Nurturing Healthy Boundaries

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As a new therapist, the topic of boundaries is one that I didn’t expect to encounter as much as I
have in my practice. I find that it’s something that we as a society expect should be simple, but the reality is that boundaries can be a challenge for everyone. And because as people, we are constantly changing and evolving, our boundaries are also ever-shifting. In this article, we will explore what healthy boundaries are, why they matter, how trauma impacts the way in which we set boundaries, and how we can cultivate boundaries to prioritize our needs and well-being.

Understanding Healthy Boundaries:

Healthy boundaries act as an invisible force that protects our emotional, mental, and physical
health. They help us form our identities, serving as guidelines that define where we end and
others begin. Boundaries allow us to establish limits on what we are comfortable with, what we
are willing to tolerate, and what we require to maintain our health and well-being.

The Significance of Honoring Your Needs

Honoring your needs is an act of self-care and self-respect. It involves recognizing and
acknowledging your feelings, desires, and limits without guilt or shame. By honoring your needs,
you send a powerful message to yourself and to others that your well-being matters and
deserves attention.

There are many reasons why we may encounter challenges in holding healthy boundaries.
Among other things, boundaries become more complicated to set and maintain if:

  • You have a history of trauma
  • Your trauma is relational in nature
  • You have a desire to please others
  • Your personal boundaries have historically not been respected or acknowledged
  • You fear rejection
  • It has been unsafe for you to hold boundaries
  • You have experienced boundary crossings from a very young age

    It is not uncommon for those who live with unresolved trauma to lack a felt sense of physical or
    emotional safety. Those of us with unprocessed trauma may possess a fractured sense of self-
    worth and a sense of powerlessness. These adaptations can make it more difficult for us to
    establish and maintain our personal values, thoughts, decisions, and beliefs in the future.
    Being aware of and understanding these challenges is a crucial first step toward overcoming
    them and establishing boundaries that are aligned with your authentic self.

Examples of how trauma may affect our ability to establish healthy boundaries

During overwhelming experiences, or when your boundaries have been violated in a traumatic
way, your mind and body are often primarily focused on ensuring your own safety, leaving little
room for vulnerability. As such, you may adaptively learn to conceal your emotions and
suppress your needs, which may lead you to become less aware of your physical and emotional
needs altogether. While this may serve to protect you from real or perceived harm, it may also
sever your connection to self long after the traumatic experience subsides, which can be a hard
pattern to disrupt. The resulting trauma may affect your awareness of your ability or right to
refuse in the future, creating a sense of powerlessness that may lead to feelings of guilt or
shame, as if you should have avoided or prevented the traumatic experience.

In future situations, you may stay quiet when your boundaries are being pushed or crossed,
perhaps preferring to “keep the peace” and experience a little bit of pain in order to avoid
making things worse. Trauma may have caused you to replace a healthy understanding of
yourself and your needs with a new belief that the needs of others are more important than you
are, and that above all, the best course of action is to keep other people happy in order to
“avoid causing problems.” This allows us to circumvent difficult and uncomfortable
conversations, ignoring the ways in which our boundaries have been crossed. This is our past
trauma telling us that speaking up for ourselves just causes more pain.

A natural consequence of betrayal in any sort of relationship is the erosion of trust. This is
particularly significant if you had betrayal-related traumatic experiences in childhood. The loss of
trust could potentially lead to the loss of faith in others, which may lead you to question the
purpose or value of establishing boundaries, as it may seem futile to trust anyone to respect
your boundaries. If this pattern persists, however, things can progress to a point where it
becomes challenging to identify your needs at all.

Setting a boundary can be hard when we’re trying to avoid hurting someone else, but remember
that healthy communication is key and that healthy boundaries are not about building walls; they
are about creating mutually respectful relationships that honor each person’s individuality.
When we are learning to set healthy boundaries with others after trauma, we must be kind to
ourselves and take our time.

Maintaining solid boundaries is an ongoing process for everyone, whether you have
a history of trauma or not. If you’re newer to this, perhaps begin with an area that you feel is
important, and try it on to see what it feels like. When you’ve decided you’re ready to set a limit
for yourself or to say “not today” to someone who may be asking a bit too much of you, then
notice what it feels like when you honor your needs. It could feel strange at first, and that would
make sense if it’s not something you are used to doing. If that’s the case, then take care to remember that if these adaptive patterns weren’t set overnight, they won’t be undone overnight
either. It is a journey that requires self-reflection and self-compassion. It will likely require an
inquiry into and examination of your beliefs, past experiences, and patterns of behavior that may
have hindered the establishment of healthy boundaries. Give yourself a little bit of space to be
wobbly while you explore and work it all out. Try to be gentle and patient with yourself as you
navigate this process and celebrate each. step. forward.

Honoring our needs and priorities can be one of the most liberating things we can do for
ourselves. In doing so we create space for personal growth, maintain healthier relationships,
and cultivate a greater sense of self-respect and fulfillment. It is not an easy task, and will take
time and dedication, but it’s crucial to remember that your needs matter, your boundaries
deserve to be respected, and you have the right to decide and define exactly what those are.

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Margot Greer

Margot worked at CCIH as a clinical intern at the Chicago Center for Integration and Healing for the 2022 – 2023 academic year.

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