Abuse and Boundaries

If we’re abused as children, our personal boundaries are violated in the worst way. Just when we should be learning who we are and how to be safe in the world, we instead learn about being unsafe. And often the perpetrators are the very people who were supposed to take care of us.

This is very confusing for a child, and sets us up for a lifetime of confusion about how to set appropriate boundaries. It could be the boss or co-worker who “just assumes” you’ll do extra work. It could be the father or uncle who keeps making inappropriate remarks. It can be ongoing physical abuse from a spouse or lover. It can be a friend's unreasonable expectations. Those of us who were abused often find it hard to say no or to draw a line.

First I think it’s important to identify and understand what we are feeling. In me, it’s the helpless voice of my inner child that says, “There’s nothing you can do. He’ll get his way. You have no power.” I remember a time when I had obtained a huge grant for my department. A male colleague stepped into my office to ask for money, and as he towered over me, I felt afraid that I’d have to say yes, even though objectively I had the power in that situation. I felt small and shaky inside, although in fact I handled the exchange professionally.

After we identify the old feelings, we can begin to realize that we are no longer powerless and to take the steps to say no.  I start by talking with my inner child and reassuring her that things are different now. However, I’m not saying it’s as easy as a simple inner conversation turning things around. It usually takes the long-term help of a good therapist as well as some serious inner transformation before we can stand up and “just say no” to those who violate our boundaries.

Letting Go of Old Beliefs

I’ve recently been in touch with a very young part of myself. I have an old photo of this infant aged about ten months, with a wonderful, eager expression and bright eyes. She was so willing to meet the world, and so willing to mold herself to parents’ expectations.

When I was born my parents had just moved to a new city, they already had my sister Suzie (who had Down Syndrome), my father hated his job, and my mother was timid and overwhelmed. No space for new demands. I learned to adapt to circumstances, be good, and not express any needs.

All these years later, I’m finally accessing this core of early beliefs. With the help of EMDR and my therapist, I can feel deeply into this infant’s open-eyed being. I need to let go of the belief that I can’t speak up for myself and can’t ask for attention and space in groups. I can feel the strength of the Inner Child’s grip on this belief. She’s very scared to let go of it because she thinks this is the only way to cope. But when I stayed with her fear, something shifted just a bit, and I could see it as her fear.

I try to take this awareness with me into the world and notice how I feel in real-life situations. I’m consciously asserting myself more, bit by bit, and noticing the reactions. I wish I could just blow the old beliefs away with one big breath, but I can’t. So I go step by step.

It feels right to know what’s up with this very young Inner Child and, with all the patience I can muster, to stay with her as things shift.