When Boundaries Are Hard
Triggers. We all have them.
It could be a pat on the back, a playful tickle, or an innocent violation of personal space that triggers you. And all of a sudden your body reacts and panic overcomes you.
I haven’t quite figured out what it is that panics. My logical, rational brain knows and understands that the person who touches and triggers me is safe. It could be someone I love, someone I trust, but the part of me that was abused jumps out of my skin and makes me feel like I’ve lost control. My heart races and whatever it is in me that demands safety, urges me to confront them.
I’ve had to confront three people that I can recall about the way they touch me. All of them are safe. All of them are trustworthy. All of them meant only good. But my body remembers the abuse and associates a loving touch with pain and a lack of control.
The first one was my dad. I hated telling him, but my body demanded that I set a boundary. I had to ask my father not to initiate hugging me. I told him with my sister who was also abused and needed to set the same boundary. She was overcome with guilt after he walked away. Teary-eyed, I told her that he was more upset with the men who hurt us and made us have to have that conversation than he was with us for having it.
A few months went by and my father can hug me without me panicking. My body finally agreed with my rational brain that he is safe. It took some time but healing takes time. Healing takes boundaries that are hard to set. But healing WILL HAPPEN.
The second two were friends. Their playful touches were affectionate and kind, with every good intention. Again, my brain knew this, but my body refused to accept it. They are safe so I told them both, “I have PTSD and you can’t do that, it freaks me out.” They responded with apologetic hearts full of grace. They respected my boundaries, even though they were hard to set.
Boundaries with friends and loved ones are easier for me than with strangers. I don’t want to tell strangers that “I have PTSD so please stop standing so close to me” or “Please don’t grab my arm, I don’t know you,” I want them just to know better. I work in a retail environment and am constantly surrounded by people. Customers invade my personal space on a daily basis and assume its appropriate to touch me. They mean well and aren’t trying to hurt me, but my body doesn’t care.
When they stand too close, I back up hoping they will receive the non-verbal message I’m sending them. When they touch me, I gage the situation quickly and either speak up or step back. Fight or flight. I usually choose flight, not wanting to be confrontational. But sometimes, I have to choose flight because my body forces me to.
I had a male customer touch my arm one day and before I could stop them, the words, “Please don’t touch me,” escaped my mouth. I shocked myself with this boundary. He was apologetic and crossed his arms for the rest of our interaction. Your body will choose fight or flight without consulting you first sometimes. It will demand fight or flight in seconds and all of a sudden you’re in this out-of-body fighting or fleeing.
I have to believe that it will get better. It did with my dad, so it has to with other people right? But I worry that I’ll never be able to have healthy relationships because of the abuse I’ve suffered. I worry that the walls my fear has built will always be too thick to let anyone in again. I worry that my anxiety will keep me from enjoying close relationships. And then I remember the healing my Jesus has given me. I remember how far I’ve come. How much braver I am. How much stronger I am. I remember the warrior He’s made me to be.
If I’m honest, I’m afraid for tomorrow. Rationally, I know it will probably be okay, but the PTSD keeps me concerned. I just have to keep walking. Keep trusting my Heavenly Father. Keep practicing healthy coping skills. And keep setting boundaries. I have to walk in confidence and faith even when I don’t feel it.
Keep walking, dear warriors. Set your boundaries. Do your thing. You’ve got this.