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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

How trauma impacts our emotional boundaries



So what are healthy emotional boundaries anyway? In general healthy emotional boundaries are things like:

  • being able to say no without guilt or anger,

  • not accepting the blame for the choices or behaviours of other people,

  • being able to accept help in an open way without judging yourself as lacking or weak,

  • expecting and giving respect,

  • helping others without stepping into rescuer mode.

The boundaries that we use to navigate our world are mostly formed when we are children. How a child is treated by the important people in their lives will help determine how those boundaries are defined and developed. When a child is nurtured appropriately and their needs are met, particularly the primal needs of safety and security, the child will develop healthy boundaries and those boundaries will be an innate part of their being. By contrast, if a child experiences abuse or trauma they will not feel safety or security in their life, and due to this lack of security and safety they may lack the resources of energy and capacity to explore their own identity and boundaries. Any type of abuse is by definition an invasion of boundaries, which will make developing healthy boundaries very difficult for a child or young person.


The importance of mindfulness and awareness of healthy boundaries in the therapeutic support relationship cannot be emphasised enough.

A study at the Kaiser Medical Centre started in 1995 and collected data on what they called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s). ACE’s is a term used to describe a range of stressful events in a child’s life and these range from separation or divorce of parents, to exposure to abuse or neglect, mental illness and family violence.


What the study found is that the greater number of ACE’s a child was exposed to, the higher their chance of long term and serious physical and emotional health impacts. By their nature ACE’s will impact on the formation of healthy boundaries, and unhealthy or porous boundaries will contribute to unhealthy relationships in adult life. For example: the research shows that men who have high ACE scores have a higher risk of perpetrating domestic abuse. Women with high ACE scores have a higher risk of being abused.


Childhood experiences will effect the development of your emotional boundaries.

But, the brain and psyche are incredibly plastic and adaptable. We can support ourselves and others by affirming that they are not weak or damaged, but have been influenced by events in their childhood, and that this influence can be reversed, and even in some cases, used for growth and healing. This is a return to the Hero’s Journey that is discussed here. By developing the skills of mindfulness and reflection, we can develop and strengthen our healthy boundaries, which will lead to free-er and richer lives.


The importance of mindfulness and awareness of healthy boundaries in the therapeutic support relationship cannot be emphasised enough. With healthy boundaries the therapist remains more engaged, less exhausted, and less prone to vicarious trauma. We’ll talk more about healthy boundaries in therapeutic practice in the next blog article.

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