Developing a sense of personal safety and establishing boundaries is a very important when dealing with my symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I can tremendously reduce my anxiety and hypervigilance through creating a safe space for myself. I do this by establishing boundaries as part of my PTSD recovery.
PTSD Recovery and Establishing Boundaries
I remember a great scene from the movie Dirty Dancing, where Patrick Swayze is teaching Jennifer Grey how to dance. She keeps stepping on his toes. He backs up, and moves his arm in a broad circle around himself. He says, “That’s my space.” Then he makes a similar circle around her, and says, “That’s your space.”
He follows it up by telling her, “You stay in your space, and I stay in my space.” That was the best example I ever saw to help me understand how to establish boundaries for myself.
Growing up in an alcoholic family where domestic violence occurred, I didn’t have clear ideas about setting boundaries. I knew what it felt like when someone crossed my boundaries — I felt crowded, or trapped, but couldn’t quite understand how that had happened.
After seeing the movie, I realized that my feeling of being crowded occurred when someone came inside my circle of safety, either by standing too close, or by being overbearing and leaning in too close to me verbally.
Establishing Boundaries in PTSD Recovery the Dysfunctional Way
I discovered over the years that I did establish boundaries, the only way I knew how. I had one person say “You know, I’ve seen your boundaries, Dan – you have black belt boundaries.”
Once I was in a large gathering, and had gotten crowded into a corner. One person – in a very friendly way — took my hand to shake it, and with his other hand grasped my arm. I didn’t say anything, and began to dissociate, but he quickly backed off. He later told me “Dan, you went rattlesnake.”
Apparently I got a look on my face much like a cornered animal who was dangerous. I used passive-aggressive behavior to keep that circle of space for myself, which wasn’t a very healthy way to establish boundaries.
Establishing Boundaries in PTSD Recovery in a Healthy Way
I’ve had to learn more appropriate ways to set boundaries by trial and error; and I’ve found that just being clear about what I need goes a long way.
I move back. If someone is too close to me, and I begin to feel unsafe, the easiest way to set a boundary is to simply step back. A lot of people will catch the hint, and stay at that same distance. That may fix the issue; because, I’ve re-established my safe space.
I say something. If someone continues to crowd me, I have found that speaking out for myself can help address the situation. I might say “I’m feeling a bit crowded here, could you please step back?” Or if they are verbally in my space, I may say “You know, I feel a little uncomfortable with how you are speaking. Could you lower your voice a little?”
I just leave. If a person just doesn’t honor the boundaries I’m trying to set, I may have to leave the situation. Having the awareness that I can leave at any time has helped me relax a lot in social settings.
How to set boundaries with family. It’s very critical for me to set clear boundaries with my family, because safe space was so fragile when I was growing up. A family with weak boundaries can just step all over each other. Maintaining my clear sense of my safe space has made time with family much more enjoyable.
Being able to draw a circle around myself and let someone know “this is my space,” has really helped decrease my anxiety, and has been a valuable part of my PTSD recovery.
Photo from Geoff LMV @ Flickr. Creative Commons.
Dan is a PTSD survivor, and author of Healing The Writer: A Personal Account of Overcoming PTSD and Freedom’s Just Another Word. You can connect with Dan on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, and at his website DanLHays.com.