LAST week we delved into why the impending holidays can be difficult for survivors of sexual violence. This week I thought it would be timely to discuss setting healthy boundaries as you continue your healing journey and as you prepare for the up-coming holidays. As a survivor it is possible that you have found it difficult to say no even when that is what you wanted to say, or you may look back and realize that you have gone above and beyond, often at your own expense, to please those around you, doing things you didn’t want to do or over working yourself hoping to be supported and appreciated. What often happens when we feel incapable of saying how we feel or being able to do what we think is best for us, is that we begin to feel trampled on, taken advantage of and out of control, etc. As always, while you continue to read this article, if at any point you feel triggered, have a flashback, become anxious, please stop reading and take some time. There is no need to push yourself to a point you are not ready for yet. Remember the healing journey is not a sprint but a relay. It takes time. Baby steps.
As a survivor of sexual violence you have had so much taken from you, you have had to tackle so much on your own. Those who you shared you story with may have insinuated that you lied about it; they may have concocted a story to protect your abuser, they may have nicely asked for your silence in an effort to protect their image and the family. What effectively happened was that as a survivor you were told in more ways than one that your story was not important enough to be shared and taken seriously. You were told that your pain and suffering was secondary to the needs of your parents, siblings, extended family, friends etc., you were told that what you needed after having been violated was not important. They placed their boundaries letting you know what was important to them, what they wanted to talk about, how they were going to support you, and what they thought of what you have been through. In many instances, you learnt to work around the needs of everyone else and to neglect your own. You may have been ignoring your needs and been unable to place boundaries because you may be out of touch with what you need and how to go about getting it. One of the first things you need to do is figure out what you need. What would help you feel happy, safe, supported? Write it down, so it’s solid, so you can see it and reread it. Second, outline what you need to get those things, what would be necessary to help with your happiness, security, support, etc. With those two outlined comes the point at which you acknowledge what needs to be done and the difficulty, hurt, anger, sadness, relief, happiness, anxiety, etc. This is one of the hardest things you will have to do when preparing to place and create your boundaries. A lot of this you already know but may not have been ready to acknowledge because it would mean making some tough decisions. Once you have made those lists, the hardest part comes.
Doing, is hard because it requires you to put you first, something you probably have not done in a really long time. It means telling the people who have not been there to support you that you are putting you first moving forward. It may mean cutting people out of your life, or restricting their access to you. This process helps you realize who you want around you because they support and care for you versus the people who are toxic and make you feel ashamed of the fact that a crime was committed against you. Sexual violence is damaging to the individual surviving the ordeal. The effects of sexual violence find their way into your core and affect everything. It makes you feel like you don’t deserve happiness and to feel supported. You deserve happiness and support. You deserve to be heard; to feel like sharing your story isn’t something to be ashamed of. You deserve to know that the rapists, pedophiles, and molesters are the ones who should be shamed. I say all this to let you know that setting boundaries is important for your healing journey and that it is necessary for your empowerment and growth. It will be hard – I say this as I work my way through my own boundary setting issues, but I am saying this because it is so important. We all get to that place where we can no longer feel used and unloved, where we begin to realize that we deserve love and support and a chance to feel free and alive.
So start with the lists: 1) What you need and want; 2) How those needs and wants can be accomplished; 3) Acknowledging that in order to get what you need and want, you may have to make some difficult decisions. The last step is actually completing this process. It’s hard to tell your mom or dad that you need space from them, but if it is what is best for your mental health and healing then it is what you need to do until you are ready to deal with their lack of support and understanding. If you need to break up with a girlfriend or boyfriend because they keep ignoring your triggers or flashbacks, then it’s what you do. Remember, right now you come first. It may mean not seeing your family if possible during the holiday because they keep inviting your abuser over. It may mean cutting ties with family or friends because they make callous statements about sexual violence knowing what you have survived. The creation and setting of boundaries means deciding what is necessary for you and your life regardless of how others think or feel. You have put others’ feelings before you time and again for many years, now it is your time. You need to come first. Creating healthy boundaries with yourself and others is an important part of the healing process. It takes time and requires patience and empathy for you, but with time, it will get easier.
I want you to continue working on putting you first. I want you to work on your lists and on thinking and becoming comfortable with setting boundaries before you start. It will be hard, but it is not impossible, nor is it wrong. Remember everyone in your life set their boundaries where your sexual assault was concerned, which means that most of you were not supported or believed. It is your time to work on getting what you need to begin your healing. Don’t let anyone blame you or make you feel ashamed for a crime committed against you. You didn’t deserve this nor did you cause it. But you are also not defined by it. You survived a trauma, you may be broken but you are not beyond repair. You have to decide you are ready to walk the difficult path to healing. We are all born into families but ultimately we get to decide the family we want to be a part of and that has nothing to do with blood relations. If you have friends who are not supportive or understanding, they are not friends you want to keep. The holidays are difficult so if you need to reach out please do. Text, email, call… you are not alone. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of, you were violated. You don’t have to keep secrets, and you don’t want to keep protecting anyone. You don’t have to let anyone into your life who doesn’t understand or support you. Should you want to discuss or ask a specific question don’t hesitate to contact PROSAF by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t give up. You deserve to be happy, you deserve to enjoy the holidays, you deserve to decide who you let into your life and how much.
Resources: ‘The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse’ by Ellen Bass & Laura Davis, and the website rainn.org.