No can be a beautiful word. Yet so many of my clients seeking treatment for relational trauma cannot bear the responsibility of denying another what they want. Even when mistreated and pressured to give more than what is received, they feel conflicted about possibly hurting another’s feelings by refusing to cave and uphold self-sustaining positions. They cringe at the thought of being perceived as mean, inhumane or bad. For these folks being good precludes rules of engagement, discernment and discrimination. Hence they set themselves up as dumping grounds for exploitive, abusive maneuvering.
My extensive experience as a trauma survivor and a seasoned clinician specializing in treating complex trauma, addictive disorders and narcissistic abuse syndrome, has shown me that erecting definitive boundaries and establishing a clear-cut code of conduct is inseparable from experiencing mental health.
Nevertheless, this is not an easy task. Upholding quality relational standards can be a source of tremendous distress, especially if one has been groomed to survive abuse through acquiescence. Furthermore, how does one even know what constitutes abuse when not dropped into one’s body? After all, having access to emotional and sensorial awareness is a critical pre-requisite to knowing when lines are crossed. Accordingly, for folks with histories of systemic traumatic abuse, coping strategies and symptoms of dissociation and flooding interfere with the possibility of even identifying when a transgression has occurred. This makes realizing healthy choices improbable.
As I shared previously, my numb compliance was a tremendous obstacle to upholding life-affirming relational conditions. This is true for all survivors of complex trauma as primitive psychological defenses such as denial, minimization, and rationalization buffer the survivor from the reality of harm, to the extent that they cease even knowing they are being harmed.
For trauma survivors being blind to mistreatment is typically accompanied by other sundry diverse reasons for accommodating abuse. For example, confusing compassion with guilt can keep one stuck in accommodating egregious behavior. Empathizing with another’s plight can become misconstrued to mean that their suffering is somehow your responsibility or even your fault, irrespective of how detrimental it is to give in to demands.
This over-identification with suffering conflicts with the necessity of holding others accountable and enforcing self-protective consequences. I see this evidenced in many of my clients who are involved with family members or significant others who weaponize their victimization and maneuver to glean secondary gains from their mental or physical disorders.
While it is indeed noble to make a sacrifice for another, there are clearly times when doing so is contraindicated. There are times when defining a ‘no tolerance zone’ is critical to safety and well-being. This involves concretizing what constitutes deal-breakers and points of no return. Having the courage to face possible recrimination, even abandonment for enforcing self-respecting boundaries and limits may be an unfortunate, but necessary consequence.
In addiction recovery defining non-negotiable guidelines is fundamental to ensuring sobriety. The 12-step slogan ‘people, places and things’ is a phrase that encourages the addict to identify the triggers that can lead to relapse. It is also meant to identify the fundamental aspects in one’s recovery that ensure ongoing abstinence, healing and growth.
By delineating the people, places and things that derail one from a life-affirming path of recovery, one can safely establish a community and lifestyle that fosters recuperation and renewal. This means emphatically saying ‘no’ to that which harms, and allowing for connections and a way of being that proffers beneficial rewards.
Yet even in recovery circles predatory, exploitive maneuvering ensues. Entrusted sponsors or fellows (recovering folks who comprise the 12- step fellowship group) who are meant to help enforce recovery habits, attend 12-step meetings, and do step work, may have sinister intentions. Known as 13- stepping, vulnerable newcomers may be targeted as a means to procure sex, money or emotional supply. Protecting oneself from these virtue signaling impostors especially when raw and desperate for help, can be a daunting task for the struggling addict new to recovery.
Even outside of a community designed to extend compassionate support, deferring to the perceived status, power and importance of another is a reflexive response. Our collective psychological need for safety and predictability contributes to believing that those bestowed with fame, power and charm are morally upright people. We imbue them with special wisdom, hanging onto their every word and action as if they possess the answer to the meaning of life itself. We may even believe they offer messianic deliverance.
This mindset predisposes all of us to abdicate critical thinking and discernment. The result is the aggrandizement of eminent personalities who are no more capable than the average person of assuming a political role or declaring scientific expertise. This not only results in blindly deferring to the dictates of a lauded other but can also lend itself to parroting resounding intolerance in which deal breakers are so narrowly and righteously defined that there’s no wiggle room for compromise or analysis. We see examples of this phenomenon in fall-redemption theologies and cults where the autonomous impulse to discern for oneself feasible values, parameters, and beliefs are prohibited.
In closing, on personal, collective and cultural levels we are challenged to define unequivocal standards. In order to do so it is essential to access one’s instinctual aggression and personal authority. This might mean confronting and healing from attachment injuries that inhibit existing for oneself. From this place of renewal and strength, it is possible to determine what is subjectively acceptable and what isn’t, what can be condoned and what can’t. Living by these basic edicts and principles allows for a foundation of healthy narcissism and the cultivation of a unique authentic identity. Most important, it allows one to unapologetically say ‘no’ to that which impedes safety, emotional well-being and selfhood.