When we fail to implement adequate boundaries within our interpersonal relationships, we may be unintentionally setting our relationships up for failure. Relationships come in all shapes and sizes – we have close and meaningful relationships with our friends and family members, relationships with our peers, our coworkers, and even with the friendly cashier at our local grocery store. Even if boundaries remain unspoken, we will inevitably set them within every relationship we form. In order to understand how a lack of personal boundaries can lead to unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships, we must first understand what a boundary truly is.
What is a Boundary?
In The New World Dictionary, a boundary is defined as” any line or thing marking a limit”, or, “a border”. In recovery, the word boundary is often used to describe one significant characteristic of codependency. Individuals who have codependent tendencies will often experience emotional abuse within their close interpersonal relationships, because they are unable to set and maintain firm personal boundaries. They allow deep-seated fears of disapproval and rejection to prevent them from authentically expressing their feelings, thus they open themselves up to manipulation and emotional neglect. Many codependent individuals expect others to inherently know when they are upset or in need, and hope that things will change naturally, without any effort on their part. However, they often become angry, resentful, and hurt when things do not change, and when the accumulative scars of their long-term emotional abuse become too much to bear.
When one has loose or permeable boundaries, it can be difficult for him or her to tell where he or she ends and where another person begins (emotionally speaking). It is difficult to differentiate between the feelings of others and personal feelings, as well as the responsibilities of others and personal problems. The codependent individual has a very unclear sense of exactly who or she is, and dedicates a large portion of his or her life taking on the responsibilities of others. This is because the boundaries surrounding respective obligations are so very blurred, and any definitive sense of self is essentially nonexistent. Our personal boundaries define our individual self, separating ‘me’ from ‘you’.
Developing Strong Boundaries
It is important to recognize that no one is born with a strong set of personal boundaries. We learn how to set and maintain boundaries from our parents, and continue developing boundary-setting skills as we get older. Many of us (who are in recovery) entered into adulthood with damaged, blurred, or nonexistent boundaries. We may lack personal boundaries altogether, or we may have developed a set of boundaries that are permeable, ambiguous, or overly strict and severe. In the vast majority of cases, the health of our current boundaries will depend on the environment in which we grew up. Children who grew up with overly invasive or emotionally enmeshed parents tend to have a weak or nonexistent grasp of personal space. In some cases, generational roles may have been unclear, and the child may have had to take on the role of a caretaker for his parents or his siblings. Caretaking damages boundaries, seeing as the child filling the role of primary caretaker is liable to take on the thoughts, feelings, and problems of others – believing them to be his responsibility.
If an individual was emotionally or physically neglected as a child, he may not have any concept of healthy boundaries. Those who were not adequately nurtured and cared for throughout infancy and early adolescence will often have a difficult time forming a solid sense of self, due to a persistent emotional void. The opposite is also true – some children will grow up in households that lack appropriate emotional boundaries, and parents may be overly (and inappropriately) affectionate towards their children. This is often true in single-parent/single-child households, in which one parent has left or passed away – and most frequently, this type of relationship will occur between a mother and her son.
Boundaries – Acquired from Our Primary Caregivers
It has been repeatedly proven that way in which we bond with others is ultimately determined by the way we bonded with our primary caregivers during our very first years of life; our parents, foster parents, or whomever it was that raised us. If we were raised with significant gaps in our boundaries, the way we interact and bond with others will inevitably be compromised. We may become open to emotional invasion or manipulation by others, or spend our entire lives attempting to keep others at a safe distance. In recovery, our goal is to develop and maintain a set of healthy personal boundaries – not too rigid and not too loose. As we work towards developing healthy boundaries, we will simultaneously begin to develop a healthy sense of our role amongst family members and friends. We will begin to develop a strong and unwavering sense of self and personal identity. We will begin to understand our own worth, and learn to say ‘no’ at appropriate times.
Codependent individuals, who grow up with inadequate and permeable boundaries, tend to develop a very high tolerance for chaos and emotional pain. It may be difficult for individuals such as these to notice that they are being hurt or taken advantage of. It is very important that we begin building a solid sense of self-esteem – once our self-confidence and sense of personal worth increases, we will be more readily able to set firm limits with those who may have been abusing us. Taking care of our own personal needs by practicing self-care, engaging in self-nurturing activities, and learning to make realistic and healthy decisions will ultimately help us to set the personal boundaries that have so long eluded us. Learning what we are and are not comfortable with will be an ongoing process, and we will need to be easy on ourselves along the way. After all, we are developing an entirely new set of social skills and healthy coping mechanisms – this is no small task! But with practice comes improvement, and with the ongoing process of recovery comes a wonderful new world of emotional health, happiness, and personal fulfillment.