Setting Boundaries Says 'I Am Worthy’ to My Childhood Trauma
Healing can be a long and often lonely process, especially when it’s from childhood emotional abuse and neglect. There’s an entire lifetime of coping mechanisms survivors must unravel before they can decide what to keep and what to toss out. The process of becoming who you really are is tough for anyone, but for those who survived childhood abuse, it can mean learning fundamental aspects of development that were previously denied. When a baby learns their caretaker is unreliable, throughout life, it can be extremely difficult to believe other close relationships will be reliable.
To cope with this sort of cognitive dissonance, some survivors may become combative and antisocial. Some may overcompensate and smother relationships to feel “worthy” of them. I’m the kind of childhood abuse survivor who learned to cope by being extremely self-sufficient. I hid behind the masks of “I’m fine” and “that’s OK.” I didn’t require much from my relationships because I knew on a visceral level I would probably be let down. Instead, I was agreeable. I was as low-maintenance as a person could get. I was pleasant and easy to be around. I made others feel comfortable and I never challenged them. I was soft and gentle around aggression and anger. I made other people look and feel better than they really were, and I downplayed my own talents and accomplishments.
Well, guess what? The easier I made life for others, the harder I made it on myself. I grew into a lifelong habit of never expecting others to step up and be better, and as a result, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I made it easy for others to take advantage of my goodness. I made it easy for others to neglect me.
Meeting others’ needs while having none of my own creates virtually zero external conflict. My agreeableness made others feel close to me on the surface, but what it really did was keep them away. By never expressing needs or requiring more from others, I became a stranger to myself. As I awaken to who I really am, I can no longer live a life where I deny myself to keep the peace. I’ve decided the people I love deserve to get to know me better. I long for intimacy. I long to be known. And with intimacy, there’s vulnerability. To let others see who I really am, I must open myself up for the possibility of heartbreak. To draw closer, I must ask others for more, and asking for more invites more conflict.
The whole point of healing from trauma is to learn how to be in close and trusting relationships with others while also learning how to nurture yourself. Many years ago, when I learned what boundaries were, I made a point to have them. Now, as I continue to grow and heal, with each new level of self-understanding, more boundaries are necessary. When someone like me tends to diffuse conflict by being agreeable, boundaries can seem counterintuitive. Saying no to others makes people upset, and this conflict is painful, especially when the people around you are not used to hearing “no.” Conflict is a double-edged sword. It is scary because it puts you at the mercy of others, but it is also the very thing that draws you close. Without conflict, people drift apart, and never get to the deeper, more important issues of life.
Because of the arduous journey to heal my own childhood trauma, I have decided I am worthy of a life where others are more aware of my needs and desires, and I plan to incorporate more opportunities for others to meet them. I have decided to face conflict head on rather than avoid it. I have decided I am worthy of asking for more than the bare minimum to survive, whether the terms are emotional or financial. I am letting go of pretending to be easy and agreeable. Now, in theory, this is a beautiful opportunity to draw closer to the people who really love me. In reality, it feels like the whole world is crashing down, because I know from experience some will not pass this test. I also know from experience how important it is to move on from those people to find the ones who will love me in the way I need to feel loved.
When someone suddenly puts up a healthy boundary where there previously was none, it’s not easy or pleasant for the other person. It’s often met with hostility. The other person resists the change because it often means their own way of life will be challenged. These are necessary growing pains. When one person puts up a healthy boundary, the other person in the relationship must also grow and adapt with it, or the relationship won’t work.
For someone like me, this is a terrifying, but necessary process for survival. I’ve let go of enough toxic people in my life to know how painful but important it is to do so. Yet, even more scary than letting go of toxic people is needing to have healthy boundaries with the ones you love. If the one you love does not respond well to new healthy boundaries, you might have to let them go, too. Perhaps they only loved you for the surface-level, agreeable version of you, and not who you really are. When you ask for more, it’s a real possibility to discover someone you love doesn’t want to grow with you.
It’s especially difficult to confront someone who, like me, avoids conflict to cope. There may be a complication of panic and fear that has to be dealt with before getting to the issue at hand. When two people suck at healthy conflict, resentments pile up while they both float through life saying, “I’m fine” and, “That’s OK.” Those resentments build until one day, the people who seemed to always get along so well are suddenly lost and miserable. They then have to face a choice. They can either both learn healthy boundaries and confrontation together, or they will keep drifting apart.
Deciding I am worthy of more triggers anxiety for me because it’s something I can’t do all on my own. I need to be in relationships with others who agree I am worthy of more. As someone who copes by being overly independent and self-reliant, the vulnerability required to be in healthy relationships with others can feel terrifying. I must let go of the safety net of being “fine” and say something very difficult: I need you. I need your help. I need (blank).
If trauma made you believe the lie that having needs in a relationship is off-limits to you, I know you get me. But behind all of this, of course, is the fear of not being enough to be loved. It’s a fear childhood trauma survivors often know extremely well because at a critical developmental point in their life, someone cared for them so insufficiently that their fears came true.
If I can believe that I am worthy of more in spite of the heartbreak of letting go of those who don’t, I can heal.
Getty image by Choreograph