Do victims have a problem with setting boundaries?
Do victims have a problem with setting boundaries? This is a close cousin to the question “Do victims attract abusers?” which I looked at recently in my post Is there something in a victim that an abuser latches on to?
One of our readers, Pamplamoussejuice, made a comment to which I wrote a couple of responses. I think the issue she raised deserves a post on its own, so no-one misses out. [our discussion was among a mass of other comments on that original post].
Here is what Pamplamoussejuice wrote:
For me, I think it is because I had no boundaries. I was raised to put up whatever treatment I got and never complain, and also to think that I was somehow responsible for it. I still really tend to put up with a lot of bad treatment from others without complaint – which is a real juxtaposition to the way I live the rest of my life: that is not my personality with anything else. I am an avid defender of my kids, of the Gospel, of proper doctrine, and have offended many people (not because I am offensive) because of these things without caring – but in my personal relationships, I am totally different. I have to unlearn this, but I don’t know how to defend myself and my boundaries in the proper, healthy, biblical way. I don’t even know what they are probably.
And here are my responses:
You raise a really important point, and one that I think many survivors, especially females, will identify with: “I was raised to put up whatever treatment I got and never complain, and also to think that I was somehow responsible for it.”
Let’s examine this for a moment.
Martha Stout, PhD, author of The Sociopath Next Door, has this to say (p.100, my emphasis added)
When you teach your daughter, explicitly or by passive rejection, that she must ignore her outrage, that she must be kind and accepting to the point of not defending herself or other people, that she must not rock the boat for any reason, you are not strengthening her pro-social sense; you are damaging it – and the first person she will stop protecting is herself. … Do not set her up to be gaslighted. When she observes that someone who is being really mean is being really mean, tell her she is right and that it is okay to say so out loud.
Maybe also, you have a better sense and command of your own boundaries than you realize. If you are an avid defender of your kids, and of the Gospel and proper doctrine, you are not an essentially silent or timid personality.
Maybe the problem is not that you are unable to know or set boundaries in personal relationships, but that the person(s) you have had important relationships with have been so abusive and disrespectful that it was not possible to maintain boundaries with them. This often occurs in abusive scenarios. When the victim sets specific boundaries, the abuser deliberately and strategically runs roughshod over those boundaries. Often the victim may chose not to set certain boundaries because the consequences of saying “No” are even more dangerous than not saying “No”. When we overtly resist, abusers often escalate and punish us further. So we choose our battles carefully, and we covertly and creatively resist, biding our time, trying to gather our wits despite his fog-machine working overtime, and nurturing what we can in ourselves and our kids until the time is right to institute that one big boundary: Separation and Zero Contact if possible.
Here is what a survivor wrote to me recently (paraphrased and reprinted with her permission):
I, too, used to note that apart from relationship with my then-husband, I had the capacity to say “No”. The reason why I couldn’t was due to my safety – and I was doing everything I could to keep everyone safe. My ability to say “No” is pretty average: sometimes, it is hard, sometimes it is only a bit uncomfortable. But everyone seems to find it very difficult to say “No” to my ex, not just me, but also his kids, his friends, my friends, church leaders, the police, the legal system and his colleagues. The only people who managed to say “no” were abusive people themselves – my mother, who had no trouble slamming the phone down, some of his brutal co-workers, and a tenant who is pretty big and scary. So the inability to say “No” was not a fault of mine, it was a feature of anyone in relationship with him.
Here is an article that you will find useful. I’ve added it to our Resources page as well.
Resistance to Violence: A Key Symptom of Chronic Mental Wellness – by Martine Renoux & Allan Wade (secular therapists)
The article by Renoux and Wade is discussed at my notunderbondage blog.