Building and Maintaining Boundaries After Sexual Abuse

by Anne Lauren

I’m an open-water swimmer: I prefer to dive into rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans instead of pools. I’m also a childhood incest survivor: I carry the weight of trauma and the work of recovery wherever I go.

I swim because it makes me feel light, it makes me feel held, it reminds me that the beauty and boundless waters are so much more powerful than my pain. I swim because it makes me feel strong.

When I speak to people about my love for ocean swimming, they often ask me: Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it cold? The currents are strong, right? Do the sharks intimidate you? The answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes! The answer is always yes.

So how do I do it? By building and maintaining boundaries.

Before I dive in, I confirm the following conditions:

  1. Environment: I only swim during the warmer months of the year. The bite of the water during the cold season isn’t worth it.
  2. Tools: I wear a wetsuit and gloves to keep me warmer, and flippers to keep me fast.
  3. People: I never swim alone. Sometimes, I invite friends. If they’re unavailable, then I swim near a bunch of surfers: close enough so that they see me, but far enough to stay out of their way.
  4. Research: The chances of getting eaten by a shark are about 1 in 4 million. It’s more dangerous to get in your car every morning than to go for an ocean swim. This helps me when I’m scared.
  5. Awareness: I keep an awareness of my surroundings at all times. If the waves or currents are too strong, I get out.

So during the summer, with the right gear, medium waves, a few surfers, and low chances of shark encounters, I often have very enjoyable open-water swims.

Sometimes I think about how nice it would be to not have these boundaries: to swim freely without a wetsuit, without the worry of the water or the beings within it, without others distracting me. But then I’m reminded that I can’t enjoy my swim if all I’m focused on is survival. Boundaries allow me to thrive.

They also took me a long time to develop.

Building Boundaries

I moved to Northern California about eight years ago. I grew up in Southern California, where the heat of the sun and water made it swimmable without a wetsuit, where the currents were light, the people present, and the awareness less necessary.

From the Northern California shore, I stared longingly for six years at the cold, strong, shark infested waters where fewer dared to swim before I decided to dive in myself. As soon as I knew the seasons, bought the tools, found the people, did my research, and fostered an awareness of the sea, I quickly fell in love with this beloved pastime.

Boundaries on land took me about the same amount of time to build and maintain. I didn’t learn about boundaries at home. For generations, boundaries had been violated in my family by men using children to meet their sexual needs. So I had to learn them as an adult.

I have surprisingly found that the same rules that keep me safe in the sea apply to keeping me happy on land:

  1. Environment: I only participate in social and professional environments that are suited to my value system.
  2. Tools: I have learned a variety of psychological techniques like EMDR and EFT to help me calm down when I’m triggered.
  3. People: I spend my free time with loving and supportive people who can embrace all of me and acknowledge my gifts, as well as honor the fact that I’m still a work in progress.
  4. Research: It is far less common to be raped by a stranger than it is to be raped by someone I know. Now that I have control of who I hang out with, I greatly decrease my chances of being abused. This helps manage the PTSD when I’m in unfamiliar environments.
  5. Awareness: I’m constantly observing my surroundings, looking for patterns, and ensuring that my environment continues to be safe.

These boundaries have helped me leave an abusive home, let go of illness caused by the violence, quit jobs that asked more of me than my health could provide, end friendships and romantic relationships that ceased to support me, and helped me to break the cycle of violence in my family.

More importantly, these boundaries have allowed me to rebuild a beautiful family made up of friends whom I have chosen, to nourish my physical, psychological, and spiritual health, to pursue a career that better suits my needs, to choose a healthy romantic partner when the time is right, and to develop a loving relationship with myself.

Developing these boundaries hasn’t been easy. I have lost a lot of people, a lot of places, and a lot of professions that I dreamed would be mine for a lifetime. But without those boundaries, I quickly came to understand that I simply wasn’t safe. Without safety, life wasn’t fully available to me. I couldn’t thrive if all I was focused on was survival.

As I continue to implement these boundaries into my days, I’m beginning to love life just as much on land as I do in the sea. I’m learning to feel the lightness of health, the support in being held by my community, and the power of the beauty and boundless nature of my being. I am strong.

Today I am so grateful for the boundaries I have built and maintained both on and off land, for they have led me to endless waters and an enjoyable life.

What kind of boundaries help you transition from surviving to thriving? Have you struggled with any of them? Please share your feelings with us below and remember to subscribe to the comments so you don’t miss any of the discussion. You can post anonymously and emails are never shared publicly.

Anne Lauren is a a word weaver, a woman warrior, and a wisdom wayfinder. She authors the blog, Blue&Lavender, which speaks of her experience recovering from sexual abuse and seeks to educate and inspire others to do so. Check it out at: She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium @BlueandLavender.


Related Posts:

Power Trip: How to Journey From Overpowered to Empowered
Letting Go of Control to Have a Freaking Amazing Future
Boundaries With Family
Taking Back My Life After Abuse

Building and Maintaining Boundaries After Sexual Abuse
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2 thoughts on “Building and Maintaining Boundaries After Sexual Abuse

  • April 8, 2018 at 4:16 am

    Very helpful article. I was terrified of my dad after the incest came out- I said no con tact but couldn’t resist reading his letters. So I sent them back or gave them to a friend to read and tell me if there was anything I should know. He sent postcards, and cc’d sisters, aunts, uncles, and in-laws on his emails. He finally hurt my sisters too deeply by dragging them into painful areas, and for them, I could stop my participation and efforting. I finally had to set boundaries with my sisters- I had a relationship with them as long as I protected them and nurtured them, but when I protested they were shutting me down and refusing to see me as a person healing from incest, they wanted Cheerios and kittens. That wasn’t mutual or reciprocal, and if I was putting so much aside to help with their personal grief and strife, I wanted the same in return. And being part of an incest support group changed friendships forever. They liked me, asked me to talk about myself, listened- and ditto for them. We didn’t try to fix each other- no advice- it was mutual, reciprocal, no body dominated the time. I didn’t have to be nice and kind allvthe time!!! So amazing to be a person, wanted. I no longer wanted one-sided relationships, and have radically changed my loyalty to 2 very long time friends, and let my craving for friends no matter what, go. I do want more than hide, silent, non-being. I hadn’t thought of the other areas, but they are insightful, too. Thank you!

  • April 9, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Well done Anne Lauren! Thank you so much for sharing the 5 Boundaries/Rules that keep you safe. I totally ate them up and resonate with all of it. This is exactly what I needed, as I’m learning to set and maintain boundaries in my own life. I grew up without healthy boundaries too, so I’m discovering what boundaries “work for me.”

    The part of your article that really popped out at me was at the end when you said “But without those boundaries, I quickly came to understand that I simply wasn’t safe. Without safety, life wasn’t fully available to me. I couldn’t thrive if all I was focused on was survival.” That’s my story too! I’ve been in survival mode, in “fight or flight” most of my life. Now I understand that is how my body has been “programmed” to respond, as a coping skill, but it has been at a great expense…my health. Now I am digging in, digging up the roots, doing the work, and learning lots of new tools so I can take care of myself…and keep moving forward step by step…from surviving to THRIVING AND LOVING LIFE!!!

    Thank you again for your vulnerability in sharing your story, and for your inspiration and empowerment. We need each other to work through our recovery and healing process. Much love and blessings to you.



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