How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships After Trauma

How to set healthy boundaries in relationships after trauma

How are you coping with so much time at home? Whether you call it lockdown, sheltering in place, or quarantine, just about everyone’s work-life balance has been disrupted. We need to nurture ourselves even more than usual these days. We are all in need of more self-care, gentleness and especially healthy boundaries in relationships!

Your schedule and your life are probably quite different now than they were before COVID.

Many are feeling disruptions like work reconfiguration and job loss, school changes, less socializing, and other uncertainties. These challenges are stressful for almost everyone. Many people are missing an overall sense of structure, boundaries and balance in their everyday lives.

Establishing structure and boundaries in daily life helps increase function and safety. We now need to set new routines and structures that can help ground us to the present moment, allowing us to function in a new way. We’ve lost so many of our familiar routines and therefore, the sense of security they gave us.

And for trauma survivors, just learning the basics of healthy boundaries is especially important.

The pandemic has broken down the boundaries we relied on. The increase in distress can be even greater for trauma survivors. That’s because learning about healthy boundaries in relationships is by itself extra-challenging for trauma survivors. Now COVID has made that even more difficult – dismantling the routines and personal space that took so much effort to carve out initially.

How trauma denies people the power of boundaries

When circumstances feel overwhelming, surviving becomes the most important thing. If you don’t feel safe with those close to you, exposing your needs and feelings is the last thing you want to do.

Many trauma survivors learned early on to seek safety and protection by putting others’ needs first. Awareness of danger and fear can keep people from even having the space to recognize their own needs.

One sign a person needs help setting boundaries is a fear of expressing needs. Another sign is reluctance to give self-care more importance. Trauma survivors especially can struggle with an absence of boundaries that would otherwise help them speak up for what they need.

If you are in a family or relationship with domestic or interpersonal violence, or any unsafe living situation, I want you to stop reading this and seek support right now. Everyone deserves safety! Safety is always the top priority!

For many, the current level of disruption and stress is magnifying the need for coping mechanisms. When putting everybody else first is a go-to coping mechanism to feel safer, trauma survivors often give themselves even less self-care than usual!

New self-care challenges

What self-care challenges do you see in your situation? We’re seeing individual and family challenges like these:

  • Parents with children at home during the day are trying to be the parent, the teacher and the playmate. Working parents are also trying to be good employees and professionals on top of all this.
  • Couples who are trying to stay connected without date nights, or keep kind, cordial and warm feelings alive with too much time together.
  • Singles who are trying to navigate dating right now, or figure out how to not feel isolated while much of their world is on hold.

We all may be wondering things like:

  • How do I separate working and living (and teaching)?
  • Do I get any alone time?
  • I’m lonely. How do I feel connected?
  • How do I socialize? What’s appropriate?

Amidst all of this, we’re trying to figure out how to stay safe and questioning:

Is this a risk that will affect my health and the health of others?

So, how do we deal with lack of healthy boundaries in relationships? Here are some ideas:

How to create healthy boundaries in a traumatic time

When it comes to connection, socialization and safety…

Notice what you want and need

Some of us want to socialize and connect more, while some want very little connection. When it comes to engaging with others, think about what you want and need. There is no right answer—it’s all about your personal comfort.

Tune in – not out – to check your tolerance for risk

What feels comfortable to you? Everybody has to make choices that work for them based on their risk tolerance.

You can read the news headlines or listen to friends. I would suggest looking internally rather than externally for the answers about what feels safe and appropriate for you.

Tap into what feels comfortable, and what feels uncomfortable, by paying attention to how your body feels when a certain invitation is posed, or when you’re trying to figure out how to interact with the world right now.

Even if everybody else is comfortable going to an outdoor gathering, you don’t have to be! Even if everybody else seems comfortable not wearing a mask in certain settings, you don’t have to go along!

Communicate about it

It might take practice. You might not be used to voicing your boundaries in this way. Try saying things like:

  • I’m going to pass on that invitation. Let’s talk about it after COVID is over.
  • I don’t feel comfortable coming to your house unless we stay outside.
  • I’d like to go for a walk if we both wear masks. Would that work for you?

Setting boundaries for personal space and time at home

The boundaries that may have existed by default are gone.

There may have been some time built into your day before COVID, where you were able to prioritize yourself. Since time for yourself seemed automatic, you didn’t need to ask for it. You just used it when it was available.

But now, those chunks of time may no longer exist by default. These built in boundaries are gone.

Now that so much has changed, have you stopped doing some things for yourself you used to enjoy?

Maybe before, you’d have a cup of tea when the kids got on the bus.

Or you’d sing in the car on the way to work.

Or you’d read in bed before your spouse or roommate came home.

Or you’d meet a friend for lunch or attend a meeting or social event.

And now, there’s none of that.

So, what can you do for healthy boundaries in relationships at home?

I want you to take care of yourself. Self-care might look different than before, and that’s okay. But you need to nurture and take care of yourself.

Pick one thing that is non-negotiable.

If your life right now is all about other people, it will be unrealistic for me to ask you to figure out everything you need and suggest you do that. So, how about this: Think of one or two things you need most.

Could you imagine doing this thing even once or twice a week? Maybe even every day?

Maybe you want and need to get out of the house and could walk the dog.

Maybe you need to sit and drink your coffee in the morning, uninterrupted.

Maybe you need to lock yourself in the bathroom and take a shower at a certain time.

Maybe you need to reach out more to friends.

Communicate it

This is what I need. I am planning to do this. Would you be able to support me to make this happen?

Follow through

Children, spouses and friends may not honor your boundaries if you don’t. Start doing the thing.

“I’m going for a walk now. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”

Setting boundaries when you have no time to yourself

If you can’t find time to do what you need…

Could you find time to journal about it, to start a “list of things I notice I need”? Could you then just know that list exists as a goal to work on?

For everyone—right now—I want you to know:

1. Speaking up is empowering

When you are able to speak up for the level of comfort you need, and define boundaries for yourself, it’s empowering!

I know it’s not easy. Once you start choosing to use your voice to create and sustain boundaries, it becomes easier to do it again and again. That deserves a great big cheer! (Here’s more about the self-affirming benefits of healthy boundaries.)

2. Opportunities to find and build strength exist

Although some things during this time may be triggering, they can also be used as an opportunity to broaden your window of tolerance.

Changing the framework can remind you that this is different than the trauma you experienced in your past.

This is happening to all of us. You are not alone and it’s not a secret. We can all lean on each other.

Trauma survivors also have the superpower that you can leverage. You have already survived so much! This universal trauma currently occurring may help remind you of your strength and work to help you heal.

3. Accept you are doing the best you can

These are unprecedented times.

It’s not easy! We all have to realize we have some strength, and also accept some powerlessness. There may be some peace in accepting that you’re doing the best you can given the situation.

4. What’s right for you is the question

There’s no right or wrong. No defining answer. Only what’s right for you. The answer lies in figuring out what that is.

5. Look for your silver lining

Although there may be a lot of hard adjustments to make there’s also a silver lining, and things to be grateful for.

Need support?

A trauma-informed therapist can help you reset healthy boundaries in relationships after the trauma of COVID – or other trauma. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for the care you deserve.

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