Understanding Types of Boundaries and Why They’re So Important in Trauma Recovery

In the realm of mental health, there are certain “buzzwords” that have gained popularity but are not always properly understood. Terms like self-care, regulation, mindfulness, grounding, and boundaries have become widely used, yet their therapeutic significance may not be fully appreciated by everyone.

Personal boundaries encompass the limits and guidelines we establish within relationships, outlining what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable. Boundaries are crucial because they protect our well-being, help us to stay physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe, and promote healthy relationships. They establish a sense of personal autonomy, ensuring that our needs and values are respected. Boundaries enable us to communicate our preferences and maintain and establish mutual respect. They play a vital role in maintaining balance, fostering self-care, and creating healthier interactions with others.

Types of Boundaries

Typically, people possess a blend of boundary types, as boundaries can vary depending on the nature of the relationship. For instance, someone might exhibit healthy boundaries within their family dynamics, porous boundaries in a professional setting, and rigid boundaries when it comes to romantic relationships.

Each boundary type is characterised by distinct traits, and it can be beneficial to identify the specific type that applies to your relationships.

Individuals with rigid boundaries:

  • Keep others at arm’s length.
  • Struggle with emotional closeness.
  • Experience difficulty in seeking assistance.
  • Tend to be sceptical or mistrustful of others.
  • Frequently detach themselves from others’ issues or challenges.

Individuals with porous boundaries:

  • Often feel taken advantage of.
  • Share personal information excessively or extend themselves beyond reasonable limits.
  • Rely heavily on the opinions of others.
  • Place excessive trust in others.
  • Encounter difficulties in saying no and asserting their own needs.

Individuals with healthy boundaries:

  • Feel comfortable setting boundaries and saying no when necessary.
  • Uphold their values and principles without compromising them to please others.
  • Effectively express their desires and needs through communication.
  • Offer support to others while maintaining a healthy level of involvement and personal impact.
  • Acknowledge conflicts as a natural aspect of life and handle them constructively.

Understanding the various types of boundaries can help individuals recognize their own patterns and make informed adjustments in their relationships. It allows for greater self-awareness and the development of healthier and more fulfilling connections with others.

Significance of Boundaries in Trauma Recovery

Experiencing trauma can profoundly affect our ability to establish and maintain healthy boundaries in relationships. Trauma often undermines people’s capacity to be vulnerable, as it may not feel safe. This can cause people to suppress or ignore their needs and feelings for self-protection. Asserting ourselves and saying “no” can become difficult due to a range of factors that depend on the trauma. It may be a result of distorted agency, fear of conflict, or intense guilt. Survivors can often prioritise others’ needs over their own, leading to the feeling that they are trapped in patterns of people-pleasing behaviour.

Having a loss of trust in people – particularly if a survivor was betrayed by a trusted person during childhood – further erodes the belief that setting boundaries is possible or helpful. Some people may have learned that no matter what they do, people always step over their boundaries and that setting them is pointless. Overcoming these challenges requires letting go of defence mechanisms, recognising our needs, and seeking support to heal and regain control.

Boundaries are essential in trauma recovery, helping to build feelings of trust in yourself, and a sense of self worth – that you are deserving of a safe and comfortable environment. They are also an essential part of avoiding triggers that you are not yet ready to face. Particularly in the months following a traumatic event, although for some people this can last years, sounds, smells, sights, feelings and places that remind you of the trauma in some way can cause an uncontrolled reaction. This might range from serious discomfort, fear and sadness, to intense flashbacks, where you feel as if you are re-living the trauma again. Giving yourself permission to set certain parameters that keep you safe is a normal and justified part of recovery. Whether it means meeting people in different places, taking different routes or modes of transport, or setting more interpersonal boundaries with people in your life, these changes could help you maintain a much-needed sense of control while you receive treatment for PTSD or the reactions from the acute phase of trauma recovery become desensitised.

How to Set Boundaries

Finding out what kind of boundaries you have in different situations is a helpful way to begin the process of learning to set more helpful and impactful boundaries. Here are some other helpful

Define Your Boundaries: Take time to identify and define your personal boundaries. Some people choose to do this through self reflection and journaling, while others prefer the support of a therapist. Reflect on your values, needs, and limits in different areas of your life, such as relationships, work, personal space, hobbies, socialising, and anything related to the traumatic experience.

Communicate Clearly: Learning to articulate your boundaries to others in a clear and assertive manner is key to ensuring you maintain a sense of control and respect. This means being direct and specific about what is safe and acceptable to you and what is not. One method for doing this is to state how something makes you feel using an “I” statement, such as: “I feel uncomfortable when touch my shoulder”, and then follow with what you would like to happen, for example: “Please check before touching me in the future”. This ensures that people understand your needs clearly, and makes it less that they will feel personally attacked for doing something wrong.

Enforce Boundaries: Once you have set your boundaries, it is crucial to enforce them consistently. Be firm and assertive when others try to push or disregard your boundaries. Stand your ground and do not compromise on what you have defined as important to you. You can use the same method as before, reminding the person of how something makes you feel, and what you would like to happen.

Practice Self-Care: Setting boundaries also involves having compassion and taking care of yourself. Prioritise self-care activities that promote your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Actively reflect on what your needs are and what situations or stimulus might be causing you stress or discomfort. This will strengthen your ability to maintain boundaries and communicate them effectively to others.

Remember, setting boundaries is an ongoing process. It requires self-awareness, self-advocacy, and the willingness to prioritise your own needs. By setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, you can foster healthier relationships, protect your overall well-being and lessen the burden of the trauma recovery process.