how for the first time in their life they are starting to set healthy boundaries with others who in the past they have allowed to walk all over them. And, they begin to be able to keep other people’s boundaries without taking it personally.

This new ability to keep themselves safe and protected in exactly the way that they wish to allows them to shine even brighter. 

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