by Linda Pittman
Throughout my healing journey from childhood sexual abuse, I have heard a lot about the need for “healthy boundaries”. How do I know if my boundaries are healthy? What are they and how do I measure mine? How do my boundaries compare with someone who has not been sexually abused? These were baffling ideas and questions.
As a child, I could not defend myself against abuse from a bigger and stronger adult. If I tried to defend myself, I was punished more or overpowered. So I learned to submit in hopes that it would be less painful. My physical boundaries were breached over and over. My submission was a coping mechanism to help me through each act of abuse. I learned to allow others to do what they wanted and began to believe that I had no rights over my body. My mental and spiritual boundaries were also breached because the shame of my abuser was transferred to me (I was bad) and I was not being “good” as defined by my church. Over and above my beliefs, I felt the bad inside of me. I had no say in those areas.
Even after I told about my abuse and I was no longer available to my abuser, I had no one to teach me that I had rights over my body— that it was okay to say no. As a consequence, I faced many sexual situations that I did not wish to participate in, but felt I had no choice but to do what the other person wanted. That response had been conditioned in me for many years and I knew no better. I felt even more guilt and shame since it seemed no one had forced me to do those things. I became pregnant when I was seventeen.
The first time my fiancée grabbed my arms and shoved me during an argument, my reaction was perfectly normal; I became angry and wanted to leave and never see him again. Good, right? Except that my mother let him in against my wishes because he brought me flowers and candy and seemed truly sorry. She could have helped me by saying that no physical force against me was acceptable. I trusted her judgment since she was my mother and I was sure that she would not steer me wrong.
Years later, I found out that she knew about my abuse and did not protect me or my siblings. Now, instead of standing up for me, she urged me to give him another chance. He got plenty of other chances during our fourteen and a half years marriage. When I ran out of chances to offer him, it was only to protect my children and not myself.
Why did I think my children deserved to be protected but I didn’t? I was constantly yelled at, belittled, bullied and punished for what I did and did not do. I was told I was worthless and that no one would want me. I was the sweet, compliant person who thought more highly of everyone else.
My self worth could only be measured by his or her attention and compliments. If I received a compliment, I did not believe it; they were just being nice and I didn’t believe I deserved to be treated so nicely. They must have been saying those things out of pity or else they were nicer people than me. I avoided being close to anyone as I struggled to keep myself safe.
So where did the change take place and how did that come about for me? A few years, a lot of dysfunctional relationships and horrible choices later, I learned that it was “normal” for me to say yes to bad situations.
As a child, I really didn’t have much choice. If I was corrected or manipulated into saying yes when I tried to say no, then I learned to ignore my comfort. If I took the abuser’s behavior into myself, I learned to say yes to controlling, abusive and unloving behavior. I also learned to feel guilty about saying no, so I was manipulated into saying yes. These were boundaries that were not formed correctly in me. Is it any wonder that others who came along were able to do the same to me?
I got in touch with my anger at being abused and betrayed over and over. I realized that my abuse was not my fault, unlike what my abusers told me and led me to believe. In seeing one of my children victimized, I saw myself as a child for the first time. I also saw my abusive spouse for what he was and not with the excuses I made for him all the time. I saw the goodness in me and how others had trampled over this goodness and treated me so badly when I had given them everything good—even better than I gave myself. I saw myself deserving better and actually wanting better. I had worth and a good heart. Healthy people said the things that I had been feeling inside and helped me believe in me by validating my feelings, thoughts and values.
I had to start off setting boundaries timidly but I did start and a lot of the boundaries were set as a result of my feelings. I was able to see when someone was trying to manipulate me. My discomfort told me the truth. I learned to trust my “gut feelings” more and more. As I did these things, I was learning to set my personal boundaries.
I learned the signals that indicate a need to set my boundaries.
- Did I feel discomfort or pain?
- Did I continue to stay around others that made me feel uncomfortable?
- Did I feel that by saying no I would disappoint someone?
- Did I feel bad about saying no?
- Did I say yes when I felt inside I wanted to say no?
- Did I say yes to something that went against my true beliefs and feelings?
- Did I say yes because I was afraid they would leave me/ reject me?
I learned that boundaries are not just physical such as “Do not get too close to me”. Boundaries are emotional such as, “I refuse to allow myself to be upset by you”. Boundaries are also spiritual or mental such as, “You can’t tell me how to think or what to say or believe”.
In an uncomfortable or painful situation, I learned to say, “No, I don’t like that and won’t tolerate that.” People are not mind-readers and I had to speak up. I left bad and uncomfortable situations. I learned to say what I wanted and if the answer was no, it was okay because that was what made me feel safe and comfortable. Even when others tried to talk me into a situation that I did not like, I said no and felt okay about it. In abusive or disrespectful behavior from another, I left if they did not stop when I said no. Each no got easier and easier.
People still try to cross my boundaries often, but it is my responsibility to keep them. My boundaries are necessary to my safety and peace of mind. Yeah, my feelings are important to me and DON’T try to talk me out of them. It is a learning process and I’ve still got a lot to learn about myself. But I am so much better at protecting me. And I’m worth it.
The Fear of Being Re-victimized
Having experienced healing from sexual, physical and verbal abuse, Linda Pittman has found joy in encouraging others in their healing journey and tells people that it’s never too late to start. She’s been married to her husband for twenty-one years and has four adult children.
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