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.

Trust Issues

Trust.

Hard to earn, easy to break. Seemingly impossible to feel again once you’ve been taken advantage of.

I absolutely have trust issues.

My issues around trust are complicated…? Because outwardly I’m pretty sure it looks like I’m an overly-trusting person. And at the same time, I actually put my faith in people tentatively. My attempts at reaching out with a branch of trust come with a smattering of desperation, which is an ugly thing to admit. But a lot of my behaviour is driven by desperation, and a lot of my relationships are sabotaged by my desperate attempts to feel secure in them.

I crave security more than anything else. This is because my emotional needs went unmet for so long and this left me with a deep sense of insecurity that now pervades every part of my life. I’m actually really good at making other people feel safe and secure, but I’ve always, even as a child, felt lonely and on the outside of my relationships.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my insecure attachments; I’ve been thinking a lot about how I don’t even trust myself most of the time. I mean, really, the only thing I can trust in is my anxiety. I can trust it to always be there; to tell me that things are NOT okay, that I don’t know what I’m doing, that no one loves me, that I’m not good enough, blah blah blah…

It’s a fight to work against this. It’s a battle to convince myself that I can trust anyone, including me.

Trust takes so much time to earn. It takes conversation and consistency and showing the fuck up when you say you will. I think for me, and people like me, who have trust issues, the process of building security in relationships takes a long, long time. We can’t give our trust away quickly anymore; we’ve been burned too badly in the past. Instead, we have to tiptoe around it, poking at it, extending our hands, just a little bit, and hoping that our fingertips don’t meet a flame. Or sometimes we do what I’m apt to do: we go overboard and become desperate in seeking a sense of safety, throwing ourselves into the proverbial fire, which makes no sense because how can you feel secure when you also feel desperate?!

I often wish I could slow myself down. I wish I could be more patient and lackadaisical in my approach to life. But wishing things like that is kind of ridiculous, because I’m simply not like that! I’m a complicated, emotional, anxious person who needs a steadying hand to hold onto. It often feels like I’m searching for a unicorn or Nessie when I’m reaching out to build trust with someone new. In my mind, there’s the perfect scenario in which someone gives wholly of themselves and is ready and open to allow me to be entirely vulnerable and yet feel completely safe. HA! That probably my biggest fantasy! Not even close to reality!

Reality is me putting pressure on things that are fragile. Reality is me being a survivor of domestic abuse. Reality is many other people carrying their own trust issues and having these manifest in their own unique ways. Honestly, does anyone actually feel secure in their life? I have no idea what that feels like, do you?

Writing something like this points out to me that I need to keep working on not rushing, not pushing, and listening both to myself and to what other people say. It also helps me realize that there are parts of myself I shouldn’t have to apologize for, like being Highly Sensitive or having a mental illness, or just being dynamic and expressive. The right people will embrace these parts of me and then maybe we’ll both have a chance at trust.

xxJ

Give me back those damn apples.