After experiencing abuse, it can feel impossible to create healthy boundaries. Abusers often cross lines, ignore objections, and make unreasonable demands. This treatment convinces survivors that their needs and limits don't matter. Rebuilding a sense of self-worth is crucial. Boundaries are an important part of that process. Healing after abuse involves creating healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are limits and rules we set for ourselves and others regarding what we find acceptable. They help us protect our values, integrity, emotions, time, energy, resources, and physical space. Healthy boundaries create the structure needed for strong relationships and personal well-being.
In this blog, I would like to recognize unhealthy boundaries, discuss how to start to set new boundaries, communicate them effectively, implement and enforce them, overcome self-doubt and resistance, be assertive without aggression, and make long-term changes. With time and practice, setting boundaries can help abuse survivors regain control, safety, and self-esteem.
Recognize Unhealthy Boundaries
After experiencing abuse, it can be difficult to recognize when boundaries are unhealthy or missing. Abuse often involves violating or ignoring boundaries, making the concept unfamiliar to survivors. Unhealthy boundaries typically involve letting others control your life, emotions, time, relationships, or decisions.
Signs of poor boundaries include difficulty saying "no," agreeing to unwanted requests, ignoring personal needs for others, allowing access without permission, and sharing private information freely. Emotional enmeshment with the abuser is also common, where your sense of self relies entirely on their actions, emotions, and problems.
Another red flag is ignoring gut feelings and intuition frequently. If certain people or situations make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, but you override those instincts, that indicates a lack of boundaries. Healthy boundaries involve trusting your inner guidance system and acting on it.
Pay attention to patterns where you let others override your wants and sabotage your well-being. Seeking approval at the expense of your needs points to underdeveloped boundaries. Make note of areas in your life where stronger boundaries would reduce stress or grant you greater self-determination.
Healing after Abuse, Creating Healthy Boundaries
Setting boundaries is an important step in taking control after experiencing abuse. Start with small, clear boundaries that feel manageable. Some examples of initial boundaries to set include:
Limiting interactions with the abuser. Reduce contact to only necessary conversations and avoid spending additional time together. Keep interactions brief and redirect the conversation if it becomes unhealthy.
Saying "no" more often. Practice declining requests that overstep your comfort zone or sacrifice your priorities. Say no to behaviors that feel manipulative or controlling. Stand firm in upholding your refusal.
Controlling personal information shared. Keep details about your thoughts, feelings, and daily activities private. Don't reveal sensitive information that could be used against you. Share on your own terms when you feel safe.
Creating physical distance and space. Spend time in separate areas of shared spaces. Ask for alone time and set physical boundaries. Leave situations that feel unsafe or overwhelming.
Setting access boundaries. Limit the ability to contact you by blocking phone numbers, social media accounts, or other avenues. Control how and when you can be reached.
Establishing financial boundaries. Manage your own money and avoid financial dependence. Don't share account details or give access to funds. Pay your share of expenses only.
Start with boundaries that feel essential for your well-being. Enforce them consistently, be prepared to discuss them calmly, and don't compromise your values. Pay attention to any resistance as a sign to enforce your boundary firmly.
Communicating boundaries clearly and directly is essential after experiencing abuse. Abusers often manipulate and ignore boundaries, so survivors need to stand firm when expressing their needs.
Be direct when stating your boundaries. Say exactly what behaviors you will no longer accept from the abusive person. For example, "I'm not comfortable with you showing up at my home unannounced. From now on, please call before coming over." Direct communication leaves little room for misinterpretation.
Avoid falling into the trap of JADE - justifying, arguing, defending, or explaining your boundaries. You do not need to JADE why you are setting a boundary. Your reasons are valid simply because you say so. Providing excessive justification can undermine the boundary and open it up for debate or manipulation.
Make sure to set clear consequences if boundaries are disrespected. For example, "If you continue to call me names, I will end the conversation immediately." Consequences demonstrate that you are serious about enforcing your boundaries. Make sure you follow through if the boundary gets crossed.
Communicating boundaries assertively, directly, and with consequences empowers survivors to regain control after experiencing abuse. Standing firm against manipulations or disrespect shows that you value yourself enough to hold others accountable for how they treat you. You deserve relationships where your boundaries are heard and respected.
Implement and Enforce
Consistency is key in enforcing healthy boundaries after abuse. It's important to follow through each time someone crosses a stated boundary. For example, if asking someone not to comment on your appearance and they do so anyway, calmly reinforce your boundary and enact the stated consequence, whether that's ending the conversation, leaving the situation, or taking away a privilege.
Following through shows you are serious about maintaining boundaries. It also helps teach the boundary-violator that their behavior has real impacts. Don't make empty threats or warnings without being ready to implement pre-determined consequences.
Get support from friends, family, or professionals when needed. Having people in your corner makes it easier to stick to your boundaries consistently. Lean on your support system for guidance, reassurance, and strength when you feel your resolve wavering. Stay strong, knowing that consistency gets easier with time and brings long-term benefits.
Healthy boundaries are difficult to maintain alone, especially after abuse. But with determination, self-care, and support, enforcing them consistently helps create lasting change.
Manage Guilt and Self-Doubt
Setting boundaries often brings up feelings of guilt and self-doubt, especially for those recovering from abuse. It's normal to feel like you're disappointing others or doing something wrong by prioritizing your own well-being. But remember, these are just old habits and self-protective beliefs that were necessary to survive the abuse.
When guilt or doubt creep up, pause and reframe those emotions. Recognize that taking care of yourself honours your inherent worthiness. Consider writing positive affirmations like "I deserve to feel safe and respected," "I have the right to set limits," or "My needs matter." Speak encouraging words about choosing health and happiness. With practice, it gets easier to move past unhealthy conditioning and into your new freedom.
After setting boundaries, you may encounter resistance or backlash from others. Abusers or manipulative people often push back when boundaries are set because it threatens their control.
Expect some people to challenge or ignore the boundaries you've set. They may try to guilt or gaslight you. Abusers will use manipulation tactics to break through boundaries.
It's important to stay firm in enforcing your boundaries despite any resistance. Reiterate the boundary clearly and calmly if others try to cross it. Make it clear the boundary is non-negotiable.
You have every right to set limits and say no to behavior that hurts you. Your boundaries deserve to be respected, even if others don't like it.
If certain people repeatedly violate your boundaries, you may need to limit contact with them. Protect your emotional and mental health by distancing yourself from toxic relationships. Tell them you will not engage if they cannot respect the boundary. Then, end the interaction or leave if they cross the line.
Stand strong against resistance to your boundaries. With time, healthy relationships will adapt, and unhealthy ones will fade. As you reinforce your boundaries, it gets easier.
Being assertive is key to setting strong boundaries that others will respect. After abuse, it can be very difficult to stand up for yourself and vocalize your needs. You may feel guilty, conflict-avoidant, or worry about being seen as "selfish." However, being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. Assertiveness means advocating for your own reasonable needs and well-being.
Practice being assertive by rehearsing what you want to say ahead of time. Start with low-stakes conversations to build confidence. Speak in an even, calm tone and stand tall. Make eye contact, and don't mumble or trail off.
Value your needs and wants. Remind yourself that you matter just as much as anyone else. Don't apologize or downplay your boundaries. You deserve to have them respected.
Don't back down or make concessions if someone tries to negotiate your boundaries. Be firm and consistent. You may need to repeat yourself or say: "I've made my position clear." Walk away if pressured. Protecting yourself is not selfish - it's self-care.
Boundary setting can be an emotionally tiring process, especially when recovering from abuse. As you work to implement healthy boundaries, be sure to prioritize self-care.
Make time each day to engage in activities that help you relax and recharge, whether that's reading, taking a bath, exercising, or spending time with supportive friends. Permit yourself to take breaks from boundary setting when needed.
Seek support during this process from trusted loved ones, a counselor, or support groups. Talking through your experiences with others can help validate your feelings and re-energize you. Consider joining a group for survivors of abuse to connect with others who understand.
Taking care of your emotional, physical, and social needs will give you the strength to continue establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries in your life. Don't neglect self-care while creating change.
Create Long-Term Change
Setting strong boundaries after abuse requires consistency and commitment over time. Don't expect to establish impenetrable boundaries overnight - know that you may have to reinforce them repeatedly as you re-learn healthy behaviors.
Plan to regularly check in on the health of your boundaries. Is anything eroding them? Do you need to strengthen certain areas further? Be aware that you may occasionally regress or struggle with keeping them firm. Don't be discouraged, recommit.
Make sure to celebrate your progress and growth along the way. Setting boundaries is an act of self-love and affirmation. Take time to appreciate yourself for making positive changes and prioritizing your well-being. Each small success represents a step towards reclaiming your autonomy and sense of self.
With time, consciously implementing boundaries will start to feel more automatic and natural. As long as you persist, you'll find healthy boundaries gradually becoming an integral part of who you are.
Janet Rhodes BA, NLPP, RC.t, EWC