Practicing Boundaries After Trauma

stop walking

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Boundaries take practice, especially when you have a history of trauma. Being a survivor of abuse can make the inner alarm bells malfunction — they either don’t go off at all because mistreatment has been normalized, or they go off at the slightest whiff of something that reminds you of a past traumatic experience.

This can make it extremely difficult to establish and maintain healthy boundaries.

Examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Saying no to something without explaining your reasons why
  • Asking someone to stop doing something that bothers you
  • Canceling plans when you are too tired or overwhelmed to socialize
  • Taking a step back from intimacy in a relationship

These seem like they’re easy, but a history of abuse can make them seem insurmountably difficult. Complex PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can turn simple boundary setting into an exercise in self-loathing and self-sabotage.

You feel like you’re being difficult for no reason and that by saying no, you’re going to make everyone hate you and it will be all your fault.

It sucks. It is hard. It is painful.

And you have to keep practicing. 

I got a message over the weekend asking me out for lunch. It was a perfectly polite message, very complimentary, and I felt warmly about being asked out. But I wasn’t feeling a dating vibe with this particular person and I confess that I panicked for a moment. How do I say no? There’s no real “reason” to say no!

Not feeling enthusiastic about something is enough of a reason to say no.

The idea of a date wasn’t sparking joy for me, and it took me a moment to breathe and realize that this was just a conversation with an acquaintance and not a life and death situation. I wrote back to her and said thank you but I am not interested in a date. And she said that was totally fine and then we talked about a party she was throwing. It was a complete non-issue.

You’re allowed to say no when you’re just not feeling something. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and you don’t owe people a yes when you’d rather say no.

The fear: Saying no will make them hate you.

The reality: If it does, that’s pretty messed up and definitely not your problem.

I also canceled a date over the weekend because I just wanted to lay in bed and be lazy. That was totally okay too. (Side note: dating is exhausting, and my energy to do it waxes and wanes faster than the moon).

You are in charge of who is around you and how you spend your time.

What about when you do want to spend time with someone and your anxiety tells you THEY don’t want to hang out with YOU? 

Recently, the little voice in my brain decided that I needed to put some boundaries in place with a friend because he didn’t actually care about me and it was all a game. I was being toyed with. I was a punchline. Ha ha, who wants to be friends with sad traumatized Caitlin?

When someone is important to you, anxious traumatic patterns will convince you that they’re not safe (just like before!), so you protect yourself from future heartbreak by ending things ASAP. Constant self-sabotage is the name of the game when you’ve been raised with love and abuse as two sides of the same coin.

I wrote a very polite message to my friend, explaining that I needed to take a step back from our relationship because I felt like my mental health was at risk.

He responded by telling me that my mental health came first and he would respect what I needed to do. He asked if I would like to talk about it and we talked out what the little chattering weasels in my brain were saying. He gave me the safe space to get out all of my anxieties and fears. He responded with reassurance and kindness.

Oh. I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Thanks a lot, brain weasels. 

The huge, glaring, neon sign of difference between my relationship with this friend and my relationship with my abuser: My abuser told me that I was responding to an imaginary villain version of him in my head and that he’d never do something to make me feel that way — completely invalidating my fears and telling me they were made up. It’s not safe to express discomfort to a person who tells you your discomfort isn’t real.

My friend took my concerns seriously, let me talk openly about my fears, validated my feelings, and worked through the anxious spiral with me. We came out the other side of the experience feeling closer to each other, and I felt safe and seen and valued.

The fear: Talking about my trauma will make people think I’m too much work and I should just stay quiet and never be open about it.

The truth: The only way for me to keep learning that it’s safe to talk about my fears with people is to talk about my fears with people.

Moral of the story: Boundaries (and healing) take work. But it’s worth it. 

Read more from me!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a five star review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

I’ve also set up a Patreon page which will get sneak peeks of upcoming topics, an opportunity for you to suggest topics, and additional Patron-only bonus content. Check it out, Patron levels start at just $1 per month to help support my writing.

 

 

A breakup doesn’t mean you failed

broken heart string

When you’re deeply committed to someone, the end of that relationship can be devastating. Whether it’s a romantic relationship, friendship, or even removing a family member from your life — breaking up is hard. But it doesn’t mean you’ve failed at anything.

I reject the notion that a relationship that doesn’t last a lifetime is a failure.

Breaking up isn’t failure, it’s acknowledging that something isn’t working for one or more people. I used to believe I had two failed marriages, but really I had two examples of putting myself first and realizing that I wasn’t obligated to stay unhappy for the sake of other people.

People are constantly learning and growing and developing – especially people with mental health struggles. To be able to say, “I can’t be in this relationship because it’s hurting me” is a huge thing. It is something to be proud of. It is not a moral failure, even if there is pain involved. 

Here are some reasons I have had breakups:

  • I was deeply unhappy in the relationship and felt incompatible with my partner
  • I was demanding more respect and consideration than I was giving in return (yeah, this was the time somebody broke up with me — for very good reason)
  • An abusive third party convinced me my partner was toxic to me to isolate me
  • My partner was abusive
  • My partner had a meltdown every time I tried to express a boundary or concern
  • My partner could not support my recovery from an eating disorder and lost sexual interest in me when I gained weight
  • My partner said something negative and judgmental about people who aren’t ready to leave abusive relationships and broke my trust

Love isn’t all you need

Just loving someone does not mean you need to stay with that person. You can love an abuser. You can love your parents when they are unkind and manipulative toward you. You can love someone you’ve spent years with, even though you are no longer in love with them. And you can love someone and not trust them.

It’s important to build relationships on mutual respect, reciprocated intimacy and emotional labor, trust, and safety. You need to be able to talk about hurt feelings without worrying that the conversation will blow up. You need to be able to express your expectations of a relationship without feeling like you’re being “too much.”

If they tell you you’re “too much,” that’s simply not a person for you to be as close with. The answer is less of you in their life, not less of you in yourself.

I have some friends that are “a lot.” I love them so much, but I’m an introvert and their extrovert energy drains me. I still love these people, but I make sure to plan my time accordingly so that I’m not seeing five extrovert friends in the same week one day after another or attending two huge social events in a row. I will end that week miserable!

And I’m not shy about saying “I absolutely want to spend time with you but I am spent right now, can we plan something for next week?” Or even while spending time together, if I feel overwhelmed I know I can say, “I’m feeling really overstimulated, can we spend some time just hanging out on our phones or watching a movie so I can calm down?”

These people love me, yes — but they also respect me and my limits. I can’t give all of myself all of the time. Love is a wonderful, joyful part of life and it can definitely make life better, but it’s not “all you need.”

The point of life is not to find a partner to spend your life with

This is tough, right? The vast majority of media shows us people coupling as a major plot point and even resolution for a happily ever after. But this makes us believe that we need a partner to be fulfilled and nothing is further from the truth.

A partner can be part of a fulfilling life but is not the reason for your fulfillment.

I was describing some upcoming dates with a coworker recently and she said, “Oh, maybe this guy’s the one.” I said, “There is no ‘the one.'” It took the wind out of her sails, but I didn’t mean anything negative about believing there’s a “one” for you — just that there’s no “one” for me. Firstly, I’m polyamorous, so reserving a space for my most special partner is inherently not cool, and secondly, I’m twice divorced and I am well over the idea that another human is a necessary factor in my happiness.

I absolutely adore dating, relationships, and love. I love to love and be loved. It is a huge part of who I am as a person. But it’s not my one and only purpose.

Additionally, the idea that a lifelong romantic relationship is the number one priority leaves out asexual and aromantic people who really may not even care about a long-term love story. It also reduces the importance of friendships, which should hold just as much value in society as romantic relationships. Friendship is intimate and committed and passionate in ways similar and different from romantic relationships, but Western society places romance on a pedestal over an interwoven network of friends.

Why is there no term for breaking up with a friend?

Friendships are valid relationships just like romantic relationships are. Friends should be able to live together, raise their kids together, spend quality time together, without it being weird that they’re doing these things platonically. Our heteronormative monogamy culture makes it seem like we’re not whole until we’ve settled down in a one-man-one-woman long-term relationship with children.

And when a friendship ends, we should be able to grieve it like the loss of any other loving relationship. Breaking up with a friend sucks. But just like love isn’t all you need in a romantic relationship, it’s not all you need in a friend relationship either.

Here are some reasons that I, and friends of mine, have ended friendships:

  • A friend made a disrespectful (homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, sexist, racist, ableist, etc.) comment and refused to apologize or be educated
  • A friend made judgmental comments about someone’s weight and activity level
  • A friend was a bad tipper
  • A friend was named as an abuser
  • A friend repeatedly tried to sell MLM products after being told no
  • A friend voted for Donald Trump
  • A friend just generally gave off an uncomfortable or unsafe vibe
  • A friend made excuses for someone’s racist “sense of humor”
  • A friend became an emotional vampire and refused to grow, go to therapy, or otherwise deal with their issues
  • A friend constantly one-upped and pointed out how they did everything better
  • A friend was dismissive about a health condition or disability

You get to have boundaries and limits, and no one is entitled to your time except the people you decide to share your time with. You have a reasonable expectations that your friends are respectful (of you and other people), and it is okay to distance yourself or end a friendship if your boundaries are violated.

Regardless of the nature of the relationship, you reserve the right to change or end it to protect yourself. Ending a relationship is not a failure.

Read more from me!

If you enjoyed this post , you’ll be thrilled to know there’s a whole chapter on relationships, including info on polyamory and relationship anarchy, in my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. Millennials didn’t invent these relationship types but we are fairly noisy about normalizing them. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a five star review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

You can also follow me on Medium and clap for this story to support me for the low low cost of your Medium membership.

I’ve also just set up a Patreon page which will get sneak peeks of upcoming topics, an opportunity for you to suggest topics, and additional Patron-only bonus content. Check it out, Patron levels start at just $1 per month to help support my writing.

 

 

The Holiday Obligation Bill of Rights

christmas catIt’s that time of year again. It’s only the first week of December but the flames on your holiday stress fire have been getting hotter since mid November. I’m prone to seasonal affective disorder, which starts as soon as the time change happens and the clocks roll back an hour. Suddenly it’s pitch black when I’m driving home from work, everything is gray and overcast, and the deadlines are rushing at me like something out of a Final Destination movie.

Personally, I’ve got a book deadline, three blog commitments (I have a new website and I’ve started publishing on Medium, though I may adjust the frequency so I’m not tripling my workload with a weekly piece on each platform), and social plans all vying for my attention. Luckily, the whimsy of the season and the thrill of shopping for the perfect gifts for my loved ones gets me through the first couple months of fall/winter, but after the new year starts, it’s just three more months of slush and snow and darkness and existential angst.

As I’ve been working toward a lower impact life (both physically and mentally), I’ve found that I naturally have created guidelines for how to spend my time. Ever the minimalist at heart, it’s important for me to remember that minimalism isn’t just about physical stuff and clutter. It’s also about a healthy schedule and mental clutter so that I make time for the priorities.

Since the holiday season is usually stuffed to the brim like an overfilled stocking with social and family obligations, I want to remind everyone that boundaries and taking care of yourself are still important and valid, even when it feels like your time is more necessary elsewhere.

Here are ten rights you have this holiday season.

  1. You have the right to stay home. Seriously. Even if it’s Christmas at your mom’s house. Even if you haven’t seen your second cousins in fifteen years. Only accept plans you WANT to do and have the ABILITY to do.
  2. You have the right to limit your budget. While “gift giving” is one of the five major love languages, the price tag is not a defining characteristic. Don’t go broke (or into debt) in an attempt to show people how much you care. If you’re close to your budget limits and still want to give more, consider handmade gifts or writing heartfelt notes, especially if the recipient is a “words of affirmation” love language person.
  3. You have the right to leave early. If you’re at a holiday party or family gathering and you’re tired, uncomfortable, or otherwise just don’t want to be there, it’s okay to say your goodbyes and head home early.
  4. You have the right to eat what you want. Love your body, eat a cookie, don’t punish yourself.
  5. You have the right to ask for what you really want. Nobody has to give it to you, but you have the right to create a wish list and be clear about what you want. One year, my sister asked for cash to help fund an alternative break trip she was taking with a group in college, and family members deemed it inappropriate to ask for cash. Unless it hurts somebody, it’s okay to ask for what you want.
  6. You have the right to reschedule social plans. Some of my closest humans probably won’t be able to get together until after Yule and Christmas have actually passed. It’ll still be a great time. You can literally reschedule your holiday festivities to a later date, or celebrate early!
  7. You have the right to call it whatever you want. Celebrate Yule, Christmas, Hannukah, or any other of the myriad winter holidays happening within this timeframe? Rock on and celebrate it your way. Pay no attention to the grumps arguing about the war on Christmas. That’s not a thing.
  8. You have the right to not call people you don’t want to talk to. I am estranged from my parents, and the holidays are one of the toughest times to be estranged. I still feel a little tug that says I should call or reach out. Nope. I do not have to open myself up to emotional abuse, and neither do you.
  9. You have the right to return or re-gift. If you receive a gift that isn’t up your alley for any reason, you are under no obligation to keep it. Don’t stress out by finding a place for it or worrying about what Great Aunt Edna will think if she never sees that sweater in your selfies.
  10. You have the right to not hug people. Neither children nor adults are obligated to hug or otherwise show affection to anyone if they don’t want to. This is especially important to impart to children, who are learning about bodily autonomy. If a little kid doesn’t want to hug and kiss grandma, make it clear to everyone that it’s not okay to force it.
  11. BONUS: You have the right to decorate as much or as little as you want. I hung my favorite ornaments on a potted palm tree. You make the rules!