BY ISOBEL O'HARE
"Get out of my face!" I shout at my therapist, then giggle nervously.
"Try it again," she replies. "But take yourself seriously this time."
"Get out of my face!" I shout again, making an effort not to smile.
"Good. You can even say 'fuck you!' if you need to."
I'm standing at the edge of the shaggy green carpet in the center of my therapist's office, the area I've claimed as my space, while my therapist stands just outside it. She backs away toward the door.
"I'm going to come close to you now, very close to your face, and I want you to notice when you start to feel uncomfortable. When you start to feel like I am too close, I want you to put your hands up and tell me to get out of your face."
She walks slowly toward me, maintaining an unsettling eye contact the entire time. When she is about one foot away from me, I feel my chest tighten. At six inches I put my hands up and say, firmly this time, "Get out of my face!"
I'm not convinced. It bothers me that I allowed her to get closer even after the initial discomfort. I clearly don't trust my own instincts. I express this to her and she reminds me that boundary work is a process, that it's good to start from the center and work one’s way out.
For adult survivors of child abuse, boundaries are a lifelong struggle. We are taught early that chaos reigns and that anything can and will happen at any time. We alternate between hyper-vigilance and radical openness, and our wires are so tangled that we often cannot figure out which of these responses is appropriate in the moment. We spend our lives allowing ourselves to be abused by those who take advantage of our lack of boundaries, and lashing out at those who care, until we become conscious of the pattern and begin working to rewire our own brains.
What we don’t realize is the false dilemma inherent in the choice: rather than the constant pendulum swing from no boundaries to closed boundaries, going one way when we feel safe and another when we feel threatened, our challenge is to create and maintain long-term, flexible boundaries that allow self-respect to flourish in healthy relationships.
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“Without healthy boundaries or with very weak boundaries, you simply cannot have healthy relationships. You give up a part of yourself to be available or accommodating. Or you become so entangled with another person and their needs (co-dependent behavior) that you lose your own identity. This undermines your integrity and leads to a loss of self-respect--and the respect of those around you.”
“People with weak personal boundaries tend to attract controlling, disrespectful, or needy people into their lives. Or they simply train others to take advantage of them because they so willingly allow themselves to be used.” - Barrie Davenport, “10 Ways to Establish Personal Boundaries,” live bold & bloom
We are told to trust our instincts, but we come from places where instinct was incompatible with the rulers of our homes. We had to coexist with people who violated our boundaries daily, and so we shut off our feelings and ignored our instincts in order to survive. As we leave those environments, however, we find that the survival instincts that kept us alive in our childhood and adolescence prevent us from forming healthy connections as adults.
Jamie Harms, founder of HAVOCA (Help for Adult Victims of Child Abuse) writes:
"It is vital for me to observe other people's behaviour in order to protect myself. That does not mean I need to make a value judgment about their being based on their behaviour. Judgment is saying, 'that person is a jerk.' Observation is saying, 'that person seems to be really full of anger and it would be better for me to not be involved with them.'"
"There is no blame here," writes Harms. "There are no bad guys, only wounded souls and broken hearts and scrambled minds."
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Wherever you are in the process of building and maintaining your personal boundaries, there are a number of resources available to you. A relatively new kind of therapeutic treatment known as somatic experiencing therapy allows survivors to inhabit their bodies rather than dissociate in the midst of traumatic symptoms, and thus develop healthy responses when triggered emotions arise.
Somatic experiencing can be more effective than talk therapy for people whose traumatic memories are trapped in shadow, for the mantra of the somatic experiencing therapist is that survivors of trauma have symptoms rather than memories. With this in mind, the condition is treated like any other disease, not in reliving the experience but in managing it in ways that are conducive to healing and growth.
“Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty by speaking up or saying no to a family member. Many believe that they should be able to cope with a situation or say yes because they’re a good daughter or son, even though they 'feel drained or taken advantage of.' We might wonder if we even deserve to have boundaries in the first place.
Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect. So give yourself the permission to set boundaries and work to preserve them.” - Dana Gionta, PhD, “10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries,” Psych Central
For the magickally inclined, I've solicited a few boundary rituals from two witches I know. Feel free to incorporate these into your own ritual practice as needed.
From Zann Carter:
“All my life I have dealt with feeling overwhelmed by the moods of other people or the energy of places. My daughter calls me a sponge.
There are two things I do that utilize visualization work and require no tools. I like tools--crystals, herbs, incense, feathers, oils--and ritual, but I also want magick to be accessible and portable.
I surround myself with a shield, a sort of membrane. Sometimes it is glittery golden, sometimes transparent. When I first began doing this, I actively visualized negative energies bouncing off my shield, returning to the person radiating them. Eventually, that changed and these negative energies are now allowed to come through a short way, and visualized as transformed--either neutralized or, if the person I am shielding from is someone I care about, shifted into something lovely and kind, like rose petals--and then sent back. Occasionally, I also make a warding-away gesture with my right hand, palm out.
The other thing is not only for my boundaries, but also for when I feel overwhelmed by perceiving the banality of the mundane word, an existential meaninglessness. I say or think ‘step aside’ and either visualize or actually take a step to the side. It moves me to the perception of space where spirit and magick permeate the physical, and it moves me to that space where toxic people, situations, places are mitigated by the shimmer of magick in the world.
Finally, I have recently begun to clear and protect my own energy (or crystals or rooms) with the sound of a rattle instead of smoke. I started doing this after I discovered a lot of large seed pods shed by a tree downtown. I gathered them up without quite knowing what I’d use them for, then began to use them in ritual; rattling up the sun at Solstice, calling the directions. Last year, after my daughter used a small wooden egg rattle to clear my energies, I also acquired one that I travel with.”
From Chloe Rose:
"SPELL AND AMULET TO KEEP OUT THE GASLIGHT
To be performed at any moment, in any setting. Your circle is the rim of your mind, the shellbone oracle that keeps in the stuff you’re made of: gray matter, spirit, blood. This is a circle of power. Trust in your skull and brain, trust in your center. Call your guardians, your elementals, your space people, your otherpeople, your grandmother spirits. Let them aid you in your work. Call upon the Guardian at the Watchtower of the Stars, Void Elemental, to surround and protect your elements. Remind yourself of your elements: the earth in you whose strength is the mountain, the air in you whose song is your breath, the fire in you whose magma is your feels, the water in you whose ocean is one thing: a lineage of tears. Let this Element from space, a stardark deity, remind you that there are parts of this universe that your aggressor can never touch. Let this Element from space remind you that your neurons are made of stars. Let this Element from space remind you that there are certain laws that can never be broken, that facts are facts, that truth is truth, and the physics of things cannot be edited by the cunning dull minds that use their words against you.
If you have supply of these, craft an amulet to protect you. Find pouch or a locket. Add 8 Cloves for Abundance and Protection, a daisy chain in light blue for Psychic Attunement, Bergamot for Emotional Warmth, and Lavender for Clarity of Thought. If you do not have them, trust the Power within you and charge a blue object with Clarity, Strength, and Protection. Place these upon this sigil (it’s name is I KNOW BETTER) and charge this amulet, aided by the power of the Sun, and Moon, and Stars:
GUARD THIS FRAME OF MIND
FROM INTRUSIVE THOUGHT THAT BINDS
DECEPTION TO MY CELLS
THESE NEURONS KNOW THE TRUTH
THAT THIS WITCH IS DIVINE
LET NO BEING TAKE WHAT’S MINE
A KNOWING, CLEAR, and SACRED MIND
Thank your guardians for attending your work with bread and milk, the stuff of comfort and new things. Bits of Cheese for Space People. A cup of tea for the Otherpeople. This is a moment for self care with the stars. Remember that this circle is always with you. Wear your amulet or carry your charged object knowing and trusting that the work is done. You are you and your mind is your mind. You decide what’s real. You are real! As real as the sun and moon and stars. Let them remind you too. Gaze at them often, especially when it’s hard."
Isobel O’Hare is a Pushcart-nominated poet and essayist who has dual Irish and American citizenship. She is the author of the chapbooks Wild Materials (Zoo Cake Press, 2015) and The Garden Inside Her (Ladybox Books, 2016). Two of her poems appeared in the anthology A Shadow Map, published in 2017 by Civil Coping Mechanisms Press. She is currently at work on her first full-length poetry collection. Find her at isobelohare.com
Zann Carter is a midsummer crone, an eclectic Solitary, whose practice is to honor the everyday sacred and to explore the magick of process and transformation found in both poetry and the fiber arts. She is the head groundskeeper of th' poetry asylum (a sort of moveable literary community) in Terre Haute, IN. Her work has been published in SageWoman, Dirty Chai, The Healing Muse, Misfitmagazine, Atlas and Alice, and Witches & Pagans. Her website: www.zanncarter.com
Chloë Rose is a fat, queer, intersex woman of color living with disabilities and a cat in Tacoma, WA. She has been published by the Atticus Review, and her study "Space Witch" will be featured this year by Aspasiology. She enjoys writing poetry, essays, and fiction as well as tweeting about conlangs, antifa, feminism, and such as. Brown brown brown brown brown brown brown. @chloeandsuchas #mongrel #yerbamalacollective #MOGAI #poeta