Boundaries, People! Boundaries!

I recently had someone ask me, “How do you get people, women in particular, to recognize [emotional abuse] for what it is early enough in a relationship to drop that person like a hot potato?”

This really got me thinking; if we understand what emotional abuse is (the categorical and intentional manipulation of someone in an effort to create a significant imbalance of power and a strong codependency), how can we avoid getting caught in it? What early warning signs can we look for?

Again, I somehow managed to get my thoughts about this down to a single word: boundaries.

Boundaries are, I think, the fundamental tell-tale in the beginning of a relationship. And what I mean by that, is that people who respect your boundaries tend to be people you can trust. Those who repeatedly push or challenge your boundaries in ways that make you feel confused or hurt are people you need to be wary of.

In all my unhealthy relationships, a lack of boundaries has been key to the relationships’ failures. Both myself and my partners didn’t practice maintaining and respecting healthy boundaries and that got us into heaps of trouble.

A healthy boundary is one in which your needs are met and you feel safe and confident. For example, using a tool like Our Family Wizard to manage communication between me and my ex-husband is a way of keeping a safe boundary between us, especially when there’s conflict.

Safe boundaries are ones that keep you feeling secure and they can be used not just with former partners, but in all our relationships.

Here’s another example: Many people feel overwhelmed after giving birth and having excited friends and family show up to meet the new baby right away. Asking your loved ones to wait a few days, or until you contact them to say you are ready, is setting a healthy boundary.

Telling someone you need time to process a difficult conversation is setting a healthy boundary.

Saying no to unwanted sexual advances is setting a healthy boundary.

Stepping away from a close-talker is setting a healthy boundary.

Doing anything that preserves your sense of safety and self-worth is establishing a healthy boundary and this is a reasonable thing to do, no matter what someone else might tell you.

Okay, but how do you actually set up those boundaries?

Again, my answer to this question is also only one word: assertiveness.

What is assertiveness? Well, I’m glad you asked! The Cambridge Dictionary defines “assertive” as this: “Someone who is assertive behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe.”

So this means that assertiveness is when you act confidently and say what you need. And I believe that in order to establish healthy boundaries, you have to be assertive.

But wait! Let’s be clear that “assertive” is vastly different than “aggressive.” I think lots of people get these two things confused, so I want to dispel the notion that being assertive is a bad thing! Aggression is forceful and angry; it doesn’t respect boundaries and it can be violent and driving. Assertiveness doesn’t undermine other people and it isn’t nasty. It’s confident. It’s honest. It’s authentic. It’s the middle-ground between passive and aggressive (don’t even get me started on passive-aggressive!) and is also the only healthy way of expressing your needs and getting them met.

If you’re passive, you give your power away to other people. If you’re aggressive, you take power for yourself. If you’re assertive, you respect other people’s space and power, while maintaining your own.

What I’m saying is that the key to recognizing potentially abusive behaviour from others is to notice whether they have healthy boundaries for themselves and if they also respect your healthy boundaries. And the key to maintaining your boundaries lies in being assertive—not aggressive or passive—about what you need.

Sadly, there’s is no magic method for avoiding narcissists, abusers, or shitty people. I do think, however, that tuning into how someone responds to you setting up or maintaining boundaries can be fundamental in helping to avoid unsavoury or overly needy people. It may seem like you are pushing people away when you act assertively and put up your boundaries, but in the end, you’re not responsible for how others respond to your behaviour and those who stick around are much more likely to be the authentic, quality people in your life.

It can definitely feel scary to place boundaries around yourself, but remember, these aren’t walls; they’re boundaries that can stretch and grow, change and shift. You get to set them and you get to decide who comes in and out of them. You also get to choose how you respond to other people setting their boundaries and if you can succeed in creating a balance between getting your own needs met and meeting your partner’s needs (or your friend’s/family’s/children’s/whomever’s) then you will be poised to succeed in a healthier relationship.

xxJ

Boundaries, Kara! Boundaries!

Emotional Abuse is All About…

I’ve been thinking lately about how to succinctly describe emotional abuse. Wondering, how do you put into a few words the cunning and cumulative manipulations that an emotional abuser uses? How do you talk about it swiftly, without going into gratuitous details about the put downs, verbal assaults, neglect, withholding, and other revolting behaviours an emotional abuser displays? How do you talk about the lifelong trauma that results from being emotionally abused, or how to parent after abuse, or how to co-parent with an emotionally abusive partner? How do you say all that in a just a few words??

It seems it’s impossible for me to stop the torrent of descriptors that come out of my mouth when someone asks me what emotional abuse is all about, but I do want to try and find a clearer and more direct way of conveying my understanding of it.

I think we need to find ways to summarize and express what emotional abuse (sometimes called “mental” abuse) is all about without overdoing it. We, as champions of sharing our experiences of emotional abuse, need to draw people in by not overwhelming them, while still conveying the magnitude of emotional abuse’s insidious nature.

“A healthy relationship will never require you to sacrifice your friends, your dreams, or your dignity.”

source

In the talk I gave recently I spent 20 minutes or so sharing my experience, describing emotional abuse, and offering ideas for managing post-abuse. There was also a great discussion afterwards, with people offering truly insightful and interesting comments and questions that led me to further extrapolate on my understanding of emotional abuse and my identity as an abuse survivor.

As I reflected on my talk later, I realized that in the end I could sum up emotional abuse using just six words:

Emotional abuse is all about control.

That’s really what it comes down to. It’s one person creating a significant power imbalance between themselves and another person, exerting control and maintaining it for as long as possible and in as many ways as possible. It’s constructing a powerful codependence in which one person benefits immensely from the suffering of another.

I think about my past relationships and these are the kinds of controlling behaviours that come to mind:

  • Being told what to wear/what not to wear
  • Being promised things repeatedly and then having those promises undone
  • Being expected to report about my whereabouts and goings-on, even when in my own house
  • Having a partner who never showed up on time or who consistently procrastinated getting ready, making us both chronically late
  • Telling me who I could spend time with (and who I couldn’t)
  • Using sex as a bargaining tool instead of an expression of affection

…I could go on, but I suspect that the picture’s becoming clear.

Emotional abuse is about control. Full stop. And it is just as harmful and just as scary as physical abuse. It carries an intense traumatic impact and on top of all of that, it can be impossible to prove because it can  happen so surreptitiously.

How would you summarize emotional abuse? What other ways might we succinctly categorize and explain what emotional abuse is and how it affects people? Or do you think I’ve summed it up accurately?

Finding new and better ways to describe emotional abuse is something I will continue to work on. Not only so I can continue to improve my own understanding, but also so that I can increase the vocabulary we use when talking about it and so that knowledge and compassion about this topic can build and develop. So that everyone knows that emotional abuse is real and understands that what it’s really about, is asserting and maintaining control in the worst, most calculated and cruel ways.

xxJ

The chains of control exerted by our abusers often feel like they are inescapable, but I’m living proof that you can break through them, even if the word “forever” hangs over you like a prison sentence. Remember this: absolutely nothing is forever.

Do It Anyway

“You might put your love and trust on the line
It’s risky, people love to tear that down
Let ’em try
Do it anyway
Risk it anyway”

Ben Folds Five

When I was a kid, I was terrified of roller coasters. There was absolutely no way in hell anyone was getting me to strap myself into a rickety bucket seat and go hurtling along a bumpy, terrifyingly tall and twisty train ride.

Nuh-uh. No way.

The truth was that I desperately wanted to be brave enough to ride a coaster. I was embarrassed of being wimpy and emotional about it and I hated feeling left behind by my peers. It took me until I was 14 to get up the courage to try a roller coaster. In Ontario, where I live, the quintessential theme park is Canada’s Wonderland. Living nearby in Brampton, my sisters and friends and I spent many summer days hanging around this wondrous playground. Resolutely determined to NOT be left behind again, I had to come up with something that would make the big rides less scary.

So how did I do it?

I told myself that all I needed to do was get in line and nothing more.

If I could just get into the line-up (which often took 1-2 hours to work your way through), then I could consider myself committed and unable to back out. (I know that technically I *could* have backed out, but in my mind that was NOT an option.)

This idea—the idea of just “getting in line”—has become a quintessential tool for me whenever I face seemingly scary things in my life. When I’m feeling anxious in anticipation of something new or something uncomfortable, I can simply tell myself that if I just take the first step and “get in line”, I’ll be able to manage whatever comes next.

I mean, I haven’t lost a limb on a roller coaster yet, so clearly the technique works!

This week I’m doing my first ever professional speaking gig. Damnit I’m scared! And excited! (But mostly scared…)

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I couldn’t get myself in line to do it. Finally, a few months ago, I felt ready to step into the queue and commit myself to whatever happened.

It’s been a slow climb to that inevitable drop at the top since then, and tomorrow, my stomach will lift into my chest and I’ll be free-falling into my first experience of talking publicly about my history as an abuse survivor and person with mental illness. Yikes!

The song I quoted at the beginning of this post, Ben Fold Five’s “Do It Anyway”, takes to heart the idea that I’m hinting at with my roller-coaster-line-up analogy. We all have moments in our lives that feel scary or uncomfortable, but we have to do it anyway. The cost of NOT doing it is far too high. And in a world of too many people ignoring or undermining what really needs to be done, those of us who are brave enough to speak up and face what makes us feel icky are desperately needed.

So tomorrow, I’m doing it anyway. I’m going for it; taking the leap. Jumping off the cliff. Putting it all out there… Choose your cliché; I’m doing them all!

And on the other side will be the thrill of the ride; the rush of trying something new and the pride of speaking my truth. All of head/strong is an exercise in speaking up and speaking out, so I feel armed and ready to take another big step (publishing my blog was one of the first ones, obviously) and reach out even farther into the fray.

xxJ

Here we go! Weeeeeeeeeeee!