Boundaries from the Inside out – Part 3 (of 4)

» Posted in Family Life, Marriage and Relationships, Personal Growth | 2 comments

heart in chains

After several months of absence, Joe was back in my office, albeit very reluctantly.  He was finally desperate enough to come in because he was terrified of losing his wife, Mary.  After working with me to set important boundaries with Joe, Mary had successfully navigated through her own fears and had taken responsibility for enabling Joe’s bad behaviour in their marriage.  While she still loved Joe, she was recognizing that she couldn’t do anything to change him.  And so she was experiencing a greater degree of freedom and was moving on to finding happiness in her own life, regardless of what Joe chose to do.  As Joe sensed his hold on his wife slipping, he began to panic and realize that if he didn’t turn with the changing tides, he was going to lose her.

For Joe, as with many people who are what I call “boundary crashers”, he really didn’t go into his relationship with Mary intending to harm or disrespect her.  Like Mary, Joe struggled with his own boundaries; however, the fruit of his unhealthy boundaries was the flip side of Mary’s.  Like Mary, Joe had some deep-seated fears and insecurities that he learned to compensate for by taking control of others, using his anger and ability to intimidate.  He forced people to meet his emotional needs by making them feel guilty and responsible for his happiness.

Unfortunately for Joe, like many boundary crashers, he didn’t have many meaningful relationships.  The people in his life had a hard time trusting him because he chose to manipulate and control rather than treat them with love and respect.  Even though he had been told that he was aggressive, pushy, dismissive and obnoxious by more than one person, he readily ignored their feedback, thinking that if they didn’t like his behaviour, well, that was their problem.  Does Joe sound like you or someone you know?

Boundary crashers come in many shapes and sizes.  You may not be overtly aggressive like Joe, but you might try making others feel guilty for not meeting your demands, such as the mother who tries to make her son feel bad for not coming home for the holidays.  Or you may try to get your point across by withdrawing from your loved ones and giving them the silent treatment.  Or you may be secretly angry at your spouse but rather than telling her directly, you tell sarcastic jokes about her or make fun of her.  Or you may sweet talk your way into getting what you want, knowing which buttons to push with others – for example, playing the “helpless” card to ensure that your friend will step in to rescue you from your problems.  Manipulation comes in many forms, and if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us can think of times when we’ve been boundary crashers.

Admitting that we have problems with our boundaries can be difficult because it means admitting to things about ourselves we don’t like to see.  It’s difficult to admit that we’re afraid – afraid that we won’t get what we want, afraid that others won’t love or care for us on their own if we don’t demand their attention in some way.  Or we’re afraid that if we say “no” or try to set boundaries, others won’t love us anymore.

All boundary issues, regardless of type, are rooted in fear of some form.  For example:

  • Fear of not being loved.
  • Fear of being rejected or abandoned.
  • Fear of losing someone or something.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Fear of disapproval.
  • Fear of not getting what we want.

People who let their boundaries be violated often fear loss of approval or love. They are convinced that if they set a boundary — in essence, putting their own comfort and happiness above someone else’s — they will lose that person’s love, approval, and acceptance. In some cases, they might fear losing even more, such as the employee who endures verbal abuse from his boss because he’s afraid of losing his job.

People who violate boundaries often share the same fears. However, they have a different way of coping with it. Rather than giving into someone else’s demands in order to win approval and acceptance, they take an aggressive or manipulative role to get what they want.

The price for not maintaining healthy boundaries is steep, regardless of which side of the struggle you’re on.  Boundary crashers find that their actions eventually cost them their relationships, as people around them grow tired of being manipulated, made to feel guilty or treated with disrespect.  People with poor boundaries eventually find themselves drained and depressed, as they give more of themselves in the endless pursuit of love and acceptance.

On the other hand, when we possess healthy personal boundaries, we:

  • Have improved self-confidence and a healthy sense of self.
  • Have more stability and control over our lives.
  • Are more in touch with reality.
  • Are able to communicate more effectively with others.
  • Have healthier and more fulfilling relationships.

By this point in the series, you are hopefully beginning to recognize whether you have some struggles with your boundaries.  Before I wrap up the series next week with some tips on how to set healthy boundaries, take some time this week to pay attention to your relationships.  This will help motivate you to make some healthy changes to the boundaries that need some adjustment.  A very important aspect of setting your boundaries while respecting others’ limits is tracking how you feel in your relationships, noticing how you respond to others’ demands (spoken and unspoken), and paying attention to how others are responding to you.

So take the time to:

  1. List all the important relationships in your life (e.g., spouse, children, parents, friends, boss, co-workers).
  2. Do an honest assessment of the health of those relationships:
    • How balanced is the “power” of that relationship?  (Even if there’s a “power” differential because that person is in a position of authority over you, e.g., your boss, it’s important to recognize when that person is demanding things of you that is beyond reasonable, he/she is treating you with disrespect, or you’re tolerating bad behaviour on his/her part.)
    • How do you generally feel when you’re with that person (happy, uplifted, guilty, resentful, intimidated, afraid, etc.)?
    • How do you feel about yourself after being with that person (e.g., positive or negative)?
    • Do you feel energized or drained after being with that person?
    • Do you tend to lose your “voice” when you’re with that person?  Or alternatively, do you dominate and they don’t have a voice with you?
    • Has that person been withdrawing from you or avoiding you?
    • What personal costs are you bearing to stay in a relationship or situation (e.g., job) that you know is toxic?
    • What bad behaviours are you tolerating?  Or alternatively, what behaviours do you know they’re putting up with from you?
    • Have your friends/family been expressing any concerns about any of your relationships?
    • Do you find yourself working harder than the other person to maintain a relationship?
  3. Do a review of the relationships in your life that have ended; are there any consistent responses from others or feedback you’ve been given about them?  Or is there a theme as to why you’ve backed away from those relationships?  Do you tend to “attract” the same kinds of friends or partners?
  4. And finally, begin to imagine what kinds of relationships you want.  Think specifically about each of your relationships and think about what boundaries you need to begin to establish and enforce.  And be honest with yourself on what manipulation strategies you need to give up.

Tune in next week, November 6, 2012, for the last part this four-part series on boundaries.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the first two parts of this series, be sure to check them out:  Boundaries from the Inside Out, Part 1 and Part 2.


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  1. Dear Dr Linn — having trouble accessing Part 4 of the Boundary Series.. Really appreciate the info so far .. thx 😉

    • Sorry about that! I have fixed the link now. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

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