Boundaries refer to our ability to set appropriate limits. When a person is confused about responsibility and ownership of their own choices and life, then we can talk about a problem of boundaries. Below are the three most common issues that people face when they have difficulty setting their personal boundaries.
Saying “Yes” when we should be saying “No”
This type of boundary conflict refers to compliance. When we behave in a compliant way, we have fuzzy and indistinct boundaries; our fences fall apart by the demands and needs of other people.
There are many reasons why you may act compliantly:
- Fear of hurting the other person’s feelings
- Fear of abandonment or rejection
- Fear of someone else’s anger
- Fear of punishment
- Fear of being shamed
- Fear of being seen as bad or selfish
- A desire to be dependent on another
In schema therapy we talk about various core beliefs that people may hold and re-enact over and over but in a way that is harmful to them. Two schemas that are symptomatic of boundary issues are called Subjugation and Self-Sacrifice.
Subjugation relates to a strong tendency to please others, but not yourself. You are overly focused on what other people want to the point where you lose sense of what you want and need. You subjugate yourself because of a perceived threat of either retaliation or abandonment/rejection. You are worried that if you express your needs and feelings, someone important will get angry with, reject, or criticize you. At the core, you feel controlled by other people because you submit to do things that you may not agree with due to fear of negative consequences. Over time this will cause you to feel trapped in your life as you have lost the sense of control over it. You may feel like you are simply reacting to circumstances rather than creating them. In addition, your self-esteem in relationships may be impacted, because you don’t feel entitled to the same rights as your partner.
Typical subjugating behaviours:
- You may be eager to please and will do almost anything to be liked or accepted.
- You may always be the person that cares for others, taking on more than your fair share of house or work responsibilities at your own expense. At the same time you feel like almost no one listens to or takes care of you.
- Anger is a particularly strong emotion that builds up as a response to constant surrendering of personal needs. You may manifest it with sudden and uncharacteristic outbursts or psychosomatic symptoms.
- You resist doing what other people want you to do in indirect ways – e.g. through procrastination, being late, gossiping, making mistakes.
- You may feel unclear about career decisions and unable to ask for promotions at work. You may often play down your accomplishments and have trouble in negotiations.
The problem with Subjugation is that you are always so concerned with pleasing other people, you end up losing sight of your own boundaries and keep re-adjusting them to accommodate the demands from others. This robs you of agency, a sense of control over your own life, and ultimately freedom to make choices that are consistent with your own beliefs and needs.
When you self-sacrifice, you are consistently focussed on meeting the needs of others at the expense of your own. However, unlike Subjugation, the self-sacrifice is experienced as voluntary and not out of fear. You do it because you want to prevent other people from experiencing pain, to do the right thing, or to avoid feeling guilty or selfish. Most likely you have a highly empathic temperament— an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. You may also have a sense of over-responsibility for others.
Typical self-sacrificing behaviours:
- You find it easier and more natural to listen to others instead of talking about yourself
- You often look after other people, yet have difficulty doing the same for yourself
- You may feel uncomfortable when attention is focused on you
- You express your needs and desires in an indirect way, rather than asking directly.
- You may have many friendships, although you probably prioritise your friends’ needs in these relationships.
- You may experience a range of psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, or fatigue. They provide you an opportunity to bring attention to yourself or may be a direct result of the stress of doing so much for others.
Importantly, self-sacrificing has many positive aspects and only becomes negative when brought to an unhealthy extreme. It allows you to be content with yourself, as well as attracts people towards you. On the flip side, it compels you to keep saying “yes” when deep down you know you should be saying “No”. Another downside of self-sacrificing too much is that you feel uneasy accepting help from others and find it very difficult to say “Yes” to the good things.
Saying “No” when you should be saying “Yes”
This boundary problem is called avoidance: saying no to the good stuff. It’s the inability to ask for help, to recognize one’s own needs, to let others in. Avoidants withdraw when they are in need and they do not ask for the support of others.
Why is avoidance a boundary problem? At the heart of the struggle is a confusion of boundaries as walls. Boundaries are supposed to be permeable, to be like fences with a gate that can let the good in and the bad out. People with walls for boundaries can let in neither bad nor good. They become untouchable and un-penetrable. They become stuck in a cycle of feeling drained, but with nothing to replace the lost energy. In my work with clients there have been occasions when our sessions have been the only space where a person has been able to let go of caring for others and allow someone else (me) to put their needs as a priority. Their walls were erected so tall and thick that they couldn’t let anyone pass through and get close to them.
Often people that have experienced significant or ongoing trauma have a lot of difficulty letting their guard down and opening a gate for others to cross their boundaries. While it is understandable how this came to be, it can also be harmful as it robs people of the support, love and care that we all need to function well. Often what becomes common is the development of what is called “reversed boundaries” – having no boundaries where they are needed, and having boundaries where they shouldn’t be.
Not Respecting Others’ Boundaries
Many people have a problem hearing and accepting others’ boundaries. To them, no is simply a challenge to change the other person’s mind. This boundary problem is called control. Controllers can’t respect others’ limits. They resist taking responsibility for their own lives, so they need to control others.
Controllers believe that no means maybe, and maybe means yes. The primary problem of individuals who can’t hear no is that they tend to project responsibility for their lives onto others. They use various means of control to motivate others to carry responsibilities that are really theirs. Controllers typically operate in two ways:
These people clearly don’t listen to others’ boundaries. They run over other people’s fences like a tank. They are sometimes verbally abusive, sometimes physically abusive. But most of the time they simply aren’t aware that others even have boundaries. It’s as if they live in a world of yes. There’s no place for someone else’s no. They attempt to get others to change, to make the world fit their idea of the way life should be. They neglect their own responsibility to accept others as they are.
Less honest than the aggressive controllers, manipulators try to persuade people out of their boundaries. They talk others into yes. They indirectly manipulate circumstances to get their way and often use guilt messages.
Learn more about how to re-adjust your personal boundaries