You may be asking yourself this question when you hear people talk of the value and importance of personal boundaries yet genuinely have no idea what the concept is all about, nor what yours might be and how to implement them.
Reasons why you might be asking ‘what the hell are boundaries?’ could be due to family- of-origin wounds such as abuse, living with a parent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and/or substance issues. These wounds may have caused a variety of responses within you as a result, such as an absence of boundaries, which is characteristic of codependency.
In this article we look at answering this question to establish why you feel ‘boundary-less’. It is an important issue to get understanding on before moving on to helpful stuff around how you can build boundaries into your life to ensure self-care and thrive in healthy relationships.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are our personal rules around what is ok and what is not ok for us, and what works for us emotionally, mentally, physically, sexually, and spiritually. Boundaries guide us and determine our limitations on how others behave towards us (as well as how we behave towards ourselves), protecting us to ensure our safety when any ‘no go zones’ are violated. These guys are important signposts in our journey to freedom and joy!
Boundaries are shaped by our thoughts, opinions, needs and emotions and are therefore closely tied to our identities and sense of self.
Assertion of our boundaries are not only our right, but necessary for fostering our self-worth. Respectfully communicating to others our needs and limitations reinforces to ourselves and to others that we understand our value and will not compromise on this.
The ‘boundary savvy’ understands that just as boundaries shape our own special uniqueness and limits, the same applies to all who surround us. This clarity around the distinction between self and others, makes it easy to identify what we are personally responsible and accountable for, versus what simply isn’t our business and belongs to another.
Additionally, personal boundaries are a cornerstone of healthy relationships. What you allow, will continue…right? Expressing your self-respect by communicating what works for you and what doesn’t determines the boundaries that govern the quality and health of your relationships.
If you are in fact one of the ‘boundary-less’, you are no doubt aware of the pitfalls of regularly feeling taken advantage of; not feeling quite good enough; and the confusion of thinking you are responsible for other people’s behaviours. Aaaah the perils of toxic relationships…do not despair! Boundaries can be yours with a little work. Tools will be provided in upcoming articles.
For now, let’s look at possible reasons you may be missing boundaries to kick start your journey of recovery.
Why don’t I have them?
Boundaries are informed by our experiences of family relationships early in life. The critical ones that instruct your sense of self and how you relate to others, are with your primary caretakers, which in most instances are your parents.
A child’s healthy development relating to boundaries includes two key phases: separation-individuation and self-differentiation.
The separation-individuation process occurs between mother and child, where the child progresses from being merged with and wholly reliant on her following birth to eventually becoming separate and autonomous mentally, physically, and psychologically.
Self-differentiation enables the child to understand the difference between their emotions and thoughts, creating awareness of self; and that these are separate from those of others who have their own experiences.
These developmental phases are necessary for the establishment of identity and consequently personal boundaries. Progressing through these effectively hinges on the mother meeting and adapting to the needs of the child as they move through the first few years of life.
For the ‘boundary-less’ individual, these stages have been compromised, as is frequently found in the history of codependents with dysfunctional family backgrounds that might include NPD, substance abuse, and/or other forms of mental, physical, and psychological abuse.
In these scenarios, the parent is either overly involved and controlling, or uninvolved and neglectful (sometimes a confusing combination of both). In any of these circumstances, the attention required to meet the needs of the child to graduate positively through the phases is deficient as the focus of the parent is elsewhere. For example, the narcissistic parent’s energy is centred on satisfying their ego, and for the substance dependent on satisfying their craving.
The parent’s pathological drive to meet their own needs, override meeting those of the child. Not only is the child starved of the care required to carry them successfully through these essential developmental phases, but the parent conveys that it is the child’s responsibility to satisfy the needs of the parent.
In these dysfunctional family systems, patterns of behavior and ‘rules’ are enforced, which communicate directly and indirectly the role of the child as determined by the parent. These can include:
- Authoritarian, rigid parenting where the child must not challenge or question the parent
- The child being required to put others’ needs first or they are labelled ‘selfish’
- The child must ‘be seen and not heard’
- Open talk of emotions or problems by the child is not permitted
- The child must strive for perfection (largely relevant for the NPD family system)
The pressure of this environment requires that the child stifles their own feelings and needs in favour of those of the parent, constantly adapting behaviours to their perceived needs.
This fosters alienation from internal cues and emotions, teaching the child to supress their true self preventing the achievement of a sense of authentic identity. Furthermore, the child’s capacity to identify inappropriate boundary violation is void as they are programmed to meet the needs of others even to the extent that their own are defiled.
The child nursing significant emotional and psychological wounds from this dynamic and not having developed capacity to care for the self internally via ‘self-esteem’, continues to seek approval and validation externally from the parent.
This creates the perfect storm: the parent demands too much from the child, and the child offers up everything seeking to avoid ongoing rejection and abandonment and to receive the love they desperately long for.
Link to codependency
In forfeiting and abandoning our authentic selves to meet the needs of another, we have no boundaries. Here begin patterns of codependency carried into adulthood:
- People pleasing for validation and approval
- Sacrificing own needs to meet those of others
- Being somewhat comfortable with abuse as it is familiar, and all tangled up with understanding of ‘love’
- Agreeing to take responsibility for what really belongs to others
- Emotional state being dependent on the emotional state of others
Ok, so it sounds all a bit doom and gloom, but truly it isn’t. The first step to recovery is understanding the ‘why’ and for many who are codependent or have an abundance of relationships with narcissistic individuals, this history will be recognisable.
Understanding the ‘why’ allows you to feel compassion for what could be considered your normal reactions to abnormal circumstances in a childhood that included much suffering. You navigated as best you could a set of circumstances well beyond your control.
The wonderful news is now you are an adult, you can make choices to break the patterns stemming from your history.
You can acquire boundaries, and in the process naturally solidify your true self.
Although the work may be a little uncomfy at first, trust me, you will fall in love with the freedom and strength you will be gifting yourself by doing so.
This work will also narc-proof you. Strong boundaries will never fly for the abusive narcissist who requires every ounce of your being. Nor will their sneaky tricks be quite as undetectable to you. You will know unequivocally when a ‘no go zone’ is being violated, and walk away knowing nobody, nobody, may take from you what you do not happily and freely give.
We’ve now looked at the ‘why’. The ‘how’ will be explored in upcoming articles on how you can excavate your boundaries and set yourself free. The first in this series is How to reclaim your boundaries after narcissistic abuse by using your values.
I’d love to hear from anyone willing to share experiences of living a history such as the one described and how they have overcome it in the comments section below. The more we share, the more we teach one another and help those in need to take their step towards freedom.
Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more. Minnesota, US: Hazelden.
Beattie, M. (2009). The new codependency: Help and guidance for today’s generation. New York, US: Simon & Schuster.
McBryde, K. (2008). Will I ever be good enough? Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. New York, US: Atria.
Pollack, D. L. (1992). A study of developmental precursors to codependency and cross-generational correlations of psychological functioning in mothers and adult daughters (Doctoral dissertation). California School of Professional Psychology – San Diego. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations. (Order no. 9224773)