An emotionally healthy human being is one with very clear personal boundaries. If they lack, or if they are very blurred, we begin to behave in a very chaotic, confusing way in our relationships. Some us us will tend to dominate our partner or treat him like an instrument for our desire; or we might cling to him in desperation like a drowning men is clinging to anything that floats. We might start to deny or neglect our emotional needs, simply because they have never been met. Over time we convince ourselves that a person able or willing to give us what we need doesn’t exist. Slowly we will shrink ourselves to disappearance.
Some people around you want you to continue to feel this way: confused, insecure, unclear about what you want, unable to refuse, too afraid to ask for what you need or to ask for help; they want you to be always available, never asking anything in return. Because when you don’t know what you want, when you have difficulties refusing someone because you have educated to always “be of help” you are very easy to manipulate. The more confused and unclear you are about yourself – the more chaotic and dysfunctional will be your relationships.
So, what exactly are “personal boundaries”?
The concept originated in psycho-analyses, but has become a topic of general interest with the rising or coaching and personal development in the last 15 years.
“The need to draw clear lines allow us to categorize the world, give us a moral sense of right and wrong, making many things possible. We need rules, in order to separate us physically from the others: don’t touch me there, don’t ask me to do this! The skin is the external barrier between two beings”– Andrea Celenza, psychoanalyst.
In some aspects of our life, they are very clear. We all have preferences in terms of food, clothing, hair style, political views and hobbies. Some people love mountains and others love the sea. We do not perceive these categories as a restriction of personal freedom, but simply as a choice. When we can categorize things clearly there is more order around us.
But when it comes to our inner life, many times we do not see things as clearly. We tend to divide people in good or bad, but this is extremely simplistic, because we all have good and bad qualities and they can prevail, in certain circumstances and moments of our life. At maximum, I can say I feel more or less connected to this person, because we have similar interests.
In the name of the “open mindedness” some people tolerate everything for fear of losing that connection. But strangely, when we are allowed to do everything we want, we tend to think our partner is indifferent to us, he doesn’t care about our choices. We find it very difficult to respect someone who has no clear stand for anything in life.
When I tolerate everything, when I am not disturbed by anything, when I am unable to say a clear yes or no, I live in sort of numbness or emotional anaesthesia. Freedom needs some boundaries and if they lack there is chaos inside and around us. I do not know where I end where the other begins. This is always a sign that my personal boundaries have been invaded badly as a child. As a result I decide to never allow any other human being to occupy my soul and my inner world. But this is denied dependency, not freedom.
We call these boundaries “containment”. We need to feel contained by our partner, with the right amount of freedom. If these boundaries are extremely rigid, if he is controlling, jealous, insecure, it feels even more disturbing. We live in fear, we feel prisoners with such a person.
Who has the role to establish these boundaries? This is your mother. The mother is the first contact of the infant; with her he will experience his first sensations of being nurtured, held, protected, soothed, safe and loved. In the first 6 months of life, the infant sees himself as an extension of his mother, not as a separate being. As he is growing, he learns that is a separate being, usually when the food or the comfort are late. With time, he will be able to say no, if he doesn’t want certain people to hold him, or touch him; or if he wants he will request with gestures to be hold and caressed. If these boundaries are very weak, unclear, and sometimes violated, if the mother touches the baby in an improper way, abusive way, incestuous, transforming normal feeling of tenderness in seduction, as adult he will have emotional problems.
A child is not able to say no – because he doesn’t have the concept of no, he doesn’t have a moral sense of right or wrong; and if he doesn’t it is because his personal boundaries have been violated. Clear and healthy boundaries are about the ability to say to another: please don’t touch me there – I don’t like it; don’t ask me to do this’ I don’t feel comfortable doing it. Or- I am sorry, I cannot stay overtime one hour every day, I have a personal life, too! Or: I am sorry I cannot land out money even thou I feel pity for the situation you are in; but I can help you find another job! Our boundaries might be very clear when we talk about our body, but they can be more blurred, when we talk about our emotional life.
Because as women we have been educated that saying NO, in a clear way is a refusal of the other; so out of politeness many times we say yes, when we actually mean no. We do that against our deepest desire and will, because we have decided that keeping that relationship is more important than our personal will. That somehow our “sacrifice” can be used later as a guarantee that we will not be abandoned. If our boundaries are too loose, we do not feel contained, secure and separated from our mother; we will search all our life for a perfect symbiotic relationship.
This will lead (as mentioned above) to dependency, codependency, deep feelings of abandonment despite being surrounded by people, inability to soothe ourself, inability to stay alone, clinging, a deep sense of despair, a lack of purpose in life and depression. People who are looking for this kind of union with an “Almighty partner”, able to take care of them and all their fears, are deeply narcissistic, manipulative and unable to feel safe. When you give them total freedom they will feel abandoned; when you are trying to get close, they feel suffocated. They live their live dreaming and searching for about this perfect symbiotic relationship, with a partner to take care of all their fears, the way their mother couldn’t. All their relationships will be either self destructive, or deeply disturbing for others.
If they were too rigid, we will see our life in terms of duty and problems to be solved, not able to enjoy healthy emotional connections. Our sexuality will be repressed and our emotional needs suppressed. We will never trust anyone. We will avoid relationships altogether or will be attracted to abusive and emotionally unavailable partners because this is an experience we are very familiar with, and are somehow able to control.
A secure individual feels at ease talking about boundaries, about what they tolerate and what they do not. They are able to say no, without fear of loosing the other and are able to make healthy compromises. They know who they are as individuals, what are their strengths and flaws, they feel good about themselves. They do not feel suffocated or abandoned in a romantic relationship. After years spent in relationships where your emotional and sexual needs have not been met, you will accumulate a lot of frustration, disappointment, sadness and this has to come up somehow. They will manifest in explosions of anger, disproportionate to the trigger; passive aggressive behaviour; dependency as the desire to tie down your partner to you through your inability to take care of yourself. Or manipulation, using others as objects for our desires, disrespect, destroying thus any possibility of connection. You will have addiction problems , difficulty to make decisions, difficulty to settle goals and stick to them, a sense of inner void and retreat in a phantasy inner world.
The only place in the world without boundaries was inside your mother’s womb. To be separated from another means to be able to make decisions for yourself and live with the consequences of those decisions; to relate to others in an adult – adult way, not in a child -mother or child -father relationship. To abandon this magical thinking, it means to accept that there is a dark side in all of us. But it is also the only way in which you can have control of your life, because independency is build around the concept of personal boundaries.
When I have clear boundaries, I will be less tempted to invade those of others also, I will accept that my partner is not identical to me, I will allow him naturally to have an inner life that is separated from me, not only as part of the couple. No one gets all these emotional problems if his boundaries have been respected. If he has been correctly separated, appreciated, if he felt important, secure, he will behave the same later in his love life. He will believe that happiness is not only possible in relationships, but it is a fundamental right. He/she will know what he needs to give and to receive in order to be happy with another person.
Here are few signs of blurred boundaries:
– You allow others to offend and use you and you don’t react
– You allow others to abuse your time, money, abilities, energy and emotions
– You manipulate and use others as objects for your gratification.
– You use emotional blackmail, depression to tie down the others to yourself
– You tolerate abusive language and disrespectful comments about your looks
– You are seductive in your behaviour, to get advantages and attention, no matter how small.
– You lie, or present things in a better light then they really are, you hide important details about yourself when you get into a new relationship
– You are very sarcastic, and make humiliating comments about how your partner looks in public
– You have very toxic relationships, and you attract people who always use you
– You control others with your Helplessness and Dependency; your relationships are like child mother, or child father kind.
– You behave like a victim, to make others do things for you, or make them feel guilty if they refuse to do them.
– You never say NO to the requests of others even if they are absurd and you know it will cost you precious time and money.
– You are obsessed with the idea of pleasing and helping other
– You over share intimate details of your life with co-workers or friends, etc.
Once you have healthy boundaries, you will be able to recognize if someone is genuinely interested in you or they just want to use you. Remember: emotions are volatile, behaviour instead tends to be very stable over time. Look at how people behave towards you, not at what they declare to you.
We need to be contained by our partner, but we do not want to loose ourselves in him. We want similar interests but we don’t want to be identical. Do not accept the unacceptable in the name of compassion or empathy! A healthy relationships is always reciprocal, whether is a marriage, a deep friendship, a relationship with our children, with our mother or father.
With clear boundaries, your relationships will be balanced, and there is a better chance that they will bring you joy and fulfilment. In the absence of boundaries there is a big chance you will continue to be used and feel miserable. It is not easy, but it must be done. Actually this is the stepping stone into changing your life!
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