Why Protecting Yourself with Better Boundaries Against Abuse Can Feel (really) Scary

by Caroline van Kimmenade

Let’s face it, you don’t need excellent boundaries in order to deal with truly kind, compassionate people. Chances are, if you forget to speak up they’ll ask anyway. If you ignore your own needs they’ll check if you’re o.k. Before deciding on anything big they’ll make sure to know what you truly want and factor that in!

The kind, compassionate people are how you can survive without good boundaries at all. Which is why, it’s easy to lament “oh, if only the whole world were filled with kind compassionate people!”.

Yet, we know that’s not the case and more importantly, there are important lessons to be learned in being forced to stand up for yourself or else suffer:

  • For one, you learn to take full responsibility for how you treat yourself and how you allow yourself to be treated.
  • Two, you learn to face your fears.
  • Three, you stop looking to other people for “permission” and start truly living your life!

You need excellent boundaries to deal with the self-absorbed, easily triggered, entitled, bossy and otherwise Not Looking Out For You At All folks out there. Because if you don’t speak up and if you do not actively teach these people how to treat you, you’ll go under.

drawing of person scared to set boundaries against incoming storm

That threat of going under can seem terribly unfair (and sometimes it is!) but is also throws a question in your face: do you care about yourself enough to believe you’re worth defending?

Who do you need protection from, them or yourself?

They don’t give a damn about you, but do you?

And what exactly do you care about most?

Because you see, there is always a trade-off. The bullies of the world are not stupid enough to believe that you’ll put up with their abuse for no good reason. So whether you realise it or not, they are always offering a trade.

  • Perhaps the trade-off is that if you allow the bullying, they won’t badmouth you to everyone else.
  • Perhaps the trade-off is that if you allow the bullying, they won’t bully you worse.
  • Maybe they’ll pay some of your bills.
  • Or maybe if you allow them to bully you sometimes, they’ll also behave like your friend, keeping you company at other times.

“I would never volunteer for such a trade!” you might say. “How dare you suggest that I would choose this!”

Usually though, it’s one of your own blind spots about yourself running the show. Yes, it’s “you” doing the trading, but it’s a part of you that has sunken into The Swamp of Things You Didn’t Realize About Yourself.

It’s a little like an old married couple who promise to be honest and forthright with each other, but one is organizing something behind the other’s back because well she won’t like it if I tell her, so I have to do it in secret. Got the picture? Except, you’re both people in this scenario: the one taking secret action, and the one not in the know about it.

How is that possible? It’s possible because as people we are layered worlds of complexity. Unless we learn how to deal differently, we just keep “adding” to the collection of habits, beliefs and stuffed emotions. Your beliefs, habits and emotions from 10 years ago are probably still floating around inside of you somewhere. Same goes for those from 20 or 30 years ago. But are they still serving you? Or are they getting in the way of what you want and need to do now?

Imagine a room filled with animals. You just keep adding more animals. At some point, some of those animals are not going to like each other and start to fight. That’s what’s going on in your subconscious. New beliefs and experiences just keep getting layered over each other. Without the know-how to clean some of that up, you end up with a mess of conflicting desires and agendas.

Why on earth would you self-sabotage like this?

Perhaps deep down you believe you deserve to suffer. Or that doing so makes you a good person. If you stood up to the abuse, you’d be breaking an inner rule about who and how you’re supposed to be.

Perhaps this particular kind of abuse feels like your whole world, it’s all you’ve ever known and so to try and end it and step outside of it feels even scarier than putting up with it some more.

Perhaps whatever you are getting in return in the form of perks (sometimes they are nice to you, it’s pleasant to avoid conflict, they treat you badly but pay for things etc) is worth it to you.

Maybe being yourself feels really scary and this is the perfect never-ending reason excuse to avoid going deeper and expressing your true self more.

Then again, maybe all of this drama is not truly worth it to you. If it’s not, and you’re trying to figure out why on earth it’s so hard to get out of this dynamic, keep reading.

7 Reasons Why Better Boundaries can feel Scary

Breaking with the abuse means breaking with a particular kind of familiarity. The familiarity of if I give them this, I will get that in return. Breaking that cycle is scary because:

1. You don’t know what new situation you’ll get. When you’re already in a precarious position, not knowing what the future holds feels extra-scary. You have to let go and trust, before something new can show up on the horizon. That’s easier said than done!

2. You don’t know or trust yet that you can handle a truly new situation. You have the know-how to handle your old life. But what about a new life with new challenges?

3. You probably need new skills and a new framework of understanding to successfully step into the new situation. This means starting over as a beginner. It probably also means feeling like a failure, even though you’re not a failure for starting over at all! (it takes guts to admit it’s time for big change!)

4. Breaking the cycle also means having to admit that you put up with abuse for a while. Ouch! Now that you see how far you let things slide, it can be painful to look at yourself. You never thought you’d let this happen! It’s more than that though. (see 5)

5. The pain of any situation tends to be the least when you’re in it. That sounds factually wrong, after all, aren’t you hurting? But when things get really bad, you automatically deal by suppressing the pain, that’s just how the body works. This means that (more) pain will start to surface once you truly get out of that situation. On some level, you know this, which is why you may not want to move forward.

6. Breaking the cycle requires facing your own blind spots. This is doable, but tough! It means you have to be open to getting to know yourself at a deeper level. It means you need to be open to being surprised and discovering new things about yourself.

7. For some folks, the hardest part is that they need to stop blaming the abuser and instead look at their own options and choices. When you’re stuck in a dynamic where you keep fighting with the other to try and make them change, you’re fighting a losing battle.

Let’s look at blame more closely, because it’s a biggie in this context.

How Blame can Sabotage Healthy Boundaries

Blame is a complex beast. It doesn’t necessarily look like people yelling profanities at each other. In fact, blame can be subtle, “righteous” and keep you trapped in an endless loop of suffering that feels empowering.

Blame can function as a “power tool” to give you an ego boost. This is ultimately, not healthy at all. Yet, if you grew up in a narcissistic family, you may have gotten used to this kind of dynamic without realizing how toxic it truly is.

Blame is always a fight of some sort, yet this kind of fighting may not look aggressive. On the surface it can even look like forgiveness! When you keep pushing aside your hurt over and over, going through the cheek-turning motions and being the bigger person you’re also in a fight. A fight to be the better person, at the expense of the truth.

Blaming someone means that you make them responsible for everything that’s happening. You also expect them to make everything better. The only problem is, how do you make them do what you want? Different personality types have different strategies for this.

While blame can be raw and mean, it can be a kind of sweet-talking, endless forgiving attempt to love someone into changing as well!

The Mechanism of Blame

The essence of this blame dynamic is a power-struggle: whose way is it going to be? Who gets the upper hand? Who successfully changed the other into doing things their way?

In other words, the dynamics are about power and control, not about loving and supporting each other. This means, the battle is already lost, unless you have a strong narcissistic streak and just love constant battles and power-challenges, even at home. In which case, you get exactly what you’re wanting!

When blame takes over, abuser and victim become two avatars locked into a battle for life.

The abuser wins by being mean and not caring (“I can do whatever I want to you because I know you won’t leave anyway, and I don’t care about you so this makes me strong”).

The victim wins by believing they’re superior to the abuser: the relationship is a constant demonstration of their moral superiority (“If I can point out all your flaws to whomever will listen, then I must be a pretty awesome person in comparison to you! Besides, staying with you through it all makes me the more loving one favored by all the heavens! So there!”).

This constant battle can happen in close personal and romantic relationships, but also with friends, at work, or in a hobby group. Sometimes you get locked into the relationship itself. Other times you get locked into doing things a certain way, like always staying quiet during meetings. Or feeling forced to volunteer your time.

The Battle for Control is Always a Losing Game

Getting really angry and worked up makes some folks feel strong and in control. It can also make them feel better than. (“Clearly, you are all wrong and I am therefore 100% right!).

This kind of blaming can happen overtly through yelling, breaking things, punishing the other with dumb tasks, tearing down someone else’s work etc. Or it can happen covertly by freezing someone out, refusing to communicate, and secretly punishing the other person.

Just because it doesn’t look hot and fiery doesn’t mean there’s no anger there!

Yet, where anger – when processed properly – dissipates in a flash, blame simmers endlessly. This is because it is a chosen response. Blame is a strategy, a way to hide away feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, and insecurity (learn what to do with those instead, here).

Blaming can be a way to vent, distract from vulnerable (and truer) feelings, feel strong and feel superior to the other person. That’s a lot of “perks”! Yet, it’s also a superficial band aid on top of a very deep wound.

This kind of dynamic is sadly at the heart of some very unhealthy relationships. Some of these are relationships between overt-narcissists and covert-narcissists. Both are all wrapped up in a power game, but both play it in different ways. Other relationships start differently, but really bring out the narcissistic endless fighting in both people over time.

If you care about love, it’s important to recognize all this for the exhausting losing game it is and realize that blame is just an attempt to put off the inevitable. The inevitable that will happen when you clearly and honestly dig into how you truly feel, what you truly want and what is actually possible.

So there you have it! Seven big reasons why setting boundaries with abusive people might be a much bigger can of worms than you hoped it would be! By all means though, don’t give up! Use these insights to get to know yourself better and take a closer look at what is really going on. When you better understand the problem, you’ll be more successful at devising a solution!

Want some help? In No to Narcissists I teach you how to get underneath the surface frustration that comes with abusive, self-absorbed people and instead, heal and let go where needed, and stand up for yourself where needed too.

More reading on boundaries:

Boundaries for Highly Sensitive People: the yes, the no, the confusion

Help with setting better boundaries:

Connect with and understand your anger in the Happy Sensitive Library (instant-access, self-study resource)

Set up a Clarity Call with Caroline here to kickstart a deeper understanding into how to strengthen your own boundaries, in a doable and long-lasting way.

Dive deep and heal in The No to Narcissists Programme for Highly Sensitive People

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