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Navigating the Complex World of Trauma: The Struggle to Ask for Help and Say No – Finding Balance through Boundaries and Managing Expectations

Trauma is a deeply complex and challenging issue that affects countless individuals worldwide. As a trauma counsellor, I have specifically worked with individuals who experience complex trauma. This type of trauma can manifest in various ways, often making it exceedingly difficult for those affected to reach out for help or say no when necessary. In this blog post, we'll explore the intertwined issues of asking for help and the inability to say no in the context of complex trauma, shedding light on the connections and the emotional toll they can take. I'll also delve into the role of boundaries and managing expectations in finding balance.

The Struggle to Ask for Help:

One of the most common challenges faced by individuals with complex trauma is their reluctance to ask for help.

  1. Fear of Rejection and Abandonment: People with complex trauma have a heightened fear of rejection and abandonment, often stemming from past experiences of being let down by caregivers or trusted individuals. This fear makes it incredibly difficult to seek assistance, as they anticipate being turned away or judged.

  2. Self-Reliance as a Coping Mechanism: Many individuals who have experienced complex trauma develop self-reliance as a coping mechanism. They become so accustomed to handling their struggles independently that asking for help feels like a sign of weakness. This self-reliance can lead to isolation and further emotional distress.

The Inability to Say No:

On the flip side, individuals with complex trauma may struggle with saying no when others request their time, energy, or resources. This tendency is often rooted in a desire to please others, fear of conflict, and a deep-seated need for external validation.

  1. People-Pleasing as a Survival Strategy: For many survivors of complex trauma, people-pleasing behaviours served as a survival strategy during their difficult pasts. They learned to prioritize the needs and wants of others to maintain a sense of safety and belonging, even if it meant suppressing their own desires.

  2. Projecting Expectations Onto Others: Complex trauma survivors often internalize the expectations they have for themselves, assuming that others should also adhere to these standards. When someone says no, it can be deeply disappointing, as it feels like a personal rejection or failure.

The Connection: Expectations and the Pendulum Effect:

In the complex landscape of trauma, expectations form a crucial thread that weaves its way through the struggle to ask for help and the inability to say no. This thread is essential to understanding the pendulum effect, where individuals with complex trauma swing between extreme self-reliance and excessive people-pleasing. Let's explore the connection between expectations and this pendulum dynamic:

1. Expectations We Place on Ourselves:

Individuals who have experienced complex trauma often carry a heavy burden of self-imposed expectations. These expectations can be rooted in the need to prove their worth or to compensate for perceived deficiencies caused by their traumatic past. Here's how these self-expectations contribute to the pendulum:

  • Perfectionism: Survivors of complex trauma might hold themselves to impossibly high standards. They may believe that unless they excel in every aspect of their lives, they are unworthy or undeserving of help or love.

  • Hyper-Responsibility: Many survivors take on excessive responsibility for the well-being and happiness of others. This self-imposed role as a caretaker can leave them feeling overwhelmed and unable to ask for help, fearing that they will be seen as incapable or weak.

  • Overachievement: Complex trauma survivors may believe that they must achieve extraordinary success to counteract their past experiences. This relentless pursuit of achievement can leave little room for vulnerability or the acknowledgment of personal limitations.

2. Projecting Expectations onto Others:

In addition to the high expectations they place on themselves, individuals with complex trauma often project these expectations onto others. This projection can manifest in several ways and is closely tied to the pendulum dynamic:

  • Assuming Others Should Know: Survivors might assume that others should intuitively understand their needs or feelings without them having to communicate directly. This expectation can lead to disappointment when others fail to meet these unspoken demands.

  • Assuming Others Should Sacrifice: Complex trauma survivors may believe that others should be willing to go to great lengths to help or please them, just as they have often done for others. When someone says no, it feels like a betrayal of these unspoken agreements.

  • Difficulty Accepting Boundaries: Projecting high expectations onto others can result in difficulties accepting the boundaries set by friends, family, or partners. Survivors may interpret boundaries as a rejection of their worth or an abandonment, causing emotional distress.

Breaking the Cycle:

Recognizing and addressing these expectations are critical steps in finding balance between asking for help and saying no. It involves:

  • Self-Compassion: Survivors must learn to be compassionate with themselves and acknowledge that they are worthy of help and respect regardless of their achievements.

  • Communication: Clear and honest communication is essential. Survivors should express their needs and boundaries explicitly rather than relying on others to intuitively understand them.

  • Reframing Expectations: Shifting the focus from unrealistic, self-imposed expectations to realistic, self-compassionate ones can help survivors find a healthier balance.

The Role of Boundaries in Finding Balance:

Now, let's explore the concept of boundaries in finding balance between these challenges. Imagine a pendulum gradually coming to rest at the centre, representing a balanced approach to asking for help and saying no:

  1. Physical Boundaries: Physical boundaries involve the space you need between yourself and others. Establishing these boundaries is essential for reclaiming a sense of safety and autonomy over one's body.

  2. Sexual Boundaries: Survivors of complex trauma may have experienced sexual abuse or coercion, making it challenging to set and enforce clear sexual boundaries. Learning to say no and communicate preferences in intimate situations is vital for healing.

  3. Emotional/Mental Boundaries: These boundaries involve protecting your emotional well-being and mental space. Establishing emotional boundaries means recognizing your own emotions, validating them, and not allowing others to manipulate or invalidate your feelings.

  4. Spiritual Boundaries: Setting spiritual boundaries involves exploring and embracing one's own beliefs, even if they differ from those of family or peers.

  5. Financial/Material Boundaries: Establishing financial boundaries includes setting budgets, controlling spending, and not allowing others to take advantage of your resources.

  6. Time Boundaries: Setting time boundaries means learning to say no to excessive demands on your time and allocating time for self-care and personal growth.

  7. Non-Negotiable Boundaries: These boundaries are firm and unwavering, protecting your core values and well-being. Establishing these boundaries ensures that certain behaviours or situations are completely unacceptable and non-negotiable.

Expectations, whether they are self-imposed or projected onto others, play a pivotal role in the pendulum effect experienced by individuals with complex trauma. These expectations often contribute to the struggle to ask for help and the inability to say no. By recognizing and reframing these expectations, survivors can take a significant step toward finding balance and healing from complex trauma.

In the journey of healing, establishing and maintaining various types of boundaries are essential for individuals with complex trauma to navigate the pendulum swing between asking for help and saying no. Boundaries serve as protective shields, safeguarding physical, emotional, and mental well-being. They allow individuals to define their limits and protect themselves from harm while also fostering healthier relationships.

As trauma counsellors, our role is to guide and support survivors as they navigate the complexities of their past experiences and reclaim agency over their lives. It's through the combination of managing expectations and implementing boundaries that individuals can empower themselves to find balance and ultimately lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.

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