Boundaries are essential for living a satisfying and healthy life, but they are especially crucial when healing from narcissistic abuse. Establishing physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries is imperative for safety and well-being. Often in toxic relationships, boundaries have either not been set, are unclear, or have not been respected.
Boundaries are important because they:
- determine what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for.
- define what we are comfortable with and what we are not comfortable with.
- clarify where we end and where someone else begins.
- convey who we are, what we value, and what our limits are
Boundaries protect what is important to us.
Key Areas Boundaries Are Needed When Healing From Abuse:
Boundaries with Toxic People
It goes without saying that boundaries are needed between a victim and her abuser. But also setting boundaries with other toxic people in your life is almost as important. Trust is earned; not everyone deserves access to your life.
As you learn to recognize toxic traits, you will begin to identify other unhealthy relationships in your life. This could be any relationship, including:
- a parent
- ministry leader
Unfortunately, not everyone has your best interest at heart. The fact that people seem kind does not mean their real motives actually are kind.
If a person says one thing, but that person’s actions say another, you should pay attention. This is probably a warning indicating a need to establish a greater boundary in that relationship. How this person chooses to respond to your boundary will often determine the health of that relationship. If this person continues to disregard and disrespect your boundaries, you may need to reconsider the place he or she has in your life.
“A good test of a relationship is how a person responds to the word ‘no.’ Love respects ‘no,’ control does not.” – Dr. Henry Cloud
Boundaries with Abuse Education
One of the most important things you can do when healing from narcissistic abuse is to educate yourself on it. Without understanding what narcissistic abuse is, the dynamics of it, and how it operates, you can be at risk of falling prey to toxic people over and over again.
That said, there may come a time when continually educating yourself on narcissistic abuse can actually cause further damage. After so many years of confusion, victims can often feel a sense of relief in finally having an explanation for what they have been going through. While this is encouraging, it can turn problematic if clarity turns into voracious reading up on and learning about narcissistic abuse.
Pacing yourself when learning about narcissistic abuse is so important. It is a lot to digest, and it is often accompanied by some very deep and painful realizations. Reading over and over again about narcissistic abuse can trigger a victim—stoking anxiety, setting off flashbacks, and causing a sense of hypervigilance to set in. It’s as though your foot becomes stuck while pressed down on the gas pedal of a car. At first, this acceleration helps you gain traction and speed, but if you get stuck in that position, you will not be able to stop the car, and you put yourself in danger.
If, instead of feeling clarity, you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious when learning about narcissistic abuse, it’s important for your well-being that you step away for a time. You may need to set a boundary for yourself and stop reading certain books and blogs, as well as unfollow certain social media accounts that discuss this topic, including Esther Company! I care more about your heart than about how many people follow this ministry or read our blogs. You can always pick things back up again when you feel the time is right.
Boundaries and Pain
It’s common for victims of narcissistic abuse to stifle their pain. This makes sense as they have often:
- been conditioned to believe that their feelings do not matter.
- experienced negative reactions or been ignored when sharing their feelings.
- received retaliation for communicating their feelings.
- been silent for so long that they now find it hard to even put words to their feelings.
- given up trying to communicate their feelings.
- believed it’s safer to stay silent about their feelings.
Being unable to express or not being safe to express feelings can cause victims of abuse to eventually disconnect from their feelings altogether. Even when victims of narcissistic abuse can still connect with their feelings, they may fear fully looking at and taking stock of all the damage that has been done. The fear of being overwhelmed by pain and grief is common. Frequently, I have heard people say:
- “I’m afraid the pain would kill me.”
- “I’m afraid I would never stop crying.”
- “I’m afraid I would go insane.”
- “I’m afraid of what I would find.”
Fear is one of the biggest liars. It makes sense that facing your emotions head-on feels scary, but listening to the voice of fear and not facing them will often only prolong your suffering.
Setting boundaries in your healing journey can help you determine a healthy process for expressing and accessing your feelings, as well as eliminate fears of being overwhelmed by pain.
Some examples of boundaries when healing from abuse might be:
- Deciding how much of your story you will share with people
- Determining who the safe people are in your life and the parameters of the relationship.
- Identifying out how often counseling may be helpful in your healing journey.
- Establishing certain days of the week or hours in the day to pursue healing.
Other examples of boundaries when healing from abuse might be:
- Deciding what you won’t share with people.
- Determining who the unsafe people are in your life and removing their access if needed.
- Identifying emotional triggers to protect abuse education from consuming you.
- Establishing certain times when you will take a break from pursuing healing.
Boundaries with Yourself
Victims of narcissistic abuse have often developed ways to stay safe—consciously or unconsciously. This may look like ignoring one’s own needs and feelings while catering to an abusive spouse’s needs and demands in order to avoid his anger. When victims eventually realize the coping strategies they have used, they may become critical toward themselves. It’s common for victims of abuse to direct harsh judgments toward themselves, like:
- How could I have not seen?
- How did I not know?
To victims of abuse, compassion from others feels like an elusive or foreign concept; self-compassion is even more so. A condemning inner voice can keep victims stuck in unforgiveness toward themselves! Self-forgiveness is often one of the biggest hurdles to healing from narcissistic abuse, but it is extremely important.
Just as establishing boundaries with toxic people is vital for survivors of abuse, so is establishing boundaries with toxic thoughts directed at themselves.
Self-compassion is a gift you can give to yourself. Forgiving yourself, as well as paying attention to and attending to your needs and desires, is a vital part of healing from narcissistic abuse.
You did the best you could with what you knew at the time.
Questions you can ask to identify boundaries you need to set with yourself might be:
- In what ways have I had to abandon myself in order to stay safe in this relationship?
- Has this worked?
- In what ways can I choose to be present for myself now?
- What changes can I make to alleviate stress in my life?
- What can I do to make space for joy in my life?
- What do I need right now?
- What can I let go of?
What to Do When Abuse Continues Even After Setting Boundaries?
Unfortunately, abuse can continue even after you have set boundaries or left a toxic relationship. Sometimes the abuse is aimed toward your children or you, directly or indirectly, through “flying monkeys.” (In other words, the abuse is inflicted upon you by the abuser through another person or group of people.) This is an exhausting and damaging reality for many women.
While we can’t control another person’s actions, we can choose our reactions. It is often helpful to prepare ourselves for the likely abuse that follows boundary-setting.
Ideas for how to protect your children and yourself from continual abuse include:
- Teaching your children about the dynamics of abuse and how to spot it.
- Modeling healthy boundaries and how to process pain for your children. More is caught than taught.
- Discussing ways your children can feel safe internally while potentially feeling unsafe externally.
- Preparing as best you can for the abuse while knowing that one can never truly be ready.
- Creating a plan of action to care for yourself and your children when an abusive incident happens.
- Giving yourself grace for any emotions that surface and placing them in God’s hands.
- Asking God for wisdom for your specific situations.
- Asking trusted and empathetic leaders for wisdom and advice.
- Surrounding yourself with friends who understand in order to shut out the isolation you may feel and find affirmation for your experiences.
- Giving yourself space to be alone if that is how you tend to regroup.
- Reclaiming your voice and rebuilding your life.
- Assigning purpose to your pain.
- Giving yourself lots of grace! It is not easy!
Boundaries Empower the Life We Desire and Create Space for Healing
Boundaries are not only essential for healthy living, but they are also paramount when healing from abuse. Abuse doesn’t have to define you, but defining your boundaries can, as they will help you create the life you desire and give you space for healing.
I pray God will continue to lead you, guide you, and give you great wisdom and discernment as you explore what boundaries may be needed in your life. I pray you will have not only the courage to create boundaries in your life, but also the tenacity to uphold them when it feels hard or they are challenged.
If you want to learn more about boundaries, check out the workshop on our Esther Company resource section called “Boundaries: The Key to Healthy Relationship.”