Last week we talked about boundaries but it’s not enough just to put them down. As with everything in life, it’s all about balance. Today we’ll talk about the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries.
“A boundary is the place where two people meet, you can think of a boundary like a cell wall.
Energy flows inside the cell but it also flows between cells just as it flows between people”.
If we share too much, our boundaries become porous, we don’t know where we end and the other begins.
So, either we take on board too much of what our partner thinks about us, and we become pleasers and placaters- losing ourselves in the process. Or the more dominant of us may become dictatorial and controlling, thinking we know what’s best for the other person.
Porous or Enmeshed boundaries make us ‘Co-Dependent’ on our partner, they allow us to feel connected but not self-directed.
If we share too little it’s because our boundaries are too rigid, we tend not to let others in and we don’t share ourselves with them either.
Rigid boundaries make us ‘Independent’ of our partner, they allow us to feel self-directed but not connected.
Healthy boundaries allow us to maintain our personal level of energy while we also share enough with another person in order to connect through respectful sharing of thoughts and feelings.
Healthy boundaries allow us to be ‘Interdependent’ of our partner, to feel both connected and self-directed.
Being a recovering Co-Dependent myself, I can completely relate and found it helpful to get more clarity about the roles.
Let’s take a deeper look at Porous or Enmeshed Boundaries:
Are you the kind of person your friends will say “disappears off the face of the earth” when you get into a relationship.
Do you tend to take on too much, where you feel overly responsible for someone else’s feelings and become drained in your efforts to ‘make them happy’?
Maybe you pride yourself on being diplomatic, and your main focus is to keep the peace? If so you may identify with the Pleaser/Placater role.
This can leave you feeling used or exploited because others know you won’t say no. Often appearing to others as a martyr, you feel bitter, resentful and entitled to badmouth them behind their back. If they knew you were doing that do you think they’d see it as too high a price to pay for your help?
While your impulse may be to feel responsible for another person’s happiness and well-being, it may be of relief to know that you’re not, they are.
Or maybe you’re the one who often finds yourself in a position where you feel you know what’s best for another person?
Quick to give advice, insinuating yourself into the lives of others in the name of “just being helpful”, you may identify with the role as the Imposer.
You may even find yourself fighting other people’s battles for them, and while your intention is probably good, often the message the other is receiving is either “I don’t trust you to know what’s best for yourself or to be able to stand up for yourself ”, and they feel controlled and judged.
Often, just like Pleaser/Placaters, Imposers can feel overwhelmed too.
Exhausted from taking on too much, and resentful that the other isn’t doing what you’re telling them to do, which would make everyone’s life easier.
You may also feel resentful that they’re not thanking you for it either, as all that well-intentioned over-functioning requires effort right? But if they didn’t ask for it in the first place they’re not going to feel grateful, right?
Just like the Pleaser/Placaters, it may be of relief to you too, to know that you are not responsible for another person’s happiness and well being, they are.
For both parties, staying in your own business- not theirs, and putting down loving boundaries when they try to control you, is the antidote to Co-Dependency.
As you transition into someone with healthier boundaries you can of course be of huge help in just bearing witness to someone’s fear, pain or sadness without needing them to be fixed right away. Most of us feel afraid or ashamed of our negative feelings and oftentimes don’t feel entitled to them.
By just bearing witness (and nothing more), you give them much-needed acceptance that it’s OK for them to be feeling what they’re feeling.
Also when you refrain from giving them solutions the implicit message is “I trust you know yourself better than anyone and will come up with your own solution once you’ve had a chance to explore”. That trust is huge!
Let’s explore Rigid Boundaries:
So maybe you couldn’t relate to those with the porous boundaries. Maybe you’re the type who’d rather mull problems over in your head, than to talk to your partner about them (especially if they’re involved!). Have you experienced partners as being too ‘emotionally needy’, or been accused of being secretive or difficult to get close to in the past?
Maybe it feels unsafe to let your guard down or to rely too strongly on someone else in case they let you down, or that they’ll use the insight you give them about yourself as ammunition against you? If that’s the case you may have rigid boundaries.
When we’ve had a difficult or traumatic childhood, in which no one had made it safe to just be open and be ourselves, we can develop coping strategies that served to protect us at the time, but then prevent us from fully showing up now for someone who isn’t out to hurt us.
Often this fear of opening up in case we get hurt ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. If only one person in the relationship is sharing who they are, warts and all, they can end up feeling too exposed and ashamed if the sharing of their humanness isn’t reciprocated. It’s also very easy for the partner who’s hiding their vulnerability to then feel superior, and pigeonhole their partner as the ‘needy’ one or the ‘hot mess’ in the relationship. This can lead to resentment, depression and the end of the relationship.
Life can be very lonely for people with rigid boundaries but it may be helpful to know that just as once you created those boundaries, you can also transform them into healthier ones, where it’s possible to feel self-directed, protected and connected at the same time.
The antidote to this is, funnily enough, both the opposite and the same as the Co-Dependents above. Unlike them, you’ll want to show more interest in your partner and share more of yourself with them, but in order to feel safe enough to do so, like them, you too have to become really good at putting down loving boundaries.
Healthy boundaries are all about balance. Helping our partner, and ourselves, feel loved and connected while at the same time feeling that we have a sense of individuality and agency.
If an amazing relationship is what you want, then balance is about constantly negotiating and renegotiating how to honour what makes you thrive, while always acting in the best interest of the relationship. You’ll probably be pleased to know that sometimes that does mean putting yourself first.
A big factor in being able to ‘bring your best you to your relationship’ at all times is resilience, and we’ll talk about that next week when I ask ‘How does having a bad day impact your relationship?'