“I just can’t say no”
“I didn’t really want to do that, but I felt like I had to.”
Have you ever found yourself saying those sorts of things or were in a situation where you felt like you were backed into a corner and just couldn’t say what YOUR needs were? If so, it might be time to set some boundaries. Think of boundaries as your own personal playbook of rules, guidelines, expectations and limits that you have determined and set for your relationships. Sounds simple, right? Well, it can sometimes get a bit complicated and lines can get blurred, which is why it is important to examine your boundaries and determine whether or not you have healthy boundaries in place.
Let’s talk a bit about why boundaries so important. Healthy boundaries set the guidelines for how you want and expect to be treated. Having boundaries ensures that your relationships are respectful, healthy and they help you determine what is acceptable in your life and what isn’t. Setting boundaries after a traumatic experience, such as sexual assault, can be particularly challenging but is a very important step in recovery. Assault, whether domestic violence or sexual assault, is the ultimate invasion of personal boundaries. That trauma can cause you to feel helpless, you may experience many things that trigger you, and you may have anxiety or even PTSD. You often feel as though your autonomy has been taken from you. A way to regain that autonomy is to create boundaries. If you get triggered by touch, making a “no touch rule” is a great boundary to have. By creating those rules around your own expectations of how others treat you, you are reversing that sense of loss of control that assault causes.
Now that we understand what boundaries are and why they are important, let’s talk about how to determine and establish them. There are several types of personal boundaries, but we are going to focus on physical and sexual boundaries. These two categories of boundaries can be particularly important for survivors of domestic and sexual assault as those boundaries were likely violated. Physical boundaries are your rules about your personal space and body. If you haven’t yet created physical boundaries, ask yourself the following questions: how do I feel about giving hugs? How about when someone touches my arm? Am I open to handshakes? What do I do if someone is standing or talking too closely, invading my personal space? How you handle each of these scenarios is an example of a personal boundary. If you have determined some physical boundaries, make sure that you are communicating them to those around you, be it family, friends, or coworkers. We don’t want someone inadvertantly overstepping one of your boundaries! Make sure that the people in your life know them and respect them.
Sexual boundaries are especially essential for survivors of sexual assault. There may be things that you are 100 percent uncomfortable with, some non-negotiables that you’ll need to communicate to future partners. One way to figure out what your sexual boundaries are is to analyze some scenarios and identify things you are or aren’t comfortable with. Think about past experiences, when has sex been great? What were some things that you particularly enjoyed? What left you feeling unsatisfied? How do you feel about certain activities? What about certain language? What are your absolute non-negotiables, and what are your negotiables. These types of questions are very important in order for you to know what is acceptable to you or not in a sexual experience. Sexual boundaries and consent go hand in hand, remember that both of these things start with a conversation. It is important to have this conversation before entering in a sexual relationship so that you can ensure that both of you are on the same page when it comes to your boundaries. Talk about what you want and need from them and remember that although it may feel uncomfortable at first, it can really be a great way to start building trust with a new partner. Make it an open and ongoing dialogue between you. A healthy sexual relationship hinges on good communication and it is important to share what may trigger you during a sexual encounter. If your partner is aware of some of the trauma you’ve experienced they may be able to help you deal with something that triggers you during sex. Setting boundaries and having them respected will help you regain that sense of control that may have been taken during an assault.