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  • Writer's pictureKrystal Ying, LMFT, LPCC, LPC

Why Survivors Struggle with Boundaries and How Empowerment is Possible

Updated: Jul 3

Learn how you can empower yourself with movement, posture, eye gaze, and other nonverbal boundaries even in the face of instinctual survival reactions that could have interfered with your ability to set boundaries.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

For numerous survivors of sexual assault and violence, the term "boundaries" can evoke a mix of emotions. Society's inept understanding of trauma and the inappropriate tendency to question victims instead of the perpetrators only serve to intensify the overwhelming emotions of shame, confusion, and self-blame experienced by most survivors. If you are reading this, please know that the violence was not your fault, you did not ask to be violated, you could never be responsible for your body's innate survival responses that might've circumvented your capacity to set boundaries.

"A boundary represents a limit or barrier...our bodies give us internal signals that tell us how close we want to be to another person." -- Pat Ogden, Janina Fisher

When under extreme stress, terror, or danger, the brain-body intervene automatically to prioritize survival. This happens without thinking where the "thinking" brain (prefrontal cortex) goes offline so to speak (reduces in activity) in favor of "doing" to reduce risks at all costs. This means that during an assault, the brain and body will go into survival mode by freezing, collapsing, shutting down physical activity, dissociating (to sever connection from what's happening, disconnect from body). This is all your body's intelligent effort to keep you alive, and it's what all of our bodies will do in states of extreme terror and danger.

Some survivors did attempt to set boundaries (whether it was to say "stop", to pull back, defend) when they felt uncomfortable or scared, but were unsuccessful due to the perpetrator's actions, size, threats - which can then lead to a collapse or fawning response. Therefore, complicated emotions and reactions can result when the body says no yet a violation still occurs.

What can happen and commonly does, however, post-assault, is that if there is unresolved trauma, the brain will continue to engage in such survival instincts when any reminder of the assault occurs. Ways this might show up: freezing when passing the location of where the assault happened; panic and sudden uncontrollable crying when watching a movie; going silent when a stranger in line stands too close to you at the market; saying yes when you really mean no; fear and immobilization when your partner wants to be physically intimate.

Understanding the mechanisms of trauma and recognizing fawning as a natural response to trauma can initiate the healing journey and foster increased self-compassion. Just because you could not stop the assault does not mean that you need to continue feeling helpless, powerless, hopeless, ashamed, fearful. It is still possible to reclaim your power and rebuild the sense of peace you deserve.

Practicing listening to your body's physical cues will help you decipher your preferences, boundaries, and comfort level. For example, feeling the urge to get away, cringing, stomach pain, body tension - these are some of many physical signals that your body might convey its preferences and boundaries.

Types of Boundaries

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Read below to learn about different kinds of boundaries - physical (non-verbal), verbal, internal. The purpose is to try out different boundaries that perhaps have been missing because of your need to survive. This is not about self-blame or shame for what you were not physically able to do - so please do not fall into that mindset. Rather, you can try on the boundaries below to bring awareness to what's missing and what you'd like to strengthen within yourself.

Now that you are (hopefully) in a safe place, you can experiment to see which of these feels good, empowering, familiar, anxiety-provoking, or whatever else (which ever reactions arise, try being curious rather than self-critical). Because the body holds memories, trying on these postures, movements, and boundaries can bring up a range of emotions - sometime upsetting.

By "trying out" boundaries, you are creating new neural pathways in your brain that can bring a greater sense of empowerment, newness, hope.

If at any moment you feel overwhelmed or flooded emotionally or physically, please pause to take care of yourself. It can be helpful to write out a list of things that bring you comfort or are grounding, and then utilize these resources if you find the need.

Physical Boundaries

  • How close/far in proximity you want to be from a person

  • Gauging your body's indicators of what feels right, or comfortable

  • Tensing your body, stiff body language

  • Pulling back or away from a person

  • Frowning or scrunching face to demonstrate discomfort and convey preferences

  • Walking away

  • Turning away or around

  • Crossing your arms or legs, guarding your energy and core

  • Putting hands up in a "stop" motion

  • Pushing away with hands

  • Tighten jaw, clench fists

  • Averting gaze or looking away (breaking eye contact)

"Nonverbal messages convey our boundaries long before our words, and the vast majority of boundaries are established through the posture, gesture, expression, and stance of the body." -- Pat Ogden, Janina Fisher

Verbal Boundaries

  • Using your voice to vocalize what you are comfortable or uncomfortable with, asserting your preferences.

  • Saying "no" or "stop" or "I don't feel comfortable with this"

  • Saying "yes"to communicate you are comfortable with something

Internal Boundaries

  • Practice of accepting different views without rejecting the other person or dismissing your own feelings

  • Internal validation of our own thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs that align, despite opposing or differing views of others

  • Validating and acknowledging your unique feelings, thoughts, stances

  • Accepting differences, being true to yourself, while staying connected to others

  • Ability to say internally, "I disagree with your opinion, I know that I feel ___ about it, but I can still accept and respect our differences."

Now that you have learned more about how the brain automatically intervenes in the wake of trauma, greater self-compassion can follow. Learning about the types of boundaries will help you gain insight to your internal cues of discomfort and needs or preferences. By trying on physical movements, postures, gestures, eye gaze, you might uncover new feelings of empowerment and resources to support your posttraumatic growth and healing.

true self, boundaries, posttraumatic growth
Photo by Ethan Hasenfratz on Unsplash


  1. Ogden, P. & Fisher, J. (2014). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York: W.W. Norton.

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