When boundaries aren’t clear there’s confusion about who’s responsible for what – and this confusion leads to excessive and displaced blame.
If you’re in a relationship that’s riddled with blame (or you grew up in a blaming family), you know how painful this experience is — and how blame destroys relationships.
However, you may not know that displaced blame is the result of weak or confused boundaries.
What are boundaries?
I typically describe personal boundaries as a separation between two people. A boundary separates you from someone else – helping you recognize that your feelings, thoughts, and actions are different than others’ and this separation means it’s okay for you to have your own feelings, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and needs, rather than absorbing other people’s feelings or conforming to their beliefs.
Boundaries also differentiate what you’re responsible for and what other people are responsible for. When there are healthy, appropriate boundaries, each person in a relationship takes responsibility for their own feelings and actions.
However, when it’s not clear who is responsible for what, people get blamed for things they didn’t do and can’t control.
Healthy boundaries make it clear that we’re each responsible for our own feelings, thoughts, and actions.
Codependents are overly responsible
Codependents and people-pleasers tend to absorb other people’s feelings (making them their own) and take too much responsibility for making other people feel better or fixing their problems. And, not surprisingly, codependents tend to choose partners and friends who unload their negative feelings and problems onto others and don’t take responsibility for their actions. So, we end up with a perfectly matched dysfunctional relationship – one partner is taking too much responsibility and one is not taking enough.
Confused boundaries lead to blame
Freddy sleeps through his alarm and is going to be late to work. Instead of taking responsibility for his own actions (not getting up on time), he blames Linda. “I can’t believe you didn’t wake me up,” he rants. “I’m going to be late because of you!” Since Freddy and Linda didn’t have an agreement that she would wake him up, it isn’t Linda’s job to make sure her husband gets to work on time. However, since Linda is codependent, she accepts responsibility for not getting Freddy up; absorbs his anger and spends the day angry at herself for causing Freddy to be late to work.
Here’s another example of shifting the responsibility and blame:
Tyler discovers that his wife, Maria, has been texting a male colleague late at night, sharing very personal things and pictures of herself. Tyler thinks it’s inappropriate and he feels hurt and angry. He confronts Maria about it and her response is to minimize it and blame Tyler. She says, “Why are you making such a big deal about this? You’re never home anyway, so what do you expect me to do? Maybe if I wasn’t so lonely, I wouldn’t be talking to James.” Maria is not taking responsibility for her actions (texting James) or her feelings (loneliness). Instead, she’s trying to make Tyler responsible for her feelings and choices.
Blame is common in dysfunctional families
In dysfunctional families, there’s frequently displaced blame and inappropriate expectations about who is responsible for what. For example, abusers will blame their victims claiming “you made me hit you” or “it’s your fault I’m in jail” rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.
And in dysfunctional families, children are often expected to take on adult responsibilities or fix adult problems (paying bills, watching younger siblings, being mom’s confidant or comforting her after dad’s rage). And children get blamed for things they can’t control (like Dad losing his job or drinking too much).
If you’re like Linda and have codependent traits or grew up in a dysfunctional family with confused boundaries, you’re probably quick to accept blame even when you didn’t do anything wrong or you couldn’t control what happened.
We’re willing to accept blame because we learned that:
- we’re responsible for what other people do
- our purpose is to serve others and make them happy
- our feelings don’t matter
- we’re inadequate
Without boundaries, children feel abandoned, ashamed, and unimportant
Weak boundaries, lack of differentiation between yourself and others, and confusion about who is responsible for what, leads to emotional abandonment, shame, and feelings of inadequacy.
When your parents don’t tend to your emotional needs – when they don’t see that you have feelings and needs that are separate from their own – you feel abandoned and unimportant. For example, if you were expected to parent your parents, the relationship was all about you meeting their needs, doing what they wanted, and taking on their responsibilities; they weren’t tending to your needs as parents should.
This is unfair to children. It saddles them with unrealistic expectations and the responsibility of taking care of their parents and fixing their problems. And children are bound to fail because these are unrealistic expectations — but since they don’t know that children shouldn’t be responsible for their parents, they end up feeling inadequate, flawed, and ashamed.
When boundaries are confused, children feel unimportant because the parent-child relationship has become so twisted that it’s all about meeting the parent’s needs and there’s no room for the child to be himself – to have feelings, interests, thoughts, and needs that are different than his parents’. Distorted boundaries tell children that they don’t matter, their only purpose is to take care of others.
A lack of boundaries leads to trying to fix other people’s problems
Most of us want to help our friends and family members when they’re having a hard time – and this is usually a good thing. However, if we have weak boundaries, we’re likely to feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems – making them our responsibility to solve — when, in fact, they aren’t our responsibility and they aren’t in our control.
Here’s an example:
Jana’s mother overspent and doesn’t have enough money to pay her rent. She complains to Jana incessantly, cries, and makes hopeless statements like “What will I do? They’ll probably kick me out and I’ll end up homeless.” Jana hates seeing her mother so upset and steps into problem-solving mode suggesting she pick up an extra shift at work, offering to create a budget with her, and nagging her to return some recent purchases. Jana’s mother continues to sulk and cry but doesn’t do anything to solve her financial problems. Jana feels guilty that she doesn’t have the money to pay for her mother’s rent, so she decides to cancel her daughter’s guitar lessons in order to save money so she can help her mom.
Jana and her mother don’t have clear boundaries – Jana is taking too much responsibility for her mother’s problem while her mother isn’t taking enough responsibility. Since Jana’s mother is responsible for paying her own rent, she should be the one looking for more ways to save or earn more money. Instead, Jana enables her to overspend by coming up with the money for her.
In the long-run, this will create more problems between Jana and her mother. Jana will probably spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to solve her mom’s problem only to end up resentful that her mother didn’t take her advice or make any changes. And if Jana stops rescuing her mother, she’ll probably be blamed because her mother thinks it is Jana’s responsibility to solve her problems.
Healthy boundaries are essential in all relationships. They reflect an understanding that we’re each responsible for our own feelings, thoughts, and actions.
If boundaries are a challenge in your relationships, you can start to strengthen them by making a list of what you’re responsible for and what you can control. For codependents, this list is usually much shorter than we think! And we have to remember that we’ve been conditioned to feel responsible for others when it isn’t necessary or appropriate, and others are well-practiced at foisting their responsibilities and problems onto us. And although it’s hard to take responsibility for our own feelings and actions (and not take responsibility for other people’s feelings and actions), doing so will help you create healthy boundaries and fulfilling relationships.
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Images from Pixabay.