Repairing physical and emotional boundaries is the fifth in my empowerment series that began with How to Empower Yourself. This step begins with believing you have the right to set limits. Anyone who is living with or dating an abusive partner knows it is usually not safe to be assertive about boundaries. Choosing to stay safe is setting a boundary of a different kind.
We’ll begin with rights and then proceed to repairing physical and emotional boundaries. You know how much of this information is safe for you to implement. Apply what is helpful now and reserve the rest for later.
You Have Human Rights
We all have rights. The Constitution of the United States guarantees “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” You have the right to:
Express your opinion and make decisions.
Make decisions about where to work.
Decide what to wear or how to cut your hair.
Have your property respected.
Pursue necessities such as eating and sleeping.
Decide on educational opportunities.
Be treated fairly.
If your intimate partner blocks you from expressing these, they are violating your civil liberties. Your partner’s domination may lead you to restrict your rights even in other settings, such as at work or with friends. You may also lose your belief that you have rights.
It takes effort and time to feel comfortable exercising rights when they’ve been restricted for long periods. To reclaim your belief in these rights, consider the following questions.
Does your partner exercise these rights? Do they apply a double standard to you?
Should your friends have these rights? If so, why not you?
Do you think you have learned to avoid abuse by limiting your rights and now you have trouble claiming them in other relationships?
Believing in your rights is the first step. Even if you cannot use the next information, you can develop your belief. Feelings of frustration, anger, and hurt are normal. Processing safely with others or in a journal protects you from a partner’s abusive reactions should you do it with them. It will also help you decide what your next step is.
Know Your Physical Boundaries
While repairing physical boundaries starts with knowing you have the right, the next step often is discovering what your physical boundaries are.
People are different in the amount of space and intimacy they prefer. Consider these questions:
How much touch do you like to receive? Do you hug everyone, only people you feel close to, or not at all?
How close do you like to stand or sit when you’re conversing with someone?
What limits on behavior would you like to set? (E.g. smoking, drinking drugs, violence)
If you have a partner, when do you want to be sexual with them?
What is your comfort zone for becoming physically intimate with someone new? (Hugging, kissing, or other sexual behavior)
A way to begin exploring physical boundaries is to ask someone you feel safe with to be your partner in the following exercise. This raises your awareness of your preference for space.
Stand at opposite ends of a room, facing one another. While your exercise partner stands still, walk slowly toward them until it feels like the right distance to stand and talk. Stop there and notice how you feel physically. Then take a step closer for a few seconds and notice how that feels in your body. Return to your comfort zone and then take a step back. Notice how that feels.
When we honor our physical boundaries, we pay attention to intuition and sensory experiences, for instance prickly feelings on your skin. We also change our need for space depending upon how we feel toward a person. If you were angry with someone, would this change how close you wanted to be? If you felt loving toward them, how would this change the closeness you choose, at least temporarily?
Begin this exercise again but have the other person be the one to move toward you. This person may be comfortable being closer or farther than you are. That’s okay; everyone has different needs. Some cultures generally stand closer together than others. And there are situations in which we tolerate more closeness, such as riding in a subway, by emotionally distancing ourselves and not making eye contact.
You might also discuss with your exercise partner who you can set physical boundaries with safely.
Build Your Internal Boundaries
Internal boundaries involve an inner evaluation of whether to take something personally. Observe actions and words and decide one of two things:
Whether there is anything you are responsible for.
Whether their words and actions are their perceptions and about how they see the world, and do not represent something you need to change.
This ability allows us to observe and evaluate the appropriateness of people’s words and actions instead of automatically assuming they are right or taking their behavior personally. The Repairing Boundaries handout will give you added information about this.
This handout also will help you sort out responsibility confusion that often occurs when one experiences abuse. Coercive partners want you to believe that you’re responsible for how they behave. Sometimes even for what happens to them at work or with other people. This encourages confusion and taking responsibility for things that you have no control over.
The document also teaches how to use imagery in setting boundaries. We often say things like “I feel like I’m drowning” that indicate negative feelings. You can also use imagery to promote an internal boundary. If you don’t tend to be visual (we’re all different), try another sensory experience such as sound.
As mentioned before, repairing physical and emotional boundaries is a big roadblock for those living in an abusive relationship. Each person has to decide what they can do safely. Making safety plans is vital. Speak to friends, family, or therapists about this if possible. Local domestic abuse agencies and online resources also provide safety planning tools.[i]
As you begin to set healthy boundaries for yourself, you may receive negative feedback from family, friends, or co-workers. They may feel threatened by your changes or call you self-centered. I call these “change back” messages. Sometimes this is just a human response to someone changing how they behave, and they will adjust and even see the value. Other times, they believe they have a right to dominate you.
Don’t give up if you receive this kind of feedback. Use your internal boundary to remind yourself that their behavior is about them. You can decide how much contact is healthy for you.
Or look for your local or state organization.
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