December 16, 2020

Practicing Embodied Boundaries

This month, Molly Boeder Harris, is joining us to talk about trauma and boundaries and how they affect you in ways you may not even realize.
Sexual trauma is one of the most profoundly pervasive boundary violations that a human can endure. Survivors may experience that violation physically, psychologically, energetically or spiritually - and perhaps, in all of those ways at once. Freud described trauma as a "breach in the protective barrier against over-stimulation leading to overwhelming feelings of helplessness" which powerfully encompasses the range of ways in which the breach of sexual trauma impacts our being. The threat cycle which initiates a cascade of physiological responses, actions, and changes within a person's body is experienced systemically. As feminist philosopher, Ann Cahill, describes in her book, Rethinking Rape, "It cannot be assumed that there is one aspect of that person's being that is untouched by the experience of rape. There is no pristine, untouched corner to which to retreat…the extent of the rapist's influence is broad, but not infinite." In a similar, though not parallel way, the relational harm of sexual trauma committed against one individual creates waves that ripple outward and which deeply affect the collective - albeit in dramatically uneven ways. The breach of sexual trauma alters the survivor's relationship to their body while also altering the relationship of their body to other bodies.

As the most social being on the planet, humans need to feel connected, safe, and embedded within a coherent community of other humans in order to thrive. Anything that threatens our sense of belonging can create the possibility of nervous system disruption as an effect. A consequence of the source of threat also being the source where we would normally seek care, safety and co-regulation is that our somatic understanding of ourselves in relationship to groups of friends, family, or community may become disfigured. Somatic meaning of the body, via the body, in relationship with the body. We may cognitively recognize there is safety with a known group of people while simultaneously feeling some degree of ambivalence that manifests in our bodies. At a nervous system level, we may experience activation in the absence of threat, or we may tend towards under-responding and not receiving cues when we are actually unsafe.
Given all of this, not to mention the effects of the conflicting signals and inequitable roles we are taught by dominant culture about whether we have a right to truly own our bodies - it makes sense that establishing and enacting boundaries are complex. Perhaps especially so for people who are navigating both the acute and long-term impacts of boundary breaches related to interpersonal trauma which includes trying to discern safe humans from those that may cause harm. This is not unique to sexual trauma survivors alone, this may also be true for anyone who has experienced the systemic trauma of oppression (racism, ableism, heterosexism, cissexism) and the frequent interpersonal boundary transgressions that are part of how those systems are enacted. Since the boundary breach of sexual trauma can impact our relationship to our body in both an acute and ongoing way, practices that support and bolster our own safe(r) embodiment can pave the way to personalized, adaptive boundaries we can draw upon to navigate the world around us.
In the acute moment of trauma and for a period afterwards, the boundary between where we end and where the rest of the world begins may become blurred, if not temporarily destroyed. We are vulnerable to the energies of the people around us - their pain, their anger, their panic, their disgust, and their grief. This is one reason why the way in which people respond to survivors - family, first responders, those who receive survivors' first disclosure - can influence how the survivor's nervous system encodes the event. The shock of sexual trauma and the physiology required to survive it places a high demand on our whole being. There is an enormous amount of energy to process and naturally, we cannot fully metabolize nor integrate it at once. In the trauma healing field, we talk about titration as a method for renegotiating trauma by working with one tiny dose of activation at a time and then taking time to land the experience of settling. I like to frame the fact that we don't feel everything there is to feel, remember everything there is to remember, communicate all there is to communicate, express all the emotions we are experiencing immediately, and rather, that we do so over a period of months, years, decades, lifetimes and generations - as our body's own in-built titration mechanism. This is mostly a gift though the unpredictability of when and how our experience begins to filter through can sometimes be hard to bear.
Then, there are the long-term impacts of the boundary breach. We may develop management strategies to protect against intrusion into our inner world including creating physical or emotional distance from others. We may also discard parts of our own body that we no longer feel safe inhabiting. Some survivors will live with a sense of absolute permeability where there is no differentiation between themselves and everything in their surrounding environment. This could be because they never existed in a body where their sovereignty was recognized and honored, or the incidents of sexual trauma were repeatedly committed against them, or simply because the degree of what one single experience of sexual trauma did to their unique body, psyche and nervous system shattered their capacity to consciously and joyfully inhabit their own body. 
However, it is that we are influenced by this violation and however we do our best to cope - whether through vigilance, avoidance, or surrender - we reckon with the collateral wounding of trauma. We may lose our ability to engage intimately with other humans or our sense of embodied agency. Still, it is essential to remember that within the choices we make consciously along with our body's unconscious choices - we are doing the best we can to endure living in the aftermath and/or the ongoing threat of harm. I want to specifically name that the porousness that can arise as a result of having endured trauma and the heightened sensitivities we cultivate to navigate living in the world can be transformed into one of our healing resources.
In the wake of sexual trauma, survivors may face an embodiment conflict. They may have a desire to access a felt sense of being in their body, a longing to find or come home to themselves, and simultaneously, there is an understandable aversion to sensing inside because there is so much trauma residue there. Even the absence of feeling the body, for example identifying a numbness - is still the experience of something and can be a reminder of the heartbreaking loss of our body, so we stop paying attention. 
How do we begin to build boundaries and a cohesive sense of self? How do we handle the in-congruence between what we think and what our body does?
It is my experience that bodily breaches require bodily repair. Through small (and sometimes big) acts of boundary enactment in our everyday life, we can build a strong and flexible internal scaffold to enjoy sustainable and nourishing relationships with ourselves, our families, our work, and beyond. One of my teachers, Joshua Sylvae, shared that boundaries are often understood as part of a cognitive process, and yet the experience of boundaries is more of a bottom-up process. When the body knows that it can do what it needs to do to protect itself, when the widest repertoire of self-protective mechanisms are available to us - it necessarily changes the stance we take. The degree of porousness with which we present ourselves to the world around us tangibly changes. (Sylvae) Just as it is increasingly understood that trauma healing requires working with somatic processes via the brain-stem rather than solely through the prefrontal cortex - it is also true that we can enter into more fulfilling boundary enactment by engaging in body-based practices. First locating our "yes", our "no" and our "maybe", our "I like that" versus "I don't like that", our ease in relationship to our discomfort in the body, can eventually lead to more confidence and agency in expressing those boundaries in interactions with others.

Here are a few practices I explore in my own self-care that assist me in anchoring myself in my body, feeling my body, and recognizing the intricacies of my boundaries. They are not universal because we are not all having the same experience. Our bodies are wonderfully diverse. They work for me at this stage in my life and are relative to my constitution, my abilities and my preferences. Maybe you will find one that resonates with you or can be adapted to serve your specific intentions. It could also be that recognizing aversion to what I offer here is an interesting way to experience and track your body's way of expressing boundaries.
Ask yourself any of these questions and modify them to be personally meaningful. These are certainly useful when there is strong activation, however, I like to practice them in lower stakes environments as well.
"What can I do to send my body a signal of safety so that I can engage with this moment from a place of agency?"
Examples might include: orienting yourself to the here and now by taking in elements of your environment through your senses, changing your posture, swaying, hydrating or eating, warming yourself with a blanket, moving outside, taking a break from a conversation or activity to track your breath, petting an animal, etc.
"To what degree, and where in my being, am I steady like a tree or fluid like water? What does this moment require?"
It can be helpful to have symbols in any form that represent solidity and steadiness as well as something that is fluid. You might notice whether your tendency around boundaries is to be quite solid, or alternately, quite porous. Perhaps recall how there is flexibility in the way a tree bends in the wind and how its limbs rest downward at night. There is also firmness and consistency in the pressure of the ocean's fluid waves breaking on the shore. It is not all or nothing nor do our boundaries need to be. Remember, regulation is about our capacity to respond appropriately to environmental contingencies in a most effective way. (Sylvae)
Track the unique ways your body expresses boundaries in how it handles tension. Bring curiosity as you observe yourself, you are learning the language of your own body. 
Sometimes muscular tension patterns form as ways our bodies help us feel more somatically safe. There is a kind of muscular vigilance that can be a result of boundary violations. Determine if it feels right to you to pay attention to a place of tension in your body whether you feel into the tension, you make contact with it through a hand or warm washcloth, OR you visualize it outside of yourself. Sometimes muscular tension (and physical pain, chronic stress, chronic pain) pulls so constantly on our mental resources, or is felt so systemically throughout our shape, that an invitation to focus on it even more feels misattuned. Validate your "no" or your "I'm not sure" to this practice. Choose something else! 
If noticing yourself in this way feels right, see how you might give your body a message that is in a safe enough environment to simply imagine the tension softening just 1%. Remember 1% is actually a big deal. Whether or not the tension itself changes is separate from the act of letting your body know there is a resource to meet and hold that 1%. 
For me, my daily hygiene rituals offer an interesting place to notice how I hold my body and how it holds me. The shower is one place I can more readily notice the unconscious gripping of muscles in my body. I physically contact all my parts and that brings my body into greater awareness. I can feel the tension with my own hands. I remind myself of what a pleasure it is to clean and care for my body. I often hear myself sigh in the shower which for me is a signal of settling. I adore the scent of lavender and so I use lavender-infused body products to support my brain in receiving a signal of safety. I use a soft loofah that lathers the soap in bubbles, and I apply lotion to my body with the intention that I am guiding the tension out of the tissues - however slightly. It is gentle, it is subtle, and it is tangible. 
Practice savoring moments when your sense of either cognitive or somatic vigilance lets down. 
Our attention is often directed outward to detect threats and so this practice of observing and taking pleasure in micro-moments of embodied ease helps build our brain's capacity to attend to, appreciate, and cultivate feelings of goodness. It might not be a whole-body experience. It might be an awareness that your gut area feels really soft and relaxed. Maybe you place your hands on your belly and just enjoy the experience of soft relaxedness in your gut. If and when tension returns, you've still had the experience of something different. The state of the body is always changing, even if in the most minute ways. In the era of "the body keeps the score" I try to affirm that our bodies not only remember trauma and suffering, yet also, they remember feelings of goodness, pleasure, and ease. A brief moment of ease in your body or mind matters and also registers as an important shift in your nervous system. Anytime we are cultivating more communication with our bodily sensations and states that can support us in discerning where and how we enact our boundaries in other places. Over time, the somatic feedback of our body can become a useful gauge in discernment.
Practice savoring moments when you feel yourself take up space. 
Feel the weight of your body. The sound of your voice. The impact of your movements. The expansion of your own energy within a green forest. 
Sometimes, I lay on the ground with a blanket layered on top of me and invite gravity as a resource to anchor me. I play with the extent to which I can really allow my body to receive gravity, to let the weight of the blanket (which can be very thin) to support my shape in resting fully and broadly onto the ground. I can hear one of my yoga teachers saying, "See if you can allow the weight of your body to release towards the earth any degree more." 
Related, when you feel your body's resistance to something - valorize the resistance. 
Give yourself permission to not override your own bodily impulse regardless of someone else's opinion about it. Or even yours! Sexual trauma is a negation of our body's boundaries and healing can come through reclaiming them. We want to give our bodies a consistent message that their boundaries are valued which makes it more possible for us to actually enact them in relationship to others. 
I was recently asked by a healing practitioner to sense into my pelvis. I tracked my body and eventually my attention landed in my pelvis. When asked to share about it, I told the person of an extraordinarily peaceful image that I had discovered there. The practitioner responded with judgement that I was tracking image and not sensation. I initially felt shame. Then I felt anger. They demonstrated a lack of awareness as to the intimacy of their request and the exquisite vulnerability of being a survivor. They assumed somatic consent from my body and my body was not giving it.
For the purposes of boundaries in general, I want to note that sensation tracking is not usually an "on" or "off" act. For some of us, it takes time - some wandering around the landscape of our body with our attention, perhaps with movement, maybe with our breath as a guide. An invitation to track sensation is best explored as an unfolding rather than as a directive. I was angry that a positive experience with tracking my pelvis was pathologized as survivor behavior. I was angry that they would ask me to feel shame about my body's "no" to sensation while minimizing the ways my body said "yes" through imagery. I sat with the practitioner's comments, and then felt my body root further into my seat while my spine extended upward. I was able to communicate why that was a misattunement and what that person might need to know about working with sexual trauma. I offered just enough information to clarify and reinforce my body's intelligence - nothing extra. I carry that sense of agency with me to this day: I trust the intelligence of how I inhabit my own body. 
In another setting, I was walking on a trail with my partner and two men were approaching from the other direction. As they came closer it was clear they were not moving over. Normally, I would move very far out of their way and even put my head down to avoid eye contact with them. I was raped while trail running, so this environment can be very charged for me. Earlier that day, I had just worked with my psychotherapist on healthy expressions of anger. It was deep, methodical, well-titrated work that involved me briefly squeezing a pillow and tracking myself in that action and the release. Without thinking, my body moved toward the two men. I moved into what might be considered their space on the trail. I met their eyes. I felt my chest lift and my legs press firmly into the ground as I stepped with intention and strength. They shifted out of my way and dropped their gaze. It was an amazing thing. My partner and I looked at each other in awe. We both felt the way I expanded my body and energy in that moment which was markedly different. 
In all of this, boundaries are not static, nor are they universal. It is no small endeavor to shift your relationship to boundaries. Prentis Hemphill, a movement and somatics teacher, writer, and organizer said, "Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously." Take a moment with that statement. Notice how it lands in your shape. What is the right distance for you? Boundaries are a practice of self-advocacy and an affirmation of innate worthiness. Developing intimacy with your own body and mind can be a resource for how you navigate interactions with everything else. In the nonlinear journey of enacting boundaries that nurture you and your life, give yourself practice spaces where you can feel yourself gaining skill, comfort, and pride. A boundary exploration that respects your body exactly as it is. The sense of embodied agency and integrity that comes with cultivating boundaries that uniquely support you will naturally grow in time.
While the influence of trauma may be broad, it is not infinite. Honing, celebrating, and enacting your body's boundaries is a precious place to establish the recipe for your own healing, to suture the wounds that transcend language, and to breathe the balm of your own authenticity into the spaces that were once breached. 

Molly Boeder Harris is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP), and a trauma-informed yoga teacher and trainer. Her own experiences surviving sexual trauma catalyzed her to enter the trauma healing field in 2003, beginning with her work as a medical and legal advocate with children and adult survivors, a campus violence prevention educator and as a yoga teacher specializing in working with survivors. She earned her Master's Degree in International Studies and her Master's Certificate in Women's & Gender Studies, which inform the way she holds both individual and collective forms of trauma and oppression close together in her work. Over the last 2 decades of her career and healing trajectory, she has found that the practices which recognize the whole person – body, mind, and soul – and which also honor the ways in which trauma and resilience manifest physiologically, offer the greatest possibility for embodied justice and social change.

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