Healing from Trauma and Setting Boundaries in Relationships

Contributor: Neathery Thurmond, LMSW, Staff Therapist, Hill Country Recovery Center (Austin, TX)

Father And Teenage Son Having A HugWe all need connection. Mutual relationships and interdependence are crucial for our well-being. However, for those who have experienced trauma, the most fundamental boundary is violated leaving the survivor to rebuild trust with themselves and others after their world has been turned upside down.

Restoring healthy boundaries is central to recovery from a traumatic experience. Boundaries help protect and delineate where one individual’s reality ends and another’s begins (Whitfield, 2010). Boundaries serve as a way to communicate comfort level and what our individual limits are.

Boundaries with the Self

Healthy boundaries are usually emphasized in interpersonal relationships but are equally important intrapersonally (within oneself). The first step in trauma recovery is to reestablish a sense of safety (Najavits, 2002). In this stage, awareness of any psychological symptoms is key and the individual is not in an actively abusive or traumatic environment.

Ideally, the individual has entered into a therapeutic relationship with a qualified therapist specializing in trauma. The individual is working towards reducing some of the more acute psychological symptoms (i.e. dissociation, flashbacks, nightmares, etc.) while also working towards increasing the practice of self-care.

This can range from:

  • Daily hygiene
  • Balanced nutrition
  • Balanced rest and sleep
  • Any self-soothing activities

If the individual is engaging in any self-harmful activities, those behaviors are also addressed to decrease their frequency.

Boundaries with Others

Tropical WalkwayHealing from trauma continues with building safe, reliable relationships. Part of the difficulty with relationships after trauma is the damaging effects of the individual’s autonomous sense of self and feelings of competency (Goelitz & Stewart-Kahn, 2013).

A traumatic experience can leave an individual vacillating between boundary extremes with other individuals. Extremes in boundaries can be between submission and dominance; enmeshed and isolation; giving too much and giving too little. One of the main goals in restoring healthy boundaries is to find the balance and middle ground between these extremes (Najavits, 2002).

Physical Boundaries

Factors that contribute to physical boundaries are privacy, physical closeness, touching, and sexual behavior. Individuals are allowed to set their comfort level with these factors and it likely will be different before and after experiencing trauma and throughout the process of recovery (Whitfield, 2010).

An individual previously comfortable with hugging friends upon greeting them might now only be comfortable with a hand shake.

Mental/Emotional Boundaries

This category of boundaries can be the most difficult to identify and even more difficult to notice when a boundary is being violated.

Factors that contribute to this type of boundary are:

  • Beliefs
  • Feelings
  • Decisions
  • Time alone
  • Needs
  • Interests
  • Responsibilities
  • Roles, etc.

Boundary violations can be as miniscule as a friend frequently calling you past 10 PM or as flagrant as someone criticizing you for simply doing things differently.

“No” is a Complete Sentence

loneliness-464939_640A common difficulty with individuals after trauma is the inability to say no to others out of fear that by setting a limit the other person will react negatively with anger, abandonment, or even abuse.

In turn, the individual focuses on pleasing others to the detriment of their own needs and wants.

Setting this type of boundary communicates that both people in the relationship deserve care and attention and is a healthy way of respecting your separate identity (Najavits, 2002). Different ways of setting this boundary vary from simply stating “No thanks, I’d rather not” to “If you keep calling me past 10 PM, I will have to block your number”.

Learning to Say “Yes”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some individuals who respond to trauma by isolating themselves and cutting off all social support. Reaching out, making meaningful connections, and allowing one’s vulnerable side to show through are all essential parts of rebuilding trust in relationships.

An individual might consider asking for support from a friend to attend an anxiety provoking event or simply expressing how the individual feels. This might sound like, “I’m feeling scared to be alone in my apartment right now. Do you want to go see a movie with me?”

Alternatively, a great place to start practicing finding the middle ground instead of isolating would be to begin to say “yes” to invitations from other safe individuals.

Reinforcing Boundaries

Your boundary needs will change over time and that is a normal part of life. We cannot expect others to know when our needs change. There might also be some individuals who unknowingly cross your boundaries and it is important to speak up.

An interpersonal effectiveness skill from Dialectical Behavior Therapy can help you express your needs. An easy way to remember this is by the acronym DEAR MAN (Dietz, 2012).

Woman in white suit with modest smileDescribe the situation, just the facts: “You have called me after 10 PM the past 4 nights.”

Express how you feel about the situation: “I have been waking up to the phone ringing and have had difficulty falling back asleep which makes me frustrated.”

Assert what you want: “I would like you to call me before 9 PM”

Reinforce/Reward: “I will have more time to talk to you if you call me before 9 and I will be able to get a full night’s sleep.”

be Mindful: By being a broken record, you can reinforce your needs over and over again.

Appear confident: Use a confident tone of voice, make eye contact if in person, no stammering or over apologizing.

Negotiate: Be willing to give to get; turn the tables and ask the other person for solutions.

A Word on Self-Compassion

The most important boundary you can set is to become aware of the judgments and blame you place on yourself. The trauma you experienced is not your fault and recovery from it will take time. Allow yourself the grace and compassion needed to help you grow and gradually rebuild safety in your relationship with yourself and with others. You are worth it.

Community Discussion: Share your thoughts here!

What steps have you taken to set boundaries after trauma has occurred?

About the author:

This article was written and contributed by Neathery Thurmond. She is a Licensed Master Social Worker and Staff Therapist at Hill Country Recovery Center in Austin, Texas. (https://www.facebook.com/neatherythurmond)


  1. Dietz, L. (2012) DBT self help. http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/ie_handout_8.html
  2. Goelitz, A. & Stewart-Kahn, A. (2013). From trauma to healing: A social worker’s guide to working with survivors. Routledge: New York, NY.
  3. Najavits, L.M. (2002). Seeking safety. The Guilford Press: New York, NY.
  4. Whitfield, C.L. (2010). Boundaries and relationships: Knowing, protecting, and enjoying the self. Health Communications, Inc.: Deerfield Beach, FL.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 21st, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com