This article is a continuation of my series on boundaries. It is strongly recommended to read the introductory article first before continuing with this article. Here’s the link: An Introduction To Boundaries and Why We Need Them.
To quickly summarize the definition, boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.
In this article, we will explore the differences between healthy and unhealthy boundaries, with examples.
What Do Poor Boundaries Feel Like?
For those who have consistently weak, poor, or unhealthy boundaries, it feels normal, almost natural. Yet, instead of feeling content or happy with themselves and others, they feel pain and bewilderment most of the time. Since things have been like this their entire lives, it simply is “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
As a child, they likely had to tolerate poor behavior from their caregivers. They had to act as though they didn’t have needs or a true, authentic self. They learned that love was conditional, and completely dependent on arbitrary or changing criteria. They were not allowed to say no, to feel their authentic feelings, and were consistently rejected. As a result, they never learned what a good boundary is or what a good boundary feels like. Any boundaries they may have tried to put down were instead torn down.
As they grow up into adulthood, those with weak boundaries often feel like they “have a target on their back.” They consistently find themselves in friendships, work relationships, and intimate relationships where they are taken advantage of and abused, either emotionally, psychologically, physically, and even sexually. They have problems saying no, often feeling guilty when they do. Their real emotions to intolerable behavior, if they even recognize it as intolerable behavior, are muted or disconnected, and they feel like they are the problem in the relationship even when they are not. They find themselves surrounded by manipulative people and they don’t understand how or why.
Examples of Setting Healthy vs. Unhealthy Boundaries in a Toxic Relationship
Sarah grew up in a warm and loving environment. She learned the differences between healthy and unhealthy behavior early in her life. She was never forced to give hugs or kisses to people she didn’t want to give them to. She knew she could tell her parents anything going on in her life that she wasn’t sure about. She knew they would always love and accept her. Sarah was allowed to be a child and gradually took on a reasonable amount of age appropriate responsibility as she grew up.
As an adult, she met a charming young man named Mark. Soon after they met, Mark started sending her dozens of text messages a day, every day, telling her how perfect and beautiful she was. After only knowing each other for two weeks, Mark told Sarah that he loved her more than he had ever loved anyone before. Sarah was put off by this. Actually, she was put off by the entire thing.
He barely knew her, so how could he love her?
The text messages didn’t feel good either because she felt like an object instead of a real person. When she told him how she felt, Mark got annoyed and told her she didn’t know what she was talking about. He said that she didn’t understand “love.” Sarah realized that this wasn’t the kind of relationship she wanted to be in and discontinued her relationship with Mark. She wanted to be with someone who listened to her concerns, who wouldn’t idealize her and put her on a pedestal, but relate to the real her, with whom she could communicate and who wouldn’t cross her boundaries.
Melissa did not grow up in a warm and loving environment. It was “okay,” you know, “regular,” “normal.” Her parents met all of her physical needs, but she always felt lonely and not good enough. Moreover, her mother suffered from terrible mood swings so Melissa learned to walk on eggshells around her to avoid her wrath, and to do whatever it took to make her happy. She knew that if she didn’t have perfect grades, if she didn’t always smile and look happy while giving in to every demand her parents made of her—if she weren’t perfect, as defined by her parents—then she wouldn’t be accepted. She was not allowed to be herself, and she was certainly not allowed to say no.
As an adult, this is what she thought love was. How would she know otherwise? For her, love was about poor boundaries, self-sacrifice and self-erasure, and managing other people’s emotions and pleasing them to avoid rejection and feeling as though she is a “bad person.”
One day, Melissa met a charming young man named Mark who love bombed her with constant texts. He told her that she was beautiful and perfect, and Melissa loved all of the attention. She had never been told she was beautiful and good enough by her parents, especially her mother, and she had always longed for it. When Mark told her that he loved her after only knowing her for two weeks, Melissa was over the moon. She found her soulmate! Finally she felt loved. She felt like Mark really knew and understood her.
After a few months, however, Mark started to turn cold towards her and she didn’t understand why. When she told him about her concerns, he blamed her and deflected instead of taking any responsibility for what was happening. Melissa tried to be more perfect, more understanding, especially when Mark started to verbally and emotionally abuse her. She believed that she just needed to try harder to make Mark love her again. Melissa didn’t understand what healthy boundaries are, what love is, or that Mark was manipulating and taking advantage of her.
As we can see here, Sarah and Melissa had two very difference experiences with the same man. People with weak, poor, or unhealthy boundaries don’t necessarily have targets on their back. Rather, they don’t say no to manipulative, sleazy, and narcissistic behavior when those with healthy boundaries would. Oftentimes, like with Melissa, they don’t even realize that it is manipulative or abusive since it was normalized at some point while they were growing up. Those unscrupulous individuals know this and won’t usually target people with healthy boundaries for long, but those with weak boundaries will continuously and consistently be easy targets.
Developing Stronger, Healthier Boundaries (Is What You Need)
If you are not used to it, setting stronger, healthier boundaries will feel strange and bad… at first. Your existing social structure will be challenged. Your family, friends, work relationships, and your intimate relationships will change, and it will be difficult. It will be hard to know when to say no, especially since you may feel guilty about it, or people may abuse you for doing it, or you may feel like you are the problem and are being “the bad guy.” But keep moving forward, keep standing up for yourself, and keep being yourself.
It will take some time, perhaps even years, and there will be many setbacks, but you will learn that healthy boundaries feel good. Eventually you won’t even want to be around people who don’t respect your boundaries, no matter how small or insignificant they used to appear initially. You will learn to notice red flags quickly and take action instead of ignoring them. You will learn to be assertive without being cruel, aggressive, or inconsiderate. You will learn to be empathetic and caring without being self-sacrificing and self-erasing.
There are many resources out there, and a professional can help you navigate the unknown that awaits you, but the first step is to recognize it and to make the decision to try.