We use boundaries to distinguish what is mine versus what is yours, so we can take care of what is ours. When I know what is mine, I can set about doing what I need to do to protect what is mine. This kind of logic applies physically and emotionally. Physically it is self-explanatory, emotionally, we set boundaries to help us recognize what is our ‘stuff’ and what is other people’s ‘stuff’. It helps us be accountable for our own thoughts, feelings and actions, and gives us permission to hold others accountable for theirs.
It is not about putting walls up, it is about giving our fences gates. Setting boundaries is simply making a conscious choice about who and what we let in to our personal space and emotions.
If we learned about good boundaries growing up, then as an adult it may be easier to set firm emotional and physical boundaries, the world seems to make more sense, and often we feel safer. This is because in setting firm boundaries we recognize that the only thoughts, feelings, and behaviours we are responsible for are our own. Once we give up responsibility for the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of others, the world can be a much less scary or overwhelming place. Let’s face facts too, we don’t actually have any control over the thoughts, feelings, or behaviours of others anyway.
Unfortunately, many of us grow up learning poor boundaries. Our parents might force us to hug people goodbye when we just want to ‘high five’. Or, they ask our soccer coach to evaluate our performance at practice instead of asking us how we think we did first. These examples send us the message that other people’s opinions are more important than our own experiences of a situation. It teaches us to look outside of ourselves for the final word on what is important.
When we consistently learn to focus on keeping up appearances, not hurting other people’s feelings (even if it hurts our feelings) or keeping other people happy (even if it means we are not happy), we don’t learn about boundaries. We learn that our safety depends on the opinions and feelings of others. It would only seem natural that we would put all of our attention and energy towards figuring out what those opinions and feelings are, and keeping them under control. The problem is, we can’t actually control anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or actions. It doesn’t stop us from trying though, especially when we learned our sense worth, belonging and/or safety is riding on it!
Another way we learn poor boundaries, is when people repeatedly ignore our wishes or the boundaries we try to set. For instance, if a parent continues to tickle us after we ask them to stop, or if people don’t respect our space or invade our privacy. They may even punish us or reject us (by being angry or becoming emotionally unavailable and detached) when we try to set boundaries that are healthy for us.
This becomes especially complicated when our loved ones say they will respect our boundaries but then don’t. That’s like saying yes but shaking our head no at the same time. Expressions like “Aren’t you looking nice?” can be equally confusing (it’s a negative paired with a positive, which confuses the brain’s interpretation of the supposed compliment) or “What a smarty pants you are!” (pairing a commonly used label with a negative connotation with a tone suggesting praise, sending a mixed signal to the brain). In the extreme, when our loved ones say they love us and then overtly hurt us or fail to protect us (ie. abuse, allowing sibling violence etc), the mixed message is so damaging. When those loved ones are our parents in particular, we tend to assume that it is our fault somehow and we try to keep them happier even harder.
Another common way we learn poor boundaries is when we are used by our loved ones as emotional trash cans or emotional punching bags. When they give themselves permission to take out their bad day or upset feelings on us. This may be by yelling, being emotionally rejecting / detached or unavailable, or abusive. This sends the message that our safety is connected to their feeling state and that we are supposed to just take it.
The other version of this is when others look to us to fix their problems, (even at our own expense) or when others intrusively try to take over and fix our difficulties without regard for our wishes or capabilities. Both of these again send the message that we are somehow in a mind-meld with the other people in our life, so we lack boundaries.
All of these processes can teach us that we, as a person, along with our feelings, needs and opinions, don’t actually count. It teaches us that we only matter in as far as we are able to keep others happy, perform whatever roles we have learned- up to other people’s standards and expectations. This may be by keeping people happy, by being the peace-keeper in the house, or by being an outstanding student, a super-mom or dad or a successful professional etc. The details don’t matter, what does matter is that we learn that we do not inherently have worth, and to ignore our strong and healthy self. This means we learn to ignore our signalling system that tells us what is safe and good for us or not, because that often doesn’t perfectly align with keeping everyone else happy and not rocking the boat.
People who have learned to get through life this way are often well liked, because they are ‘a doormat’ in one or more domains, but usually in intimate relationships at the very least.
The price they pay though is that because they are listening to OLD STORIES vs THEIR OWN STORIES, they are not letting themselves or the world see who they really are. They are also unable to follow their strong and healthy self and its signalling system telling them what is healthy and what is not. It’s not uncommon for ‘people-pleasers’ to develop multiple physical symptoms as a result of this problem.
Over 90% of people with autoimmune diseases and IBS have been found to have poor boundaries. It is also common for individuals with multiple types of cancer (see “When the Body Says No” by Gabor Mate for details- I strongly recommend this book!). For some cancers, it seems that if you have the gene, you almost always get the cancer. It turns out coping style may make a big difference as to whether that cancer gene gets activated. The cancer gene does not get ‘turned on’ as often in those who have better boundaries and coping strategies.
Our mind and body are all in one pool, if one foot is sullied, the whole pool is contaminated.
The longer the sullied foot stays in the water, the more anxious and depressed people get. Many end up acting out in some way to stop feeling so overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious. Examples, like we’ve discussed before include throwing themselves into work, having affairs, drinking, etc. Or, they are just miserable, feel empty because they are not connected to their true self and often blame others for their problems.
So if you did not have the good fortune of learning good boundaries and of learning to listen to your strong and healthy self, are you ready to start now?
We don’t choose our past, but we often forget that we are not destined to repeat it- WE CAN CHOOSE A DIFFERENT FUTURE!