Issues with personal boundaries after childhood sexual abuse
I thrive. Healing from child sexual abuse
On the theme of Healing from child sexual abuse I've written a book that is now available through Amazon, called 'I thrive. Healing from child sexual abuse'. If you like what I've written here, be sure to check it out.
One of the major effects of childhood sexual abuse is having difficulty setting and maintaining personal boundaries. As the child is still in development at the time the abuse occurs, it generally fails to develop adequate personal boundaries. After all, their feelings, their experiences are discounted and regarded with disdain, both by the abuser and eventually the child itself, who learns that since it's boundaries are not respected, it's better not to set any. Quite often as we've seen the child convinces itself that what is happening is it's own wish or it's own fault, trying to escape from knowing that it's primary caregiver (or a trusted adult) is in fact abusing the child for his or her personal sexual satisfaction.
The way the personal boundaries issue plays out in adulthood can be roughly devided into two catagories: Those who fail to set any personal boundaries and those who fail to respect the personal boundaries of others. In both cases it's a difficulty that can have a large impact on lifestyle and personal satisfaction in life.
Those failing to set boundaries often find themselves in situations that lead to revictimization. Quite often this already starts to happen in childhood: either by the abuser bringing others into the game or by others recognizing the victim behavior and taking advantage of it. Unsurprisingly, those who prey on the very young for their sexual satisfaction can often be found in professions dealing with children. Teachers, childcare workers, little league coaches: all these are attractive professions for those with an inclination to pedosexuality. Also, they have a nose for children vulnerable to their desires. If a child shows an underdeveloped sense of personal boundaries, they are more likely to fall victim to their grooming.
Feeling your NO
The adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse may have a difficult time with both feeling their no and speaking it. The first is a result of their feelings being stuffed deeply in the far recesses of their mind. If your no is not respected, not heard and acknowledged, feeling it is detrimental to your survival. In fact it's good strategy on the part of the child not to feel any of their negative reactions to the abuse, at the very least until it's over. Since the child can not escape the situation (or at least feels that they can't) it's best to "make the best of it". Feelings are stuffed so far away that as an adult this remains the habit. They've learned to fake it, so as to satisfy the abuser.
So as an adult they go through life in a daze, never feeling strongly about anything (strong feelings are dangerous). Feeling their no is threatening and causes them to behave irrationally, out of proportion to the situation and sometimes just to comply to whatever is asked of them, regardless of what their own feelings might be. They simply cease to have feelings. This is a fair description of what a depression feels like from the inside.
In my personal healing I found that I had a difficult time feeling what I was feeling. I was able to set some boundaries but not a lot of them. In Hapto-therapy, which is a way of using touch and personal space to illustrate deeper psychological issues, this is what happened:
Haptotherapy, the intake.
I came in to the therapists office and she told me I could sit anywhere. This was kind of difficult as there were several places I could sit and well, I know the therapy is about personal space, so where I sat would be important information to the therapist. I would rather remain invisible, unknowable. I finally chose a seat with my back to the wall and my eye on the door. Then she asked me where I wanted her to sit. This was beyond me: I couldn't bring myself to assign a place for her. I told her I didn't care, she should choose for herself.
She asked me if I was sure that I didn't care, whatever she chose would be fine? I said, yes, I'm sure, you choose. Then she sat on my lap.
Now I imagine that "normal" people with healthy boundaries would have told her to get off, pushed her away or gauging her intentions would have prevented her from sitting there in the first place. "Nice try lady, on second thought I'd like you to sit way over there". I couldn't even do that. She asked me how that felt and I didn't have an answer. She wasn't going away on her own accord I had to find a way to get her to leave and I just couldn't. I felt like that child again, unable to move, unable to speak my mind, unable to even show my emotion. Slowly I started to cry, then bawl. Finally after what seemed like at least a half hour I pushed her off, roughly.
That, more than anything illustrated to me how bad off I was. Here a total stranger could take whatever seat she wanted on me and I had no recourse. Of course this happened within the confines of a therapeutic relationship and as such it was something I could learn from, but it shocked me to think that I had so little defence if someone crossed the line of appropriate behavior. If someone entered my personal space.
A child in an adult world
Imagine I had walked into a bar, and someone pushed themselves on me?
Imagine I was at a restaurant and someone sat by me and put their hands in inappropriate places?
Imagine a boyfriend or girlfriend would take liberties with my body?
Imagine someone offering me drugs, alcohol or favors for sex?
Imagine me in the hands of a loverboy or pimp?
All these things happen, even if they didn't all happen to me. In that moment, in that therapists office, all these instances came tumbling through my head. Every one night stand I had ever had, started like that. Even though my mind had made it a matter of personal choice, my heart knew better. I had been abused time and again, this time though, as I was an adult, I had concented to the abuse many times over (allthough in one instance, in retrospect, I was plainly raped). Worse, even. I had sought out situations in which I could use others, usually men, to abuse myself with. What looked like a lady out on the town trying to have a good time was really a little girl who was unaware of her own feelings about the matter. And as a child I'd learned that sex was a way to get some attention at least.
I Thrive. Healing from child sexual abuse
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Speaking your NO
The one instance where I was raped I had said no. I had said no, not because of anything other than the fact that we had no condoms. That's one thing that my abuser was very particular about. He knew that there'd be a lot of trouble explaining a pregnancy in a twelve year old, especially since I was too young to even date, that he was very, very careful about condoms. He never penetrated without one. So that boundary was firmly esstablished and since this guy didn't have any, I told him tough luck. I was however unsurprised when he had his way with me anyway. My ultimate revenge: Slipping out in the dead of night leaving a note saying: "It wasn't worth it".
Someone who has been abused as a child has had their NO disregarded so many times, they don't expect their no to be heard. I've been lucky, I didn't fall into the hands of a pimp, I was too scared to ever do drugs in a major way (just the legal stuff over here in Holland, and off that the mildest variety). Somehow my survivors instinct got me to throw in my fate with people who were at least fairly decent. I know of many survivors of childhood sexual abuse who weren't so lucky.
Even if you get in touch with feeling your NO, as I had with the guy who didn't pack a condom, it's difficult to speak it and to stick by it. After I had said no to him, and he didn't relent, told me he wanted it anyway, I didn't feel like I had any other choice. It never occurred to me to leave the house. It never occurred to me that I could scream, call the police, kick him in the groin, any of that stuff. His actions confirmed my view of the world, carefully construed by my abuser: Men only want sex, nobody would ever love me like he had and my NO doesn't count for much in the world.
It's hard to say no when you're expecting that it doesn't matter anyway. Eventually you stop saying it and your no gets locked away in the basement with all the other unwanted stuff from your childhood. I was very good at predicting what people wanted (another skill learned as a child to survive the sexual abuse) and rather than telling them no on anything pretty much had things taken care off before the question ever arose.
Respecting other peoples NO
Another possible risk of having no boundaries yourself is the risk of not respecting those of others. Fully 60% of abusers have suffered from childhood sexual abuse themselves. This seems counterintuitive: how can anyone who has been abused do the same to others?
One of the things that come into play here is that the survivor of childhood sexual abuse is unable to recognize someone elses no. Being abused is just the way the world IS, based on your experience. Having been denied the right to have a no, you fail to recognize the other persons no. Also, there may be an element of vindictiveness in there. Since you had no choice in the matter, why should anyone else? What makes them so special that they get to say no?
The world view that a survivor of childhood sexual abuse might adopt is: There's winners and losers, victors and victims. You're helpless to change this fact of life, and rather than being the victim, they choose to be the victor. Western society is quite conducive to that train of thought, and for the most part it's considered preferable to choose the victors role. Never mind the "turn the other cheek" imperative from the bible.
Aside from turning into an outright abuser themselves there are many other, more subtle ways in which the survivor of childhood sexual abuse can fail to recognize and respect the other person's NO.
- Becoming manipulative adults who use all their acting skills to get their way.
- Survivors in marriages where the partner is completely robbed of their say in anything, (usually on the shaky grounds of "my partner was abused as a child")
- Parents with an absolute view of the world to which their children are forced to subscribe.
- Robbing children of valuable learning experiences by an overprotective, domineering and controlling parental style.
- Using the child to fill the emotional void leads to a form of emotional incest, which may never take the form of sexual abuse, but is nevertheless detrimental to the childs ability to grow into a healthy adult.
These are all pitfalls having to do with an inability to see and respect other peoples personal boundaries. In a way, everyone who is dealing with a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is at risk of being treated in a way that crosses their personal boundaries. For that reason it's very important, when in a relationship with a survivor (with anyone really, but especially important with survivors of childhood sexual abuse) to set the boundaries early and clearly. Generally the survivor doesn't want to do unto others what was done unto them, but awareness comes first. If you're placating or making allowances to them on account of them being abused, they are not learning to put boundaries in their proper places.
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