There are many different reasons why so many of us have poor boundaries, to begin with. One of the most common ones is suffering from childhood trauma, as this is where beliefs are formulated and solidified, for better or worse. Children who did not feel safe growing up or had their boundaries routinely violated are bound to internalize the lack of self-worth that others have projected onto them. Our cultures in general also tend to valorize sacrifice and martyrdom at the expense of personal happiness. Though we may have been disadvantaged in terms of learning about boundaries, it is nevertheless important to recognize that enforcing and communicating boundaries is solely our responsibility.
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As you can imagine, it’s a little tricky sometimes to know if you have poor boundaries or not. Many women, for example, remain in abusive and unhealthy relationships because they doubt their own assessment of the situation. Her partner (as a part of him violating her boundaries) will tell her that she is being unreasonable, that she is imagining things, that she deserves what she gets, or even that she is the one who is the boundary-violator.
Similarly, a domineering family member or boss can use guilt tactics, shame, or fear to conceal the fact that they are repeatedly disregarding or trampling over boundaries. Most heartbreaking of all, when children have their boundaries broken, they may grow up sincerely believing they don’t have the right to ask for better; they expect that promises will never be kept, that people can’t be trusted, or that others have the right to decide what is appropriate for them.
Many people have a mistaken idea of what a healthy boundary looks like—they may recognize that something isn’t right, but attempt to fix it with a boundary that is still unhealthy, only in a different way. A mother may decide that her kids treat her like a doormat and mistakenly think that the only way to regain control is to be harsh or uncaring to her children, or cut them out of her life completely.
A man might decide that he’s tired of being taken advantage of and hurt in dating, and retaliate by preemptively taking advantage of others. Many of us may think that a poor boundary can be corrected with aggression, coldness, ultra-independence or even a fearful victim mentality where the entire world is out to persecute us. But this will not fix the underlying problem.
A good way to start working with boundaries is to bear in mind the fact that as mature adults, we are always responsible for setting up and enforcing our boundaries. We cannot force others to do what they don’t want to—including treat us well—but we can decide how we will behave if we encounter poor treatment. We cannot tell others what they should value or how they should behave, but we can affirm what we value and what we will do. In fact, it is both a right and a responsibility to have functioning boundaries.
Sometimes, it is tempting to retain a victim mindset that says that you are helpless about the bad things happening to you, that you can’t really change the circumstances that cause them. This allows us to blame others and engage is self-pity, but it is neither true nor healthy. We are in control of how others treat us, and the best way to change that is by setting an example and treating yourself well.
Your feelings will help you find the middle road between boundaries that are too harsh or too loose. To check on the state of your boundaries, it is necessary only to listen to your intuition, and to respect and acknowledge what you hear. The following are some lesser-known signs that poor boundaries are an unacknowledged problem area for you. See if you notice any of the following feelings or attitudes showing up in your own life:
- You feel unsure of yourself and not much of an individual. When you ask yourself what you want, you often can only think of what others want. It feels like you never really get to be your unique self.
- You feel numb and like you’ve given up. You often tell yourself that what you feel doesn’t matter, anyway, and it’s easier just to go along with others.
- You feel like a complete victim or even a martyr—but you also wonder why being such a good person is never rewarded!
- You feel invisible, like half a person or smaller, and less important than others.
- Sometimes you feel cold and detached, never expecting anything good, perhaps in an attempt to protect yourself or downplay how much you hurt.
- You feel on edge, watched, like you have no private business of your own, and that everyone is constantly involved in your life.
- You feel strangled and smothered by other people and their desires, problems, opinions.
- You sometimes find yourself revealing very personal information to a person you don’t really know that well.
- You feel like you fall in love easily and act easily on sexual impulse.
- You find it hard to tell when people are being inappropriate, or when you’re being lied to or taken advantage of.
- You often feel like you should take whatever you’re given and be grateful, rather than take time to decide if it’s really what you want.
- You often feel like other people are in the driving seat and you are the passenger—you let others direct your life or describe and define it. You may even feel like others know you better than you know yourself and can anticipate your needs.
- You expect others to fill your needs automatically or even fantasize that someone may swoop in to take care of you completely.
- You feel like you could sometimes give indefinitely, with no limit, or that you would not stop others from continuously taking from you until nothing was left.
- You have issues with low self-esteem; abuse of food, substances, or sex; or self-harming behaviors.
- You’re often unsure what you think or feel about something until you can talk to others about it.
Any time you feel coerced, pressured, intruded upon, smothered, or as though someone or something is coming in too close, it’s a good indication that a boundary has been violated. If you generally find that you have difficulty identifying your own wants, values, limitations, or goals, then you may have long-term problems with healthy boundaries.
The first step in setting better boundaries is to trust yourself to do it. It may take a little trial and error, and certain people in your life may not like it, but the more you practice, the clearer your own internal signals and intuition will become, and the easier it will be for you to say, “No. That’s not me and I don’t want that.” You might also want to consider seeking professional help. In the case of long-term problems, a therapist can help you navigate through the issues you’re facing in an efficient manner.
This will save you much time and heartache as compared to attempting this alone, and we can all use some help with being mentally and emotionally healthier individuals.