I deal with many co-dependent people on a daily basis and one factor that is extremely common is the inability to set healthy boundaries.
Codependent people experience emotional abuse in relationships because they are basically not able to form firm boundaries and allow others to take down those that they have. They are not usually assertive enough and dare not express feelings due to fear of rejection and disapproval. Most of them are enmeshed in some way that stops them seeing that they have their own identity and psychological space that needs protecting.
Not having healthy boundaries means that codependents have an unclear sense of “who” they are and have difficulty defining the difference between theirs and other’s feelings, problems and responsibility. Due to these blurred boundary lines, codependents take responsibility for others, absorb other’s feelings and have no sense that boundaries draw the line between “you and me”. They often mistake sacrifice and codependency for love and that having no boundaries is “healthy and normal” when in a relationship.
The reasons for this are many and too numerous to mention here but research shows that mostly developmental trauma but also abuse, shame, humiliation, inappropriate intergenerational roles have a major impact on the development of codependency and subsequently on boundary formation. When parents fail to or are unable to demonstrate or model healthy boundaries, it is no surprise that children come into adulthood with the same issues and have difficulty forming a sense of “self”.
Often even codependents who see the need for boundaries fear what will happen to the relationships around them, thinking that people will reject the “new” assertive person. What can happen is that people who are not used to having boundaries put around them will maybe fall away. At the same time, other maybe discarded relationships may revive themselves in a healthier way.
Hints for Setting Healthy Boundaries
Boundaries exist to give us a sense of ourselves and to distinguish us from others physically, intellectually and emotionally and are there for our protection. They are flexible, not fixed and can change with how we feel and who we are with but they are our boundaries. They define how people should treat us and are linked to our definite choices and values. They are a measure of our self-esteem and individuality. The easiest way to think about a boundary is a property line. We have all seen “No Trespassing” signs, which send a clear message that if you violate that boundary, there will be a consequence. Look at the list below for more help.
When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, get angry, or apologise for the boundary you are setting.
You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful manner. If it upset them, know it is their problem. Some people, especially those accustomed to controlling, abusing, or manipulating you, might test you. Plan on it, expect it, but remain firm. Remember, your behaviour must match the boundaries you are setting. You cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologising.
At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway and tell yourself you have a right to self-care. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety or low self-esteem prevent you from taking care of yourself.
When you feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively.
Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. Set them in your own time frame, not when someone else tells you.
Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic persons from your life—those who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you.