This essay discusses how childhood and relational trauma can violate boundaries and sense of self, and how restoring the fundamental sense of boundaries and self – personal rights, identity, voice, space – can bring about more understanding and clarity around what it means to implement self-care in life.
I saw a Self-Care Checklist on Pinterest today and asked myself, What does self-care mean to me today?
My answer is that today, 8-12-16, I don’t know what self-care means to me. I feel confused about it. Does it mean sleeping or exercising, or somehow de-stressing? I don’t know. I look out the window at the gray and white clouds moving behind the trees and feel clueless and perplexed. Would self-care involve watering my spider plants and shamrock plants maybe? I love my plants and never really feel like I know how to care for them right and this makes me feel a little nervous when I look at them. My mind feels disconnected from what’s around me, from life. I look around seeking for what self-care could mean and find nothing. I feel blank. I feel heat in my chest and tension in my throat and shoulders. A heavy feeling. I feel sad.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of self-care and – maybe I’m getting confused because there is more to “self-care” than meets the eye.
Self-care emerges from good boundaries. A lot of self-care involves saying “No” to things that are bad for one and finding a way to say “Yes” to things that are good – good for self-esteem, for health, for many things. So, a lot of self-care depends on having good boundaries, on knowing where your boundaries are, knowing what they mean to you personally, knowing how they feel, what it feels like if someone is violating them, how to stand up for them, and how to fight for them if necessary. But what if there is a problem with your boundaries. What if they have all been lost?
Trauma destroys boundaries. If a person is in a situation in which their boundaries are too deeply invaded, they may lose the ability to feel or sense their boundaries anymore. If their voice is completely silenced, they won’t know what they want to say no to and what they want to say yes to. If they have been through this kind of situation too many times, they may find it impossible to formulate in their mind what would be a healthy boundary and what would not be, and by extension, they may have trouble knowing what constitutes self-care and what doesn’t.
Example – Narcissistic Abuse
An example of this type of situation is being in a relationship with a narcissist.
The narcissistic personality has already invaded SO far beyond what is in any way, shape or form appropriate that from this level of being invaded, it’s going to be impossible to understand anything about boundaries, because they were all crossed so far and so long ago.
The swimming pool and the car.
It’s like this. Imagine you set up a nice swimming pool in your yard, the kind with the tall circular wall and blue lining. Then suddenly a car runs into your swimming pool and the walls break and all the water falls out all over the lawn. Then someone comes up to you and asks, “Do you want this swimming pool lining patch? It’s a really nice one. When my rose bush dropped a branch into my pool and it scratched the lining, I patched it right up with this! It’s a great way to take care of yourself. It feels so nice to take a little time for self-care. And the pool lining will be so beautiful, too!”
The problem is, at that level of boundary violation there really is no swimming pool lining anymore. It’s irrelevant. The car needs to be towed. And that life needs rebuilding.
This is the problem with Self-care lists for me at the moment. Some items are like the swimming pool liner patch. These suggestions, like “take a bath” or “take some alone time,” are great. The only problem is, for some people there is a car sitting in the middle of their pool, destroying their entire life and draining all the water out of it every day. Or, there recently was a car there and it’s all still wrecked and hasn’t healed yet. Everything is so wrong there is no boundary – no swimming pool walls – anymore to protect. There is just a lot of destruction and the boundaries are all gone. When there is no more container (swimming pool wall), and abuse and trauma (the car) has destroyed self-esteem, voice, personal convictions, one’s grasp on one’s own ideas and desires, then there is no more “self” (all the water). If the self is lost, where do you put the self-care?
What might help more…
This person who has a car in their swimming pool doesn’t need a Self-care List – yet. They need a How to Escape List. A How to Rescue Yourself List. A How to Find the Spark of Life Left Inside You That Still Wants to Live List. A How To Figure Out Who You Are Even After This Level of Destruction List.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Self-Care Lists. Actually I really like them. I love all the great reminders and ideas and I’ve been wanting to compile my own list from all the ones online and hang it up on my wall. Self-care always helps and it is always a good idea to work on increasing it. It’s just – I personally need to remember that there are times that I might be at a place in my own psyche, my own inner universe, that comes before the Self-Care List. I just might want to remember that this deeper self-resurrection type of self-care is also very important, and the self-care list might at times become confusing to me if I don’t, at some point, go a bit deeper into what is underlying my entire experience around “self” and “care”.
The House with the Yard.
Here’s one more boundary analogy: Imagine there is a person sitting in a bedroom, in a house on a 1 acre piece of property. There is a fence around the parameter of the property and it is locked and has an alarm. There is a front door to the house. It is locked and also has an alarm. The person’s bedroom door is shut. They also have a strong sense of where the edge of their “personal space” is, say 2 feet from their body on all sides is their personal space and they can tell if someone is encroaching in there, they can feel it. They also know where the edge of their body itself is, they know that they have skin and that’s the outside of their body and they can feel that edge where their skin ends and the rest of the world begins. And, they do have enough vitality inside – the spark of life – as well as a fully developed “sense of self / identity / selfhood” to motivate them to protect all these beautiful boundaries.
OK, so, in the case of someone whose boundaries have been destroyed by trauma, this yard and house situation would be very different. There will be no fence, no alarm, no door on the house, no door on the bedroom, no sense of personal space, and no sense of body edges. They will not feel the edge of their skin because they are not in their body enough to feel that. There will be no vitality anymore – no connection to life or spark of life left inside – and no “sense of self / identity / selfhood,” which means they have nothing to protect and no motivation to try to protect anything, and no energy either to build any doors or locks or fences or whatnot. It is all just an amorphous world where everything passes through everything and since all is deadness and nobody is “home,” so to speak, it really, truly doesn’t matter one way or the other.
OK, so say an intruder comes along and wants to enter the property of the first person – the one with boundaries. The intruding person begins to try to break through the fence. Even from way in the bedroom, the person with boundaries will have a body level feeling – like a feeling of discomfort in their stomach or hair raising on the back of their neck a bit – even at this first hint that something is off with their boundaries. Someone is possibly lying to them. Someone is trying to sneak something past them. Something is too good to be true. There is just a sense that the tone of voice is insincere. There is an inner knowing that some misunderstanding happening in this moment is going to lead to a really bad situation down the line. Something is off. Way out there on the perimeter fence that alarm is sounding – the person feels a sense of discomfort and heightened awareness in their body – and the person reacts to that alarm. They question the lie. They cancel the appointment. They ask a pointed question nobody else is asking. They read many reviews before saying yes. They step back a moment and reassess things. They persistently ask – who is out there at my fence setting off my alarm?
But to the person with no boundaries, when the intruder walks onto their lawn, they won’t feel anything. Sometimes there might be a faint alarm, like the alarm just barely still works, but they can’t hear it it’s so far away and they’re so distracted and stressed. Or, it will feel OK. Familiar. Even good, like attention, or a chance at something better in life. So, they do nothing and the boundary invading person walks into the yard and then discovers there is no door on the house either.
If the invading person was at the house of the person with boundaries and arrived at the door and tried to break it down, this would set off a much louder alarm, and the person there would probably call the police. In other words they might recruit help – call a friend for advice, or go see a counselor and ask for help. They would definitely tell the person to get lost. They would for sure say “No!”
But the person with no boundaries, again, they might feel a stronger sense of discomfort but this whole thing with people coming through the door is normal and the discomfort is just part of it. It’s nothing new. So in this case the invading person can come in the house.
And it happens the same way with the door to the bedroom.
Let’s just say that this invading person is a narcissist who is courting this person who has been through trauma. The trauma survivor might be upset the first time the narcissist manipulates his or her way past a boundary like the bedroom door. But after that, it becomes normal. In terms of the 2 feet parameter personal space, again, the violation might at first be upsetting but thereafter becomes totally “normal.” Then there can be a lot of invasion of the body itself in terms of various kinds of touching or manipulation that affects the physical body. And of course with sexual contact, no matter the genders involved, there is a deep merging of boundaries.
During and after a relationship with a narcissist, the experience of boundary violation can come to feel normal and actually might feel good just due to the experience of violation being coupled with positive things like pleasure, gifts, shelter, food, affection, friendship, money etc. Similar kinds of “violation is the norm” training happens when it comes to childhood abuse and trauma. And the weird thing about it is although it’s twisted it really feels perfectly normal. And when it feels normal to have a car all the way in the middle of your swimming pool at all times, then all the boundaries really have been destroyed, even that faint little alarm that once sounded has gone silent.
The person with disabled boundaries due to trauma history can be:
- Currently Being Violated. They can be in a relationship that is always violating their boundaries, and they don’t know it. Or they do know it but are helpless to leave for a huge number of valid reasons.
- Free But Vulnerable. They can be out of the relationship, but all their boundaries are still broken. Boundaries do not rebuild themselves. I think it does take a lot of therapy to begin the process of rebuilding the fence, door, etc. In this situation the person is very vulnerable to new boundary violations from others (not just romantic partners but friends and random people).
- New Relationship, Boundary-Confused. The person can be in a new relationship that isn’t necessarily violating any boundaries but they will have boundary confusion – they won’t know when their partner is, and when their partner is not, violating a boundary.
Abusive Situations Can Be Well Hidden
Maybe it is completely obvious that going to get a manicure won’t solve anything for someone who is in a relationship with a narcissist. If a person is in an abusive situation or has recently gotten out and is still traumatized, while self-care really, truly is wonderful (and is always a good idea because it can promote the idea that self is important), it’s clear that they also likely need a different, deeper level of help than just “self-care” kinds of things like getting a spa treatment or going shopping.
The strange thing is, even though it should be obvious, I don’t think it’s always that obvious. I think that in reality, many times the true nature of an abusive situation remains hidden. Behind closed doors.
I know I hid it very, very well. Mostly I hid it because I didn’t know it for what it was, because narcissists truly are master manipulators and you come to believe their version of reality. They make the total invasion of your boundaries seem like being in love.
I wasn’t in that situation (with the narcissist) very long. I know others can be stuck for many years. But I was stuck in other, longer, partially boundary violating relationships of different varieties. And I still feel like my boundaries are not back yet. Especially from the year spent with the narcissistic personality – even after 11 years, it’s truly like it was just yesterday. And I still wonder what happened, how did I end up in that situation?
This gets into the deeper question: Why did I get into a relationship with a narcissist in the first place?
The first time he violated my boundaries, I cried and cried. Then I got used to it. But why did I allow that first time to happen? It was definitely overt, unwelcome sexual violation and I could have pushed him away but instead went into freeze mode and flop mode and complete dissociation, and stayed like that for a year. And if that first event was so horrific to me, why was there even a second time? How can something like this, that is so revolting and horrifying, happen? And how can something so revolting seem perfectly normal when it’s happening? It began very badly, it was bad and it ended extremely badly. But why in God’s name did it start?
One reason could be that I had already experienced a lot of boundary violation during childhood.
Developmental Trauma Destroys Boundary Formation
What happens if a person experiences this type of situation, of the car in the swimming pool, or the person marching straight into the house and bedroom, as a young child?
What if your own boundaries became hard to identify way before you could even speak?
What if your brain developed within a situation in which your boundaries were being broken so much that that place, that edge, where you’re supposed to feel a distinct sense of a boundary being crossed, became blurry and eventually faded away altogether? Because, in that context, the place where your boundary was or wasn’t had become irrelevant?
And what if this was how your brain and nervous system developed? This was “family” to you. This was “love.” Appeasing and loving the invasion force meant you would be secure, and live, and be cared for.
Where is self-care then?
Where is self then?
I guess my point in writing this is just to remind myself, when I’m feeling confused, that for someone like me who has been through a lot of trauma, Self comes before Self-Care.
Self-Rescue, Self-Resurrection, Self-Revival, Self-Triage, Self-Rehabilitation, Self-Retrieval…
Self-finding, building, reinforcing, untangling… the painstaking piecing together of a foundational, intact, strong Self – comes first.
And at some point, this sense of self will blossom into many different kinds of self-care, naturally. Effortlessly. The intact self knows what will care for it! It’s not a huge mysterious puzzle. Self-care emerges automatically and easily out of the sense of self and identity that has been re-established. This inside-out work, however, is challenging and is a huge job for people with a lot of trauma in their past.
When Caring for Oneself Becomes A Threat to Survival
One reason this is so tricky and difficult to solve is that at a fundamental level this confusion around self-care I’m experiencing has to do with survival.
There were moments as a child in which, if I decided to enact self-care, to say no, to put up a boundary of some kind, this meant that I would be abandoned, and as a child I would have experienced abandonment as a threat to my life. If abandoned, a child will die. I also could have been spanked (hit) or yelled at – both of which are threatening to a child and are constant reinforcements on a body level that to try to enact self-care means to maybe be harmed or die.
Numerous Reversals of Nature
Just one example of this is when I was bitten by the cat once and my finger was bleeding, I hid my hand away from my Mom. And if I broke something, I would hide it somewhere. This is because in an environment with a lot of rage and punishment for all kinds of natural things kids do, a huge reversal gets set up around care – you learn that when you need care it’s best to go away from care, not towards it.
This “go away from care” was the most intelligent strategy for that time and it became set up internally as an intelligent strategy for life. In other words, this was just one facet of the avoidant attachment style that ultimately leads to an avoidant internal working model of reality.
Hiding away from a caretaker when in need of care is a complete implosion of the natural reaching out for care instinct, until it actually twists around itself and becomes reversed.
I notice that even mentioning this unnatural reversal that formed during childhood brings about a feeling of wanting to dissociate. This is because the central core of a reversal is trauma and it also goes completely against the way humans’ nervous systems are designed to function within a social context.
Of course, with such an implosion around expressing basic human needs, due to being in a situation that forces a response that actually goes against nature itself, boundaries never really form.
Developing healthy boundaries results from a child having their own space in which their needs and experiences are held as being important.
In an abusive context, boundaries are collapsed and the child is completely invaded and eclipsed by the parent’s needs. The car has always been in the swimming pool when it really should be driving along the road. There have always been people sneaking around the yard and house and bedroom without consent. So I guess on some somatic level, it felt familiar for me to have someone walk straight through all those weak and broken boundaries later in life. Experiencing this violation wasn’t just familiar and a reminder of home and family, but it was also a familiar way to ensure survival – being violated was a silent experiential message, clue or sign that I would continue to experience basic physical survival and security within a family unit.
Feeling my natural instinct come up inside – to run – and then doing the reverse of it was written in the Survival Manual that was handed to me during childhood. Just like feeling the instinct to reach for care, and hiding that instinct, was written on another page of my Survival Manual I took with me when I left home at 18. In other words, reversals are programmed into me and always compel me to do the opposite of what would be my natural, human inclinations towards things – e.g. what “I want” – so that I will not die.
The Unanswered Questions Underneath Things
So the confusion around self-care, that I experienced today, comes because there is an unanswered question in the mix.
When I ask myself “What does self-care mean to me today?” and I feel confused, it’s because this question prompts another part of me, the inner child, who lives deep down in my body awareness and unconscious mind, to ask, “If I take my bleeding hand out and try to find a way to heal it using self-care, will I be punished, banished and die alone in the wilderness?” “If I ask for help because something has been broken and I don’t know what to do, will I be hit, yelled at or kicked out?”
“If I dare to take care of myself today, will I survive?”
Sadly, I think the answer to that is usually “No.” No, I will not survive. And this happens on the level of the body, because much of it is pre-verbal. So it happens with images and sensations. I can feel inside my body and I can see flashes of images that inform me that if I really decide to take care of myself in a big way, this means I will die. I must continue to hide away what I need to have care given to, and I must hide it very well, otherwise I will be hurt badly.
The Felt Sense of Reversals
When I sense into it, the felt sense of it feels like a kaleidoscope of broken, shifting pieces. I feel a body sensation of things around me falling apart all the time. Instability and crisis, over and over. A child does have to repress their own needs if a family is in constant crisis. A child does have to take care of others if things are in crisis of any kind – economic, health, mental illness, loss, etc. Their needs and boundaries do become irrelevant in order for them, and for the family, to survive.
There is also a body sensation around this reversal – the reversal that formed when the natural reaching for care had to be redirected into the hiding away the need for care. The reversal feels kind of like a deer in headlights sensation and on some level I’m generally unaware of, it comes up anytime I feel a need for care – self-care or care from another.
So – there is this body experience always underneath “self-care” of this desperate situation of survival that takes precedence over, and absolutely must always take precedence over, any tiny hint of something inside that wants care.
Therefore, paradoxically, self-care is, to my body, a threat to its survival. Which would certainly explain the confusion and my difficulty with Self-Care Checklists.
And I would say that alongside “self-care” are a host of other things that I learned to repress and reverse within that harsh environment, like assertiveness, knowing the self e.g. knowing my opinions and feelings, saying No, questioning things, revealing vulnerability, revealing pain, asking for help, having self-interests, putting my own concerns out there, feeling important, feeling seen, feeling a sense of esteem around others, etc. Taking up space. Having needs. All these things are threats to survival. They are all imploded and twisted back inside because that was the most intelligent strategy once upon a time.
It means my system developed, from the very beginning, without boundaries.
And this is the mess underlying any question that asks me to care about myself in some way. And it doesn’t just cause confusion. Coming into contact with the felt sense related to all these many reversals is physically uncomfortable, exhausting and dissociating. The reversals are completely convoluted and unnatural and are wound up around acutely traumatic experiences, and they also represents a lot of unprocessed data in the system that drains energy when stirred up. They also represent loss – a lost childhood. When I feel this overwhelming exhaustion, loss, dissociation and physical discomfort just thinking about it, I feel tempted to keep it all under wraps.
And, I can continue to ignore the sensations and implications and emotions around these deeper questions by doing surface self-care. I can clean the floor and make it look pretty. I can maybe go on a walk up the street. I can do my nails. I can stay on the surface and act like I’m doing self-care.
However, the foundation for true Self-care isn’t there if Self is gone due to trauma.
And in this scenario I am describing of thinking about self-care today, a lot of Self is gone. Not ALL of Self but a big chunk of Self has been lost. It is still lost inside the experiences of childhood, and adulthood, trauma.
Some Self-care Questions
Here are some questions to ponder about self-care.
- Have you ever experienced confusion around what self-care means to you?
- Were you ever in a situation in which, if you stood up for yourself or revealed something about yourself, you would be harmed (physically or verbally/emotionally)?
- Have you ever been in a position in which if you tried to take care of your emotional needs it would threaten your physical survival?
- Have you ever been hit by someone who loved you and who you loved? This includes spanking which is a huge boundary invasion.
- Have your boundaries ever been violated to the degree that they were eliminated from existence?
- Has anyone ever treated you like your physical space, personal space, body, somatic knowing, intuitive knowing, emotional space, autonomy, ideas, senses, or opinions were irrelevant? Did having these things “out of the picture” ever come to feel normal to you?
- Do you remember a moment in which the integrity of your person on all levels was held in the highest respect, and you could feel, physically, in your body, this sense of complete integrity, or did this only happen before your first memories (as a newborn baby) and was lost early in life?
- Has anyone ever been possessive of you? Were you unaware that they were holding onto you as strongly as they were, because it felt normal to take on someone else’s needs?
- Does being loved feel like it has something to do with being merged with another, being enmeshed, being entangled, making their needs and wants your own?
- Has anyone ever made their needs become yours without your consent?
- Have you ever been forced to do anything against your will by someone you love?
- Does being loved feel like it has something to do with being controlled, being overpowered, being swept away?
- Did you learn to like being invaded because it’s familiar and feels like home?
If any of these resonate with you to some degree, it just means some unraveling and untangling is in order. This is actually where I am in therapy now. After a lot of the more acute PTSD symptoms settled – which took 9 years and is definitely still ongoing – now some of these older, childhood issues (C-PTSD) can be worked on part of the time.
If you experience any of these kinds of boundary issues, I would recommend seeking the help of a therapist. It takes time and patience but I believe the boundaries can be rebuilt.
Note that everything I write is my personal opinion based on my own life experiences.
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.