Why some of us struggle with boundaries


The word “boundary” has become one of those words that is often used in mainstream dialogue but there is generally an unclear definition of what a personal boundary is and why we need them.  Some people seem to have a clear idea of what their boundaries are and yet for others, they seem to struggle with the concept entirely.  Some people believe that boundaries are something that they are entitled to, whereas, even the idea of setting a boundary causes others to feel terrified and guilty.

Personal boundaries mark the limits of an individual and protects that person’s core sense of self.  The more we understand each other’s boundaries, and respect those boundaries, the more we earn each other’s trust, and in turn, develop intimacy.  We can have both physical and emotional boundaries.  When we grow up in healthy environments we are encouraged to learn and set boundaries and they are modeled to us.

So why are boundaries such a struggle for some people?  In unhealthy childhood environments, boundaries are not only discouraged, but in some cases, they can create threats to our safety.  In these environments, children learn to cope by not setting boundaries; they will be overstepped anyways.  We may not have the space to learn what our boundaries are or how to set them.  Examples of such environments in more extreme circumstances would be if a parent is emotionally or physically abusive, narcissistic, and in some cases substance users.

In healthy environments, the child’s needs are the primary focus as the child begins to develop and explore his or her sense of identity.  In unhealthy environments, the parent’s needs are of primary importance and the child’s role is to meet the needs of the parent.  The child quickly learns that their role is to serve and, in many ways, the child is often forced to take on more of a parental role in the relationship dynamic.  This role reversal often leads to a relationship pattern that can continue throughout the child’s life.  The child never truly learns what their needs, wants, and boundaries are because the child’s role is to meet the needs and wants of the other people in their life.  The child can often take on what we call the “rescuer role.”

The rescuer often devalues their own needs believing that their needs do not matter, or that their self-worth or happiness is conditional on making others happy. This is not innate to the rescuer but because of the role the rescuer was forced to take as a child.  The child, who is now an adult, feels responsible for the needs and emotions of others.

This can often result in the rescuer feeling responsible for what I call the “self-professed victim.” The self-professed is someone who takes on the victim role.  This is different than being an actual victim.  An example of a self-professed victim is someone who believes that every problem that they encounter is someone else’s fault.   The self-professed "victim” often takes no accountability for their role in the problem and expects others to fix it.  Another example is those who have learned helplessness believing that they cannot do anything for themselves.  

The rescuer, who is used to meeting the needs of others, may get “hooked” into thinking that they can help/save the victim.  In some cases, the rescuer can be seen as the enabler because they prevent the victim from taking responsibility for solving their own problems.  Not only does the rescuer begin to feel responsible for the self-professed victim but the victim may start to blame the rescuer for not “fixing” the victim’s problems.  It can be incredibly draining for the rescuer and potentially dis-empowering for the victim.  The rescuer, neglecting their own needs and feeling responsible for others, is left unprotected from guilt trips, manipulation, and intimidation.

So how does someone who has taken on the rescuer role their entire life step out of this role? Often exploring where the rescuer learned to take on this role can be helpful in changing it. Exploring the rescuer’s core beliefs, which I have discussed in previous blog posts, can be useful. Beginning to understand one’s own needs and wants and learning how to assert one's boundaries can be helpful.  Boundary setting is a skill, it is not innate.  

At first, boundary setting may cause guilt, fear, or anxiety so start small and do it anyways. Boundary setting takes practice!  Set boundaries with someone you feel safe with.  Redefine your view of helping others; we do not have to self-sacrifice in order to help.  Providing support and resources, without taking responsibility for the problems of others, allows you to meet your own needs while empowering others to get the help that they need.

Once you get accustomed to boundary setting, you will never look back.  Although it can be challenging at the beginning, and some people in your life may not take you seriously, boundary setting has many positive effects.  You will clear the toxic people out of your life.  You will feel energized rather than exhausted.  You will no longer feel as though you are spreading yourself too thin.  You will get to know yourself, your needs, and your wants in a way that you haven’t had the chance to before.  

If you are trying to make a change surround yourself with healthy supports, and when all else fails, seek guidance from a counsellor that can help you along.