Boundaries and Identity in Trauma Healing
Boundaries. That’s a hard word for many people to hear, understand, and integrate. This is especially so when one is healing from trauma and attempting to reclaim, rediscover, and redevelop an empowered sense of identity.
This blog will take a look at what boundaries mean in healing during the victim phase of post traumatic healing.
First, let’s get a working definition of “boundary.” This word can evoke ideas of territory, rigidity, and impermeability. Sometimes, the idea of a boundary feels more about what we are keeping out than what we are keeping safe. In this context, we are talking primarily about emotional and psychological boundaries. What that means is simply a way of holding thoughts, space, and feelings in a way that promotes a sense of sanctuary, predictability, consistency, and protection.
In the context of trauma healing, it’s important to help victims identify what will feel not only safe, but what will extend the sustainability of safety.
Victim Thinking Characteristics
Victim thinking is more of a mindset in which a person attempts to regain equilibrium, safety and a sense of stability. Sometimes, this can begin to look like rigidity, controlling behaviors, and fear of any unknowns at all. It is important to note this is NOT negative. Often, people will hear that this is the time to choose to rise up, however, that diminishes all the important release work that needs to happen here. Victims get to be victims - meaning this is the time to honor fears, rage, sorrow, resentment, hurt and pain. There is a time that this mindset will begin to shift, and that signals an important change in the release of emotions to an action phase of healing. That is when a survivor mindset is born. In the meantime, moving through the pain requires a different kind of safety mindset.
So what might victims need most in the context of boundaries?
To feel safe, initial boundaries need to provide an internal sanctuary and an external buffer. There may be certain people they need to keep a distance from, and it may not be obvious people. Here is where secondary wounding dynamics may show up. For example, a victim may feel the need to set emotional and physical boundaries around people whom they perceive as being unsupportive or unhelpful.
Other boundaries may include making conscious choices around activities that may overwhelm them, saying no to invitations, and setting a very predictable and protected routine. From a spiritual standpoint, some boundaries may be the addition of rituals and prayer or meditation routines that a person may feel a strong need to complete daily, to the dismissal of other opportunities. All of these are boundaries intended to protect their peace, or their ability to access peace.
How does that fit with identity?
For victims, most of the world, the way they see it, and how they see themselves becomes altered. Boundary support here should include activities and interventions that promote 1) What remains the same about their core self, 2) What they know is true about their core personality, no matter what (kind, creative, etc.), 3) What things bring them back to their core.
Setting gentle boundaries while a person is in this phase of healing will aid them in the renewal of their identity in survivor and thriverhood.
How does that look with relationships?
Identity in relationships often becomes distorted and uncertain, especially to someone who is in this phase of healing. If who I was is no longer, who am in my relationships? If I don’t know who I am right now, how do I love that person? And if I don’t love that person, how do I know what to protect? While the healing process is underway and a person is reclaiming and resetting, their identity in relationships may need to focus on 1) Understanding more of the current version of self, 2) Offering mindful self-compassion to that self, and 3) Discovering peaceful ways of speaking their current truth to others.
The topic of boundaries in healing is rich and deep. Ultimately, helping set boundaries will encourage the capacity to access post traumatic growth factors, develop a resilient mindset, and create a wider space for a person to safely release emotions while simultaneously understanding longer-term impacts on identity.