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Many traumas come in the form of a violation of personal boundaries in some way.
This is especially true of sexual trauma, in which the assailant will violate the boundaries of a person’s physical body. (The same can be said of some surgeries or medical procedures in which the body’s physical boundary is violated, as well.)
A person’s physical body isn’t the only personal boundary, however. A personal boundary might get violated in the case of someone getting up in her face, spreading private photos of her, or throwing information she shared in a moment of vulnerability and intimacy back in her face. Boundaries could be violated in the case of betrayal, lying, bullying, coercion, emotional abuse, or manipulation. Personal boundaries can be physical, emotional, mental, or even spiritual.
Having our boundaries violated in a traumatic experience can often rupture it, by either convincing us we don’t deserve to have that boundary, or simply by making it impossible for us to “feel” it.
Our sense of our personal boundaries is a combination of both built-in and learned behavior. For example, each culture has a different amount of “normal” personal space that feels right for them, and the guidelines for eye contact and physical touch vary greatly among cultures, communities, and individual families. Some families express affection with waves and handshakes, while other families kiss each other on the mouth and seem to be constantly piled on top of each other. Most likely, your preference for more or less personal space is a combination of inborn disposition and cultural/familial conditioning.
In this way, each of us has a different “size” of personal space that we feel entitled to live safely within. If you were alone in an elevator, and someone got in and stood within an inch of you, how would that feel? If you grew up in the United States, this would probably set off some alarm bells, and make you feel super uncomfortable and creeped out. That’s the purpose of the bubble: to let you know when something potentially unsafe is happening.
This personal space bubble varies from person to person and culture to culture (and depends on context), but trauma has the unique ability to change, or even erase, this bubble.
Trauma, particularly trauma that includes a violation, can make it so that you feel constantly unsafe, reading everything as a warning that you’re in danger, as if there is no difference between someone standing 10 feet away or 10 centimeters. If, for example, someone forced their fingers inside you at a young age, or you experienced a violating medical procedure, then your personal bubble boundary might have been completely ruptured, making you believe you’re not entitled to take up any space at all.
This could in some way be related to the fact that trauma has a tendency to mess with your proprioceptive senses, meaning it becomes more difficult to literally feel where your body is in space after a trauma. This loss of proprioceptive skills means that going through a trauma can reduce a person’s coordination and balance, and make it feel like your brain isn’t communicating with your body properly. Since a prerequisite to maintaining strong personal boundaries is knowing where you are in space, it makes sense that trauma often leads to poor boundaries.
I often see this lack of proprioceptive feedback show up in my clients as an inability to know how much space she is actually taking up. In this way, many women who have experienced traumas struggle with “feeling huge.”
After all, body image is the subjective mental picture a person has of her body, and that mental picture is supposed to be informed by proprioceptive feedback; meaning, a person is supposed to be able to imagine what her body looks like based on how she senses her body from the inside. When those signals get scrambled or turned off due to trauma, she must rely on external sources to form the image, and unfortunately the external sources available in our culture typically include unrealistic beauty and body standards, body shaming, comparison, fat-phobia, and the type of marketing intended to get women to buy products to “improve themselves.”
So, now we’ve got a bunch of people who experienced trauma and lost their neurological ability to sense where their bodies are in space, who can’t tell if what they feel is theirs or if it belongs to someone else because the emotional boundary that’s supposed to be there is gone. They don’t feel entitled to any amount of safe space, agency, or autonomy, because in order to make sense of the trauma, they have to believe they deserved it.
These women are now incredibly vulnerable to the plethora of cultural messages that their bodies aren’t good enough, that their worth is based on how they look, and that they have to fix themselves in order to be worthy of love or acceptance.
Despite the fact that so many women who struggle with body image are victims of trauma, and the effects of trauma are physiological, the prevailing advice is to just “stop caring what people think of you,” as if body image was just a question of mental toughness.
I sincerely hope that by this point you are able to see that a very complex system of physiology and psychology is at play when we talk about body image, and that telling someone to stop caring what people think of her body is not only impossible advice, but it’s also incredibly damaging.
Making it sound like an issue of mental toughness when it’s actually a physiological issue makes people feel hopeless, broken, isolated, and ashamed. Telling women that they should just choose to love and appreciate their bodies despite what other people think completely ignores the fact that due to the role trauma plays on a person’s physiology, this is not a f*cking choice.
Moreover, this advice misses the amazing opportunity to teach them that there is another way, and that they can actually use the same system of complex neurological wiring that got them into this mess to heal and get themselves out.