Boundaries Part 1: ways we abuse one another

“Martin”, charcoal on paper, by the author

What does not kill me makes me stronger


Finding Words

Inflicting suffering upon another person is universally accepted as being morally wrong.  But we hurt one another all the time, in subtle and crude ways, every day of the week, every hour of the day – regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, social position or sexual orientation – to the extent that the world is never short of pain caused both intentionally and unintentionally.  Often we hurt one another without even thinking about it or intending it.

For example, rather than cooperating, many of us instead choose to compete against one another’s needs, aims and desires, hurting or abusing people as we fight for what we want.  Some of us hurt others by what we fail to do for them or via unrealistic expectations.  Some we hurt invisibly by the kinds of jobs we do, choices and investments we make.  Sometimes we hurt people and we don’t even know how we did it.

Generally, there’s no great mystery about how we hurt and abuse one another, intentionally or unintentionally.  But it is important to find straightforward words to begin to talk about it in straightforward ways that allow us to forgive where possible, let go of people when necessary, recover and heal, and finally learn valuable lessons that can protect us in the future.  Knowing how we are hurt, and how we wound others, is the first step to deciding what to do about it.  This knowledge then allows us to begin to decide what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in others’ conduct towards us and our conduct towards them.  It is this knowledge that is the basis of our forming personal rules of engagement with the world, otherwise known as boundaries.  Boundaries allow us to protect ourselves from what is hurtful or harmful, whilst allowing what is helpful and supportive into our lives.  Healthy, effective boundaries are what help us recover, empower ourselves, maintain emotional and psychological stability, and preserve and protect us from toxic behaviours.

Abuse takes many forms, not just the stereotypes that we associate with physical aggression and gender. Lying, betrayal, unfaithfulness, exploitation, deceit, manipulation, theft, passive-aggression, undermining all happen regardless of gender or position. Many suffer serious mental distress as a result without a single bruise to be seen.  Much of this unseen behaviour can cause extreme stress in recipients which can end in a breakdown of relationships or even violence.

Some words and phrases we use to describe abusive, harmful or traumatising behaviours*:

Domestic Abuse and Domestic Violence, Narcissistic abuse and Exploitation, Child Abuse, Sexual Abuse and Assault, Criminal Damage, Fraud, Theft, Extortion, Blackmail, Harassment, Bribery, Discrimination, Neglect, Ritual Abuse, Mental Cruelty, Psychological Torture and Trauma, Rape and Date Rape, Cruelty, Infidelity, Evil, Sadism and Sexual Sadism, Invasion of Privacy, Bullying, Stalking and Spying

*if you need to form new boundaries it does not mean you were to blame for, or invited, these kinds of behaviours from others

In therapy, forming new boundaries against abusive or unwanted behaviour starts by first of all coming to terms with the pains we have suffered, or caused others to suffer.  The process starts by our finding ways to describe and understand what happened before going on to decide how we can formulate new ways of dealing with the world by, for example, constructing more effective rules of engagement and follow-up responses to undesirable behaviours that can help steer us away from situations, people and circumstances that are no good for us.

To that end, here are some of the many ways that we hurt and abuse one another.  It may be useful to first read the bold text before going into the details of each:

1. Betrayal: being unfaithful or disloyal; dishonouring agreements, confidentiality or privacy; back-biting/ being ‘two-faced’ and insincere

2. Disrespect: demeaning the other; failing to consider the impact of our behaviour on another’s feelings or wellbeing; unfairly criticising and blaming; humiliating the other; belittling and being sarcastic at their expense; undermining a person’s reputation without justification; personal snubs and insults; mocking or shaming the other’s beliefs, words or actions; invasions of privacy and personal boundaries; expecting the other to live up to our expectations of who they ‘should’ be

3. Abandonment: emotionally or physically abandoning or the explicit or implicit threat of abandonment of the other; neglect of children and other vulnerable persons; Triangulation and insecure attachment (causing stress and insecurity in a relationship by maintaining a third person as an implied threat of abandonment or betrayal)

4. Theft, Loss and Destruction: inflicting loss through stealing, defrauding or causing harm or damage to people, animals or property; borrowing monies or possessions and failing to return or repay them

5. Usurping and Undermining: withholding reward; favouritism (disfavouring some and giving others preferential treatment); scapegoating and social exclusion; taking credit for the other’s efforts or identity; outdoing and oneupmanship; devaluing the other; using silence or withholding explanations; manipulating or controlling the other (bribery, blackmail, using money to manipulate etc); gossiping, creating scandal or backbiting (including social media); shaming and humiliating; false blame and responsibility shifting or avoidance; placing the other in jeopardy (also betrayal); imposing unfair expectations; creating dependency or enabling helplessness; rewarding or enabling irresponsible behaviour; obstructive behaviour; putting someone in a double-bind (a ‘no win’ situation where each choice is bad for the person choosing); objectivising and pathologising (name-calling, conflating immoral or non-conformist behaviour with ‘mental illness’^)

John was a manager who befriended Sarah and gradually undermined her position in the workplace by taking credit for her ideas, attempting to meet his personal needs by both favouring her and at the same time attempting to coerce and groom her into a relationship.  Her lack of confidence and clear boundaries allowed enough ambiguity in the relationship to permit John to continually pester Sarah, resulting in her becoming stressed both in and out of the workplace.  By the time things reached breaking point, with unwelcomed physical contact and pressure to reciprocate intimate feelings, there was no alternative but to take out a formal greivance against John, who was abusing and misusing his position to gratify his personal needs.  Clear boundaries could have allowed Sarah to take action to protect herself early on, helping her avoid becoming ill with stress as the result of years of tolerating John’s narcissistic abuse.

6. Violence, Torture, Cruelty and Aggression: threats; causing distress, loss or harm to the other physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally, psychologically, financially; deliberately instilling fear, pain, stress, worry or anxiety in them (including passive-aggression and animal cruelty*); bullying and harassment

*Man jailed for killing partner’s dog to ‘get back at her’

7. Lying: deliberate fabrication; misdirection; being deceitful or false towards or about the other person; withholding, concealing or omitting truth or information

  • It’s worth noting that people tend to over-estimate their ability to lie successfully and under-estimate the ability of the other to detect a lie.   As such, we often ‘know’ when someone is lying, even though we seldom let them know this.  Lies can thus impact upon trust in a relationship when a lie isn’t discussed openly.  This is true for many of the other ways we hurt one another.

No matter how beautiful a lie is, in the end it hurts even more than the truth would have done.

Terry Mark

8. Neglect: denying care, attention, time, merit or affection to another person; depriving them of support; or failing to alleviate unfair conditions when it is within our power to do so e.g. a parent using money for personal indulgence that was intended to feed, clothe and support his/ her family; deliberately ignoring someone as punishment

9. Exploitation: using another person to serve our interests at their expense (emotionally, financially, socially etc); failing to give the other fair recognition or reward for their efforts; overcharging; underpaying; taking unfair advantage of another’s time, energy, kindness or weakness

10. Reactive Abuse: “Reactive abuse” occurs when a victim of abuse reacts to the abuse they received and is then blamed by the perpetrator and further abused as punishment for their reaction. It’s a technique used to shift responsibility for the original abuse, often resulting in a circular argument of blame that the abuser uses in an attempt to locate the problem and responsibility for the problem in the victim.  All kinds of abusers and manipulators use this responsibility shifting technique. It is an energy trap and double-bind for victims who try to argue against it.

Rula was a habitual liar and used betrayal, secrets and infidelity to control and abuse her partner and previous partners.  By having another man in the background as an ambiguous ‘friendship’, and a secret phone she used to contact him, she was able to punish her partner whenever they argued about Rula’s lies and her use of this other man as the ‘third leg of the stool’; a passive-aggressive device of ‘triangulation’ abusers use to maintain insecurity and continual threat in a relationship.  Arguments often resulted in Rula disappearing for hours as she ran to her other man, presenting herself to him as the victim, returning home with a cover story of lies about where she had been.  The other man (whose sexual interest in her Rula maintained) would then retaliate against her partner.  This is an example of the vicious circularity of reactive abuse; the abuser centres the cause of her abuse in the victim, punishing him for his suffering both directly and via other people.

Rula’s lack of personal integrity was matched only by her partner’s lack of self-esteem and healthy boundaries: boundaries that could have protected him by his refusing to allow an unfaithful and dishonest woman into his life.

Responsibility and Letting Go

Once we are able to identify the source of our hurt we can begin to better express the emotions associated with it; the needs we have left over; before clarifying who was responsible for the actions that brought about the pain or suffering.  Sometimes it becomes necessary for our own wellbeing to remove ourselves from contact with individuals or groups whose influence is toxic to us simply because some individuals are either unable or unwilling to change their abusive behaviours.  Letting go of such people – and more importantly letting go of the power we allow them to have over us – can bring both relief and some degree of loss, both of which are important to address.  Very often we confuse a sense of responsibility between ourselves and others by mixing our emotions and needs with the other’s actions, and vice versa, for example; giving our power away to others to whom we submit ourselves.  Clarifying responsibilities helps us create an emotional separation between self and other and an opportunity to take back the power we relinquished.  Identifying who was responsible for what is the first step to letting go, unburdening ourselves of unjustified blame, meeting our needs, and turning our suffering into a learning experience instead of a continual source of pain.

Forming New Boundaries

In Part 2 I’ll be discussing ways in which we can begin to establish better ways of protecting our interests when dealing with others: how we can empower ourselves by forming healthy and effective boundaries and maintaining and enforcing them.

Truth is everybody is going to hurt you: you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.     

Bob Marley

^ Conflating immoral or non-conformist behaviour with ‘mental illness’ is a common tactic used to draw attention to unwanted behaviours in others.  Governments, for example, tend to smear dissidents with the ‘mental illness’ label in order to discredit their dissent.  Families and other social groups can do the same to non-conforming members.  ‘Mental illness’ is actually a meaningless term.  Mentally distressed individuals, however, need our help and compassion.  Immoral people who harm us, on the other hand, require education and, if necessary, the actions of criminal courts to address their immoral conduct.  Therefore, we need to separate in our thinking, the terms ‘immoral’, ‘non-conformist’ and ‘mental distress’ if we are to respond accurately and intelligently to individual behaviour.


All written material on this website (including original artwork) is subject to copyright and cannot be used or reproduced without permission and clear attribution being made to the author.  Please contact me if in doubt.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. LovingSummer says:

    Great article, I found it to be clear, concise and helpful to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Many thanks for your comment LS. I’m enjoying reading your blog by the way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LovingSummer says:

        Thanks – the feeling is mutual!

        Liked by 1 person

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