“Almost everyone I know well says I invade their space. And you know what? I’m not entirely sure what that means. How close is too close? Is there an invisible line between being involved and being intrusive? It happens with friends and it happens with lovers. What am I missing?”
This is the message I got from “Nina,” who is 35 and still struggling to define intimacy in relationships. While not as discussed as the difficulty unloved daughters have with managing their emotions, the inability to hew to healthy boundaries remains an issue for many.
Understanding the “Goldilocks Problem”
Infants and small children with a loving, attuned, and supportive mother grow up knowing that they are separate from other people but that others are there for them and open to them; their model of the world of relationships is based in security, knowing that the world and the people in it are to be relied upon and trusted. They are held close but not so close as to disappear from view or feel suffocated. None of that is true for the unloved daughter who will be more like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears than not—always looking for “just right” but never quite finding it. That is especially true when it comes to healthy boundaries.
Are you Goldilocks, still looking for “just right?”
Remember how Goldilocks tries to find a chair, a bed, and a bowl of porridge that isn’t too small or too big, too hot or too cold? That’s basically the relationship the unloved daughter has to boundaries; she’s always searching for “just right.” That said, there are variations on the theme and figuring out how your attachment style connects to the difficulties you have with boundaries is key. Do remember that attachment styles aren’t written in stone and are more fluid than the labels make them seem; focus on the style which describes you most of the time.
Each of three styles of insecure attachment—anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant— displays issues with not understanding what constitutes a healthy boundary as well as navigating healthy interdependence in relationships.
If your style of attachment is primarily anxious-preoccupied, you tend to misread healthy boundaries—someone needing time by him- or herself, not necessarily sharing every single thought and feeling, taking time to process emotional experiences—as potentially threatening. You see walls where there are permeable fences meant to give an individual room to be him- or herself. Because you overshare or blurt when you get anxious, you feel left out when someone doesn’t feel like talking; you automatically register being quiet as a sign of pulling away but the truth is that it has nothing to do with you, especially if the person demonstrates a secure style of attachment. Ironically, when you’re in the company of someone who’s actively trying to manipulate you by stonewalling, you tend to misread that as well, and decide to stay when you should be reaching for your running shoes.
If you tend to display an avoidant style of attachment—whether that’s dismissive or fearful—you see boundaries largely as walls that allow you to either stay in control of the relationship or work as a means of protection. These two avoidant styles are actually quite different and are driven by specific emotional needs. The dismissive daughter relishes control, and thinks well of herself; she thinks little of other people, hence the word “dismissive.” Her walls are based on not needing much from other people and preferring shallow connections. She pursues relationships that work for her and exits those that don’t. She may be the narcissist in your life or just someone who remains out of reach.
The daughter with a fearful-avoidant style shares some of the same characteristics as the anxious-preoccupied; she too is hungry for love and companionship but she’s learned that if she extends herself, she’s at risk of being hurt. She’s Goldilocks peering through the window, afraid to cross the threshold. Of the three, this daughter may be the most unhappy since she has a low opinion of herself, a high opinion of others, and feels shut out even as she erects walls to protect herself. Her misunderstanding of what a healthy boundary looks like is just as hobbling as that of the anxious-preoccupied and while her manipulation tends to be more covert than the overt pushback of the anxious style, neither can sustain a healthy connection as a result.
If these learned behaviors are getting in your way, here are some things you can do to troubleshoot your behavior and understand boundaries better.
Understanding the continuing influence of the past
Think about how boundaries were disrespected by your mother and others growing up and then answer the following questions:
- Were you not permitted to “keep secrets” in your family of origin? Did your mother or anyone else rifle through your diaries or papers and demand you tell him or her “everything?”
- Or, alternatively, did your mother or anyone else tell you not to trust anyone outside of the family or warn you that people who knew your secrets would take advantage?
- How did your mother manage boundaries? With you? Your sibling or siblings if you had them, or with your father?
- Now, examine your own thoughts about boundaries. Do they make you nervous or feel secure?
- Do you feel threatened by someone else’s need for privacy? What scares you about it? Or someone’s need to be alone? What makes you anxious?
- Did you feel threatened or unsafe in your family of origin? Did you learn to protect yourself?
- Is your default position one of trust or mistrust when you meet someone new?
Understanding the roots of your present behavior is central to healing and change. Healthy boundaries permit us to maintain our own space while making room for others in our lives.
This article is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. All rights reserved. Copyright © Peg Streep
Photograph by Fezbot2000. Copyright free. Unsplash.com