Boundaries are different for each individual and depend only upon being in touch with yourself and honouring your own inner peace above all other considerations.
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If you were dependent on narcissistic caregivers in your developmental years, or you experienced prolonged and severe abuse as an adult, you have learned that you have no right to personal boundaries. You have spent years where consensus reality was a battleground in which your subjectivity was not allowed and your personhood was quashed. The narcissist was everything and you were reduced to a false constricted reaction to their towering I. You learned to negate yourself. You likely have the following characteristics which until addressed will invite more abusive people and situations into your life:
Muted awareness of your own feelings – Little attention is paid to your own feelings. They are treated as suspect or are muted such that they barely register in your awareness. At other times they spin out of control after being repressed for so long.
Dissociative response to stress – in stressful situations you respond by repressing your feelings even further and dissociating from them entirely maintaining an outer demeanour of inappropriate calm, which is the underlying mechanism responsible for the following point
Freeze response to stress – if someone violates your boundaries you freeze in an attempt to disappear from the situation while remaining physically present.
Fawn response to stress – you inappropriately try to please even when you on some level know that you are not acting in alignment with yourself.
Flight response to stress – at other times you avoid interaction altogether bypassing the problem of needing to decide what to let in and what to keep out.
Lay down and die/sue the bastards – vacillation between the previous responses and aggressive imposition of boundaries (fight response) that are inappropriately rigid arising from frustration at repeated victimisation. Overly rigid boundaries are the flipside of the preceding strategies.
Neurotic naivety – you make excuses as to why you should tolerate the internal discomfort caused when someone violates your boundary creating a narrative as to why this person really means well. This echos the good parent narrative that a narcissistic caregiver demanded from you while being simultaneously abusive.
Chameleon like social masks – your abuse training has conditioned you to experience yourself as a gratifying object of the other. Rather than the mask of sanity of an abuser this is a reflexive response which enables you to hide in the presence of others but in reality is a dysfunctional form of control to avoid victimisation.
A useful reframe of the situation is that through negation of ourselves, we ourselves are responsible for the boundary violation. The boundary violation happens when we feel the discomfort but continue interacting with this person anyway and fail to set a limit with them. Anytime you ignore your own feelings or intuition you are violating one of your boundaries. We then engage in dysfunctional coping strategies to avoid the real issue that we are not acting in integrity with ourselves. Ironically, fear of being overwhelmed by other and having ourselves annihilated again as we have experienced in the past gives rise to the very circumstances where we risk inviting the enemy in at the gate.
Your intuition is there to keep you safe. There is nothing wrong with your intuition. On the contrary it functions perfectly only you have learned to ignore it. You either suppress awareness of what is right in front of you or you inhabit your mind creating narratives which justify what you gut feeling tells you is wrong. Your intuition arises from the most powerful part of your being. This intuitive knowing cannot be fooled by the appearance of things and does not undo itself through the contortions of the rational mind. All that is necessary is that we tune in, listen and act in accordance with this more powerful inner knowing.
To tune into our intuition which already functions correctly and become centred in our own subjectivity we need to take care of ourselves. We need to quiet our anxiety and mental noise and get used to the feeling of peace, so that we will know when our inner peace has been disturbed. We need to learn to listen in to the signs our bodies and hearts provide guiding us towards what is good for us. This is not being selfish. This is tuning into our authentic essence so that we can be authentic with others.
To tune into ourselves and honour our own inner world we can work on the following areas:
- Become aware of your own inner world – this is an important first step. Establishing a mindfulness practice is useful here. Learn to regularly tune into your bodily sensations and watch as thoughts, feelings and images arise and pass away. As Thich Nhat Hanh says “the territory is vast” and you need to become familiar with it. You may notice that you’re breathing is shallow, you carry around a huge amount of tension in your body and have a constant sinking feeling which is actually fear and shame centred in your chest. You may have become so used to being in a state of hyperarousal that you no longer even notice. The flipside of this unrelenting hyperarousal is depression. The first step is to start to pay attention regularly and you will notice that even the act of bringing the attention inwards eventually brings relaxation.
- Do things for yourself that increase your sense of peace – this usually means slowing down and taking time to notice the small wonders that surround you in the present moment. Try to be completely present in the moment when you are engaging in your enjoyable activity and crucially notice how you feel. Perhaps this involves taking a walk in nature, enjoying a bath, going swimming or doing some gardening. Whatever activity appeals make sure it requires you to inhabit the present moment. Buddhist masters assert that even the washing up can be an act of mindfulness! When increasing your sense of peace the most important factor is to inhabit the present moment. Notice how you feel. You are establishing a baseline against which to more easily notice when your peace has been disturbed by a boundary violation.
- Increase your sense of yourself as a subject – this means identifying your own wants, desires, values and characteristics and accepting and valuing them. Your sense of identity may have been so thoroughly undermined that this is a very difficult exercise for you. A very good resource is the Questionnaire Centre on the “Authentic Happiness” website from the University of Pennsylvania. The Survey of Character Strengths is a good place to start.
- Stay away from problematic people – if possible at first stay away from people who cause you stress. They will only disrupt your process of tuning into your inner world and increasing your sense of peace.
- Reengage and practice boundaries – when you have steadied yourself and are making progress with self-care, attempt to reengage. The moment you feel that your sense of peace is disturbed or that someone has diminished you in some way set a boundary. Calmly correct them, tell them “no” or excuse yourself from their presence. A smiling no is the quickest way to root out a problematic character. If someone has a problem with this then they are potentially dangerous. This phase is difficult because you lack practice and don’t know what to expect. In addition, the people surrounding you are likely to be manipulators and disordered characters who will not easily accept a boundary being imposed. If possible get away from those people. Healthy people will accept your boundaries.
It takes time to learn this and you will go forwards and backwards. You may need to make very difficult decisions about whether to end relationships. It is an on-going process. The most important and difficult part is tapping into how you actually feel and increasing your baseline sense of peace so that you more easily recognise transgressions. The feeling of peace can either be bolstered by setting boundaries that are in alignment with your authentic self or it can be shattered in an instant when someone invites you to step out of integrity and the old sense of shame takes hold. At a certain point you become unwilling to let people undo all your hard work and no longer want to let go of the peaceful feeling you have cultivated. At this point, setting boundaries becomes easier and easier.