The following on weak boundaries, a common behavior pattern in child sexual abuse victims, is an excerpt from my book Repair Your Life.

“Do you say yes when you mean no?  Do you cringe after reacting without thinking?  Do you find yourself spending time with people you don’t care for and in situations with which you are uncomfortable?  Do you make excuses to avoid certain people and certain choices you have made?  Do you think things through before responding?  Do you avoid overbearing, controlling people?  How comfortable are you with saying NO?  Do you have the courage of your own convictions or are you weak-kneed at the thought of defending them?

We all have the right to set and hold our own boundaries, those lines we draw that indicate our limits.  When a child is sexually molested, their boundary has been violated.  Since future abuse was more than likely set up at birth by the type of family systems they was born into, the kind of parents and grandparents they had, and environmental factors, the likelihood of their ability to create and hold boundaries is small.  Even if a child had the ability to begin with, once sexually abused, setting their own boundaries becomes a frightening privilege.  It requires assertiveness, a quality with which a victim of child sexual abuse has little familiarity; it requires confidence, another quality not common in victims; and especially it requires a high level of self-esteem that stems from not only knowing what rights they have, but believing they are inherently theirs.  Low self esteem is the core issue in all those who have been sexually abused as children.”

To someone who comes from a childhood of abuse saying no is a difficult thing to do. When I was in recovery, in a desire to give myself strength while I was married to my third abuser, a man who’s sadistic behavior would take me to the brink of suicide, I bought a T-shirt with the lettering “What part of no don’t you understand.” A curious thing happened. Every time I wore that shirt he looked confused and almost frightened. His abuse either lessened or disappeared when I wore it. This was during the last part of my recovery. My strength grew by leaps and bounds.

When we come from a childhood where we were punished for setting a boundary we don’t realize that right is intrinsic to our nature. During recovery I used to practice saying NO in front of my mirror every day. When I wore that shirt while saying this, it was a double message. Why is it so hard for us to set strong boundaries? After all, we’re grown up now and should be able to say what we want in response to someone who is trying to dominate us. It may be that we are fearful if we say no. It’s not an easy thing to say when you’re in a situation where the direct result might be physical or sexual harm. My husband used to rape me repeatedly. My sobs and entreaties were ignored and any attempt to fight back only brought more abuse usually verbal and emotional.  “You’re my wife and I have the right to rape you if I want,” was his response. It wasn’t until I completed recovery that I found out that it is INDEED a crime to rape your wife.

Learning how to set my own boundaries came slow at first. But the more I did it the stronger I felt. Eventually I wondered at the imbecility of thinking I had no right to do that. What keeps us from being strong is our own lack of self esteem. Perpetrators know that they must make us feel as if we are responsible for our abuse. This may come in direct wording, in sly innuendos, in threats or in other covert manipulations. In my father’s case the first thing he did (with my mother’s consent) was to get me out of bed late at night and come into the living room where my mother waited. She began to interrogate me about what was happening in the middle of the night in my bedroom. I kept saying I didn’t know, which I didn’t. I didn’t know anything about sex and the only thing I knew about where babies came from was that you bought them at the hospital.  I was thirteen and weighed less than 80 pounds. My mom had my father begin beating me with a belt.  As I tried to cover my face and shrieked with terror the blows and the questions increased. Finally, I screamed that I was to blame, not Daddy. I had this horrible feeling that if I didn’t take the blame for something I didn’t know anything about it would break up our “happy Catholic family”.

One of the other things he did a couple of years later (in case I didn’t get it the first time) was to force me (and my mother) to listen to him read passages out of a best seller at the time titled Lolita. It was a novel about an older man who seduces a twelve year old girl and convinces her that it is her fault. Both my mother and I sobbed the entire time until my mother begged for him to stop. He did. Then he had both of us witness him tearing the book to shreds and then flushing it down the toilet as he said, “it’s a sick book.” Pontius Pilate is what came to mind years later. Somewhere in my subconscious between the two episodes I realized that I was not allowed to set any boundaries.

Can you write down ways in which your perpetrator made sure you carried the guilt and the shame? Putting thoughts like these on paper will help you lance your wound.

Remember, this is your body and only one person gets to decide what to do with it…..YOU!


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