The concept of “boundaries” relates to our sense of self.
At birth and for a long while after, a baby has no real sense of who they are.
When we see a baby in their mother’s arms, we see two people – the child and the mother.
But the baby notices no difference, no division, no boundary between themselves and their mother.
A newborn is “one” with their mother.
As life goes on, the child notices where their skin ends and their mother’s skin begins.
This is our first “boundary,” and the beginning of our “sense of self.”
When our boundaries are crossed we are naturally furious at the invasion
because we know we could lose our sense of who we are.
Obviously, if a mother doesn’t hold her child enough
and is unable to bond with them,
boundary problems and problems related to sense of self will abound.
But things can go wrong in later childhood and in adult life too.
When they do, it is usually either because
someone treats us like they OWN us or, paradoxically, like they DISOWN us.
The worst example of being owned is physical or sexual abuse.
People who treat us in these ways are insisting that they own our very bodies.
We can also lose our sense of self in less severe but more constant ways.
Some people never hear anything from their parents or their partners
except orders and complaints.
“You didn’t do that well enough!”
Constant exposure to such treatment can shatter boundaries and the sense of self.
Paradoxically, being treated like we are not there can also cause boundary and self problems.
Beware of anyone who is so preoccupied with their own ego and their own life
that you sometimes wonder if they even know you are there.
This can kill your sense of self too.
The saddest thing about boundary problems is that
the people who have them can feel either
“too close” (afraid they’ll lose themselves),
and “too far” (very lonely),
but they can seldom feel safely in between or “connected” with others.
People whose boundaries are weak also tend to violate the boundaries of others.
If you don’t know that you have boundaries that must be respected,
then you also don’t know that other people have boundaries that you must respect.
First of all, people with these problems should get therapy.
This is too difficult to do completely on your own.
Therapy can support you while you learn what you need to do for yourself:
- Learn to identify even the most subtle ways you violate the boundaries of others. Become excellent at noticing when people “back away,” emotionally and physically. When they do, you can be pretty sure you have just crossed their boundaries.
- Once you become accustomed to noticing the boundaries of others, begin to notice that you have many of the same boundaries yourself!
- Learn how to object whenever any of your boundaries are crossed, even in the smallest ways and even by people with the kindest intentions.
- Test various ways to of telling people when they cross your boundaries. Allow yourself to make mistakes while you learn (by sounding either too angry or too nice). Experiment. Notice what works and what doesn’t. With close friends who might understand, you might even tell them that you are learning about protecting yourself (so they can understand why you are acting differently toward them).
- Keep reminding yourself: “People need my permission before they cross my boundaries!”
- Remind yourself also: “Nobody should ever help me unless I ask them to!”
If people have constantly crossed your boundaries, it may seem unfair to say that
you have to stop crossing their boundaries first.
It IS unfair!
But if you’ve been taking such treatment for many years
the sad truth is you may not even know what boundaries you are entitled to have!
And the best way to learn this is to focus on the boundaries of the people around you.
As you catch yourself violating the boundaries of others,
don’t pick on yourself.
Remember, you are just now beginning to learn about all of this.