Trauma and Boundaries: Membranes, Walls and Drawbridges

I recently attended a conference on trauma and grief along with members of my CPSP chapter. The impetus for the event was the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which was where our group met where some members were leaders.

While it wasn’t discussed, I realized that one of the things that makes traumatic grief so painful is that those who are going through it are so vulnerable to continued pain. Our speaker talked about how triggering events, images and even sounds can bring trauma back to the surface even years after. Some participants found that even discussing traumatic grief was difficult for them in the context we were in and had to leave the room to gather themselves.

Another way in which traumatic grief can be perpetuated is through our reaction to it at the time, especially in terms of our interpersonal boundaries. Our boundaries, according to psychologists John Cloud and Henry Townsend, ideally serve as “semi-permeable membranes”, allowing good to flow in and out freely but preventing harm from going in or out as well. Trauma however makes us feel vulnerable and in danger, which will influence our boundaries dramatically.

One tendency when one is in pain is to turn that membrane into a wall in order to help feel less vulnerable. This may in fact be necessary: our core need of safety is the basis of all our other needs. If we don’t feel safe, we may put up a defensive interpersonal wall to keep harmful feelings and others out. The difficulty is of course that while this prevents hurt it also often prevents others from helping. This leads to isolation and loneliness, and the pain felt which caused the defenses to be raised in the first place can turn inward leading to depression and anxiety.

A second response to trauma is to “lower the drawbridge” of one’s boundaries in order to get help from anyone anywhere. This is another natural response to pain and is critical to gaining a sense of safety, except now safety is perceived as coming from outside the self as opposed to inside the self. A hurting person may even project that vulnerability and amplify it in order to get help. A side effect of this though is that although honest helpers can come in, the lowered drawbridge attracts negative influences as well.

Which got me thinking, why does pain attract pain?

Some reasons seem benign and beneficial. When we see someone in pain whose pain is similar to our own, we may feel empathy and identify with them. When my wife and I suffered a miscarriage early in our marriage, we both were shocked (pleasantly) by how many people came out of the woodwork to tell us how they had gone through a similar loss. This identification of “you’re like me” helps not only the one suffering but also the helpers, as it serves as a way to help as they have been helped. Pain and trauma are also very lonely places. People going through traumatic loss may feel that they are alone, so support groups such as grief groups provide places where there is “safety in numbers” as well as give and receive empathy and care.

However while pain can attract empathy and care, it can also attract those who wish to use pain to their own advantage, either purposefully or without meaning to.

Some are attracted to pain not out of a desire to harm but out of a desire to not just help but “rescue” the other person. Here the identity of the helper becomes too wrapped up in the other person: “you are in pain but I can save you”. This desire to rescue often comes from a desire to see oneself as a saviour, hero or even just as a “good person”. While the focus may seem to be on the other person, the focus is really on the self-image of the helper. I know in my own life of times where I had gone in to a relationship as a kind-hearted rescuer only to become enmeshed and co-dependent with the person I was “rescuing”. In the end we both needed saving.

Others are attracted to vulnerable people not to rescue them but to keep them vulnerable. This often is the basis for abusive relationships, where the “helper” may appear to be a protector and a safe person until it becomes apparent that the helper is more interested in maintaining vulnerability caused by trauma than in resolving it. “Helpers” in these cases can seek power over a vulnerable person in order to not feel vulnerable themselves, a need linked often to some trauma in the helper’s own past.

The importance of healthy boundaries for those suffering trauma cannot be overstated. However trauma itself will test those boundaries often to the extreme, making healthy boundary-keeping even more difficult.

When helping others who are going through trauma, recognize that their boundaries are likely in shambles. Helping someone recognize and maintain those boundaries, allowing true help to flow while preventing further pain from getting in, can be a significant way of helping. As a helper, recognize your own needs and motivations to help: do you feel the need to rescue or fix the other person? are you “doing for” them something that they can do? Measuring your own need to help will go far not only in helping the other person going through trauma but will maintain your own healthy boundaries.  Recognize that the most helpful thing that you may do is to be present with the person. This “ministry of presence” goes a long way in helping provide a sense of safety and stability and helps to alleviate the loneliness that comes along with trauma.

Helpers may also help by “guarding the gate” of the person in trauma. It’s not uncommon for someone in pain to be overwhelmed by those desiring to help even for good reasons. Work with the person in trauma – again, “with” not “for” – in order to make sure the good comes in in a healthy, manageable way. Organizing meal deliveries or household help for someone is a perfect example of this. Guarding the gate in this way will also hinder those who may be seeking out the vulnerable person in order to “fix” them or worse.

If you yourself are going through trauma, avoid the instinct to raise the walls or lower the gates. For a time you may need to protect your boundaries more strictly and even keep some at a distance. This is healthy and part of healing. However don’t keep everyone at bay either. Recognize, utilize and mobilize your safe relationships. People with good boundaries will help you when your boundaries are a shambles. If you lack safe relationships, find some through support groups and counselors, but realize that in support groups especially that there are some who come to those groups looking for vulnerable people either to save or to abuse. Good counseling especially with someone dealing with trauma will go far to help authentic healing and growth to happen.

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