Monday, March 16, 2009

PTSD Healing: Thinking Inside the Box

Getting back to Sarah and the black cloud she brought over me every time I was with her. I couldn’t help myself or stop myself from feeling the depression she exhibited. My own emotional boundaries were weak. And how could they not be? I lived in a perpetual brain fog where my emotions were uncontrollable and my clarity non-existent. I had no tools for erecting and maintaining a safe emotional space. If only I had known….

1 – The concept of emotional boundaries, as described here in this quote from coach Marcia Francois’ article ‘How To Set Healthy Boundaries’:

What is a boundary? In a physical sense, it is easy to understand that a boundary marks off where your property starts and where the neighbour's ends. You are responsible for your property but not for anything that happens on your neighbour's.

While not as easy to mark off, our emotional boundaries also mark off where our responsibilities start and end. Too many people feel out of control of their lives because they don't have good emotional boundaries.
Boundaries are like fences in that they keep bad things out and good things in. This means that you protect yourself from things or people that might hurt you and you nurture things or people that help you. Notice I said fences and not walls. A wall means that nothing gets through from either side whereas a fence allows flow.

Boundaries are limits or barriers that protect you, your time and your energy. When your boundaries are well-defined, they help to prevent conflict within your relationships. They are like your personal rules or policies. Laura Stack says it beautifully, "setting limits is a way of defining who you are and what you're all about, what you will do and what you won't; what's acceptable to you and what's not".

Setting boundaries means owning and taking responsibility for your personal choices and the consequences thereof. You make the choice, you take responsibility and you can make a different choice if you don't like the consequence. You can't control other people's behaviour but you can control the extent to which it affects you. In other words, control your exposure to people.

2 – Signs of my emotional boundary weakness: Since I always existed in a hyper-state of some kind I didn’t pay attention to the signs of my reaction to others and how these reactions indicated my boundaries were insufficient. But you can start listening to that small voice and being aware of these signs that your emotional boundaries are being breached:

- Knots in your stomach when you agree to do some things

- Anger and resentment

- Deep feeling of dread

- Feeling shocked or being appalled at something someone said or did

3 – How to set emotional boundaries: Marci suggests,

-Learn to say no.

-Remember if the reaction to your setting boundaries is not great (sulking, anger, etc), it's not about you - it's about them. That feeling belongs on their side of the "fence".

-Write these 4 sentences on a piece of paper and write out as many statements underneath each as you can think of:

a. People may not...

b. I have a right to ask for...

c. To protect my time and energy…

d. To feel safe while reaching out…

As you prepare to broaden your interaction with others (because you are, right, beginning to reach out??) it’s important to become aware of our reactions to those we meet, and also, to develop a method of maintaining our emotional boundaries. We can't heal if we get caught up in the wrong crowd or allow others to ooze all over us. It’s one thing to be compassionate and another to be used up by someone else’s needs. It’s one thing to want to reach out and another to get sucked in to an emotional energy that’s destructive.

When reaching out and finding your niche groups, these are some things I've learned:

In order to make boundary decisions you must become aware of how you feel around, about and because of the people you interact with;

You are in charge of your own emotions – you choose, decide and maintain the boundaries of how others impact upon you;

You decide how close to allow others (and their thoughts and opinions) to get;

You decide to be affected by others or to recognize and establish the distance you want between you and them;

It’s all about YOU, not about them.

In order to make the right decisions about emotional boundaries you must be willing to 1) recognize when you do not feel good about reaching out, 2) understand what’s making you feel badly, 3) do something about it.

There are so many places, ways and people with which to interact. If you don’t feel good, healthy, supported and respected in one place immediately remove yourself from that situation and continue your search for another. Don't get caught up in trying to figure out what's wrong or fighting with people. You don't feel good, that's all you need to know. Trust that little voice inside, it's thinking both in and out of the box.

(Photo: Raaid)


Anonymous said...

This is a very important area. I've found myself in the past very sensitive to the emotions of those around me and have become easily upset/distressed when others have been that way.

At the dance I went to this weekend one of the women went to greet me with a kiss on the lips. That was a step too far in my book.

We are friends but that is beyond socially acceptable for me.

I turned my head and so she had no choice but to kiss me on the cheek.

She took offence at not being able to kiss me on the lips but I just laughed it off with some nonsense comment.

Most of all I felt quite strongly that it is I who gets to choose who I allow to kiss me and if they don't like it that's not my problem.

I was pleased with myself for recognising and enforcing my own emotional needs and rights that night.

One of the hardest things for me to do has been to re-establish emotional boundaries, to take control of them and to recognise when they are being violated and when that violation is just not some PTSD trigger.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Mike -- I so know what you mean! Our physical boundaries and emotional boundaries are so easily (and so often simultaneously) breached.

Sounds like you handled the situation masterfully and like a true gentleman. Especially in the dance world I find the boundaries blurry since we are, after all, allowing total strangers into our personal space for the sake of the dance. An odd activity for people with PTSD since we don't always like to get close to people, and yet we then put ourselves in a situation in which there's no way to avoid it. Healing, though, I think, too. Which may be why we do it in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Doing things that I am afraid of or want to avoid or don't want to do has been the heart of healing for me.

Dancing with and being close to people has been the most difficult thing of all. That's why I do it.

Dance etiquette as you know is somewhat relaxed and personal space is somewhat ill-defined.

Having people in that space regardless of whether I wish them to be there (since in lessons we don't get to choose dance partners) is good healing practice.

Getting better is more difficult than staying sick.

It's like Physio for the mind and it can be painful..

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Mike -- I love the way you think, and also the way you express yourself.

I have a proposition for you:

How about a guest post? On the topic of "Doing things that I am afraid of or want to avoid or don't want to do has been the heart of healing for me."

Any interest in putting something together for the 'Survivors Speak' feature?

Anonymous said...


zebra's polkadots and plaids said...

great topic and so timely as I am struggling with my issues today...more on this topic would be good anyday!

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Zebra - I think this one topic has to be something we practice over and over. Even non-PTSD people have trouble with this one! The most important thing for me has been to cultivate an awareness of my reaction to people and to ACT on that reaction, putting space between those that rub me wrong right away to minimize their effects.

The funny thing about PTSD is that we're always functioning in a state of alert, but not always in the right areas. Like we'll make sure we're safe in a room, but not pay attention to how we're affected by who's in the room with us!

It's a wily creature PTSD is...