Why Vulnerability Needs to Go Hand in Hand with Setting Boundaries to Heal from Trauma
While not all trauma is rooted in abuse, any type of abuse is an invasion of our boundaries, physically and emotionally. In consequence, the experience of such a traumatic event can impair our ability to set boundaries. This is especially true for traumatic experiences we make as children. The younger we were when the traumatic experience happened, the more severe the imprint on ourselves can become, as our core beliefs develop completely unconsciously during our childhood. Instead of having a healthy sense of self, of boundaries and feeling safe in the world, we experience the world as an unsafe place that we do not have any control over. We may not feel like we belong. We may not feel like we have the right to ask for what we need. Way me lack trust and connection to ourselves and others. Inevitably, this leads to fear of vulnerability, fear of pain, fear of disconnection, fear of not being enough, fear of not being seen or heard. These fears can lay a foundation for isolation, loneliness, blaming others and feeling shame within. As a result, we might try to fit in, we may set out to seek happiness outside of ourselves or try to numb ourselves and develop addictive behavioral patterns. This may provide us with a temporary protection from the pain we still carry within and enable us to engage in the world with excitement. But these coping mechanisms do not give us a sustainable feeling of safety, they do not heal our wounds, enable us to trust, share our truths, set boundaries or deeply connect with others.
Healing from trauma is a complex journey, not a destination. It is not just about finding words for the unspeakable, it is not just about speaking about what happened. The healing journey is comprised of practicing to love ourselves, of parenting ourselves, of learning how to take care of ourselves and tending to our needs. The healing journey is comprised of reconnecting with our true selves, of learning how to set boundaries and of saying no. It is about belonging to ourselves - wholly - first. It makes sense then that feeling safe and in control are two of the main pillars supporting trauma recovery. We need to feel safe to allow ourselves to be still and to return to ourselves. This is why this internal work is a main area of focus for healing.
Another part of our healing is about social connection with others, because in the absence of human connection, we suffer, too. Being human means acknowledging that we’re not alone in this. And true connection requires vulnerability. According to Brené Brown, vulnerability is risk, emotional exposure and uncertainty; Being vulnerable means allowing ourselves to be seen. “Vulnerability” has become a popular topic among entrepreneurship, leadership and mental health discussions. It is a term that is omnipresent these days: We are encouraged to be vulnerable in order to connect, to succeed, to attract what is (good) for us. Yet, what we exclude from this narrative of vulnerability and its benefits is that boundaries are part of being vulnerable, too. Vulnerability does not translate to sharing our most painful trauma with the world in detail. It means sharing it with those who deserve to hear our story. And of course, this is not easy, when we don’t know where our boundaries are, where we meet ourselves and others. When we’re in the beginning stages of our healing from trauma, discerning the difference between a safe environment and a person that is trustworthy and a person or a platform that is not can seem confusing and difficult. Torn between wanting to share and free ourselves from the burden of untold secrets and the fear of opening up to someone who may not honor our vulnerability can weigh heavy on us. Sharing with someone who we do not have developed deeper trust with can result in deeper pain, a strong sense of disconnection and disappointment. We may actually perpetuate our trauma in doing so.
Healing is facilitated by storytelling, but the process is a slow one. Establishing relationships, setting boundaries, developing a sense of ourselves, trust and connection take time. And that might be the most difficult part: becoming so connected to ourselves that we truly trust our own judgement and step forward to share our stories with those who deserve to hear them. Being patient and gentle with ourselves along the way. Learning how to belong to ourselves before we belong to others.