Where Did This Come From?

Children who don’t have control over their own bodies, personal space, emotions, or behavior may understandably feel confused and worthless, maybe even learning that they don’t deserve to fight for or demand better treatment. Such a child may grow into an adult who doesn’t even believe that they have a right to themselves, to say “no,” to want what they want. This can easily lead to a host of mental health problems, substance abuse, poor relationships, and more.

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But where did this come from?

When we first come into the world, we have no boundaries. But we come into a world full of other people and their boundaries. Think about what this means.

For the first nine months of life we are literally inside of another person, our mother, and for many years after that the boundaries of our ego and hers are loose and undefined. As we grow up and learn who we are as individual human beings, we gradually take on the work of setting up an identity with boundaries. Of deciding who we are and who we aren’t, what we do and what we don’t. In figuring out who we are, we simultaneously figure out how we want the world to treat us.

It’s understandable, then, that poor boundaries stem from childhood, during that delicate stage where we are still learning about our value, our autonomy, and our right to draw a line around ourselves. You may take the stance that not everything must come from our childhoods, dismissing that as entirely too Freudian or psychological. But if you’re struggling with a belief, conscious or subconscious, chances are it goes back to your youth and the influences of that time.

It’s tempting to look at a rotten childhood and blame ourselves or others, concluding that nothing can be done. But as with all trauma, it’s not our fault that it happened, but it is our responsibility to do what we can to heal. As adults, we can seek to correct some of the faulty messages we received as children, and do better going forward.

Children depend on their caregivers for survival. Poor boundaries often come from learning to do whatever it takes to survive, even if it’s compromising your own selfhood, autonomy, or dignity. You may have also grown up seeing others with poor boundaries, and simply never learnt what a healthy one looks like. You may even be guilty of failing to respect the boundaries of others.

Our parents teach us what is acceptable. What did you learn from them?

Our parents also teach us how valuable we are—what messages did you internalize?

Your parents may have sent you the unconscious message: “We will only love you when you behave exactly as we want you to,” or, “Your needs are not as important as mine or your sibling’s,” or even, “You don’t deserve to get your needs met, your job is only to meet the needs of others.” This kind of treatment is all too common because historically, most cultures have valorized self-sacrifice and martyrdom in the interest of the greater good.

Those who had to parent their parents, those who felt extreme pressure to conform or perform, and those who were taught that self-sacrifice is good and speaking up is bad—they all might develop poor boundaries.

As we saw in the example of the little girl and her grandmother, this isn’t always as sinister as it sounds. Sometimes, our culture’s broad messages confirm unhealthy boundaries. We praise the employee who works overtime and neglects their family, and judge the person who cancels plans because they’re tired.

Some people have poor boundaries because of more serious trauma in early life. A child whose worth and autonomy are protected in childhood will grow up feeling safe and secure in their own identity. But a child who hasn’t had their needs met, or who experienced any kind of abuse or neglect, has experienced the most fundamental boundary violation.

Children who don’t have control over their own bodies, personal space, emotions, or behavior may understandably feel confused and worthless, maybe even learning that they don’t deserve to fight for or demand better treatment. Such a child may grow into an adult who doesn’t even believe that they have a right to themselves, to say “no,” to want what they want. This can easily lead to a host of mental health problems, substance abuse, poor relationships, and more.

What is damaged is the personal sense of worth, individuality, dignity, and autonomy. It might not be clear to a person who has suffered abuse that they even have a problem—they don’t know what boundaries are, or how to set them. Rather than identifying the source of their pain as external, they may blame themselves, feeling that they are worthless or that they deserve any bad treatment they receive or despair they feel.

Again, this isn’t to say that experiencing abuse necessarily means you have poor boundaries, or that you can’t have poor boundaries unless you’ve experienced some horrible trauma in your early life. Because so many factors go into the shaping and maintenance of our identities, unhealthy boundaries are likely the result of many overlapping causes. Your immediate upbringing counts, but so does your culture and what it tells you about appropriate behavior, your life experiences, your previous relationships of all kinds, your unique personality, your worldview and how you envision yourself in the middle of that world, your values, your expectations, your age, your gender, and so on.

An interesting thing to remember is that we are all connected to other people who themselves have their own boundaries (or boundary issues, as it were). When you consider the fact that each of us grows up in a home environment consisting of several different people, each with their own boundaries, and their own impact on us, we can see how complex of an issue this really is.

A parent who routinely violates or negates our right to have boundaries may cause us to grow up with a correspondingly weaker, more permeable sense of self.

Families are like ecosystems—because we are interdependent, our behavior and attitudes can’t help but affect others around us. Though modern psychology always seems to suggest that individuals are the fundamental unit, the reality is that who we are is very much shaped by how others behave around us. If these people are our primary caregivers during our formative years, this is even more true.

Within families, boundaries serve to separate individuals, but they also work to define ways in which people are linked together and the nature of their relationships. The definition is mutual and reciprocal—there is no child without a mother, no aggressor without a victim. Boundaries within families can also establish smaller walls around subgroups, or a big barrier separating “us” from “them.”

Boundaries can decide who’s in or out, who’s one of us and who isn’t, who is good and who is bad.

We’ve seen that overly rigid or overly permeable barriers can be problematic. Boundary issues are often a family affair—something that affects everyone—and problematic boundaries often come in complementary, dysfunctional pairs. Overly intrusive boundaries can lead to enmeshment, and overly rigid ones can lead to neglect or a sense of emotional detachment. Some examples of the results of poor boundaries include:

  • Smothering children and giving them no privacy
  • Parents who overly sexualize their children, or make inappropriate demands of them, as in cases where the child and parent role are reversed
  • Parents who use their children as confidantes, informal therapists or emotional punching bags
  • Parents who involve their children in adult fights, or else make them messengers or bargaining chips in divorce proceedings
  • Parents or siblings who snoop, overshare or demand to be a part of other family members’ private lives

The examples above are where boundaries are weak or too porous. People suffer from not being properly separated and defined apart from one another—they become enmeshed. On the other hand, boundaries that are too rigid result in a family that is distant and detached from one another.

In one family, there may be both detachment and enmeshment at once; for example, parents may be very intrusive with their children and frequently violate emotional, mental, or social boundaries, but be relatively detached when it comes to physical boundaries, i.e. rarely showing physical affection like hugging and allowing the children to have their own private rooms and possessions.

It’s not too hard to see how this particular pattern of boundary dysfunction might shape the personalities and attitudes of the children growing up.

Overly rigid boundaries may show up as:

  • Parents who withhold information and treat their children with coldness or aloofness
  • Parents who fail to provide a safe, loving, and stable environment or neglect their children

It may be an open secret that one of the parents is having an affair, resulting in the children feeling like the boundary around the family unit has been violated

Parents may make plans that don’t involve children or other members of the family, giving them no say about the plans at all

Family members may treat one another formally, as competitors or with neutral detachment, never asking for or offering help

We can see that by understanding our family history and dynamics, we understand how unhealthy boundaries originate from the very beginning. The work of building healthy boundaries is the work of undoing old beliefs and starting again with new, healthier ones. By understanding not just yourself and how you function, but also how your personality connects to and is informed by a more complex family system, you can begin to make changes.

But what if you truly don’t think that your family of origin played a significant role in the difficulties you experience with boundaries? Could it be that other factors have played a bigger role? Healthy boundaries can slowly be eroded with bad experiences or gradually morph into unhealthy ones, given our relationship history with others. Abusive, coercive, controlling, or disrespectful work, platonic, or romantic relationships can cause enormous damage, wearing away our self-belief and sense of worth.

Some people find that it takes time to recover from such painful dynamics, since they need to carefully “recalibrate,” remind themselves of their value again, and try to re-establish boundaries that will support their well-being.

Finally, boundaries are not always black and white: we can have largely healthy boundaries that may still have a few weak points, or have moments where we occasionally need to “refresh” or tighten up boundaries as part of our routine self-care. It never hurts to bring more conscious awareness to how we hold our own boundaries.

What’s more, it’s not work we do once and then never again, but rather something that continues throughout life. Crises or challenging experiences may force us to reconsider old beliefs, and changes in life circumstances may need us to try out a completely new set of boundaries.