7-year-old Alex feels certain that his teacher does not like him. A bright, active, and sensitive second grader, Alex has been spoken to sharply several times in the last couple of months. Each time his teacher asks him to sit down in a firm tone, he feels an electric shock go through him. Every day, he tries to figure out what to do to make his teacher like him.
13-year-old Nia is walking home with her best friend after school, listening to her talk about a party at an older kid’s house that night. “There will be a keg there,” her friend says in an excited voice. “We’re going.” “You are going with me, Nia. You’re definitely going,” her friend stated as a fact. Feeling tongue-tied but completely unwilling to go to this party, Nia said in a small voice, “Okay.”
Any mental health professional will tell you that boundaries are a vital part of psychological, social and emotional health. But the truth is, for most people the concept of boundaries is blurry and ambiguous. Many have never heard of boundaries, and even most who have are unsure of exactly what they are.
Alex and Nia, at their young ages, are already in the process of developing boundary problems. Neither will be able to develop strong boundaries because of one very important thing they have in common. They both are living in emotionally neglectful homes, raised by parents who do not notice, address or talk about feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN).
Alex can’t talk with his parents about his problems at school, so he is not able to learn how to interpret, filter and handle challenging relationships. Nia has not been taught by her parents that her feelings matter, so what looks like normal peer pressure may actually be a pattern of inability to assert her own feelings and opinions that she will live with throughout her entire adult life.
So let’s talk about the two key boundaries that everyone has, what differentiates an unhealthy boundary from a healthy one, and what you can do to improve yours.
The 2 Boundaries That Everyone Has
Your External Boundary is like a fence or wall that stands between you and the rest of the world. (Picture a circle around you). This boundary protects you from whatever emotional harms others may dish out. When someone in your life says or does something that hurts you, a well-functioning external boundary should step in and help you guard your heart. It stops the arrow on its way in and holds it at the border while you can think it through and try to understand what it really means, why it was said or done, and what you should do with it.
Your Internal Boundary is also a fence or wall that circles you. But this one is inside the other one and it actually protects others from you. A well-functioning internal boundary stops you from losing your temper or hurting other people. It helps you think through your feelings and the situation so you can decide what you can and should do or say, if anything, in any difficult or conflictual situation.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect Prevents You From Developing Healthy Boundaries
- When your parents ignore your feelings, they inadvertently teach you that your feelings don’t matter. But since your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are, deep down, all through your life, you don’t feel that you matter.
- When your parents ignore your emotions, they are ignoring the most basic source of information about what you want, feel and need. They are teaching you that your wants, feelings, and needs are irrelevant. Growing up disconnected from your deepest self, you go through your whole adult life essentially out of touch with what makes you happy, what you like and dislike, and what you need to flourish and thrive.
- You are essentially taught by your parents to ignore yourself. So you don’t learn that you deserve protection or that your internal truth (your feelings) are real or trustworthy. You are overly vulnerable to other people’s opinions (this is the case with Alex).
- You have the voice of your parents in your head and they constantly say, “Don’t!” Don’t say it, don’t want it, don’t need it. Just don’t (Nia has this voice).
- When your parents do not deal with emotions, they fail to teach you how to express your emotions. You grow up not knowing the skills of how to assert yourself. If you feel angry, hurt or threatened you lack the skills to communicate about it.
When you grow up with CEN you have an overly weak external boundary, making you vulnerable to harms coming from the outside. And you have an overly rigid internal boundary which holds you back from speaking your truth.
You are, in the deepest and most painful sense, stuck in a place that makes you far too vulnerable and essentially stifled. But, thank goodness, there are answers.
What To Do
- Making your internal and external boundaries strong and flexible, as they are meant to be, is a process that takes time but is definitely possible. It doesn’t happen all at once but in small steps over time.
- Find out whether you may have grown up with Emotional Neglect by taking the Emotional Neglect Test free on my website EmotionalNeglect.com (link below).
- Learn everything you can about CEN and how it happens and consider the myriad ways it has affected you in your life.
- Do the 3-Step Boundary Building Exercise described in this article: The Four Kinds of Boundaries and How to Build Them.