How to create and maintain boundaries
Abuse is all about gaining control and power of a victim. It is important to remember that if you have been abused it is not your fault. The pathological need to control someone else is all about the abuser and not the victim.
There are several different types of abuse, most of us think of sexual or physical abuse but there is also emotional abuse (a form of abuse that is gaining more recognition) financial abuse and social abuse. Sexual abuse includes unwanted sexual advances or forced participation in a sexual activity. Physical abuse includes violence, intimidation, but it also includes neglect especially in the vulnerable such as withholding food or not taking proper care of a child or the elderly. Emotional abuse is when someone attacks the self-esteem and confidence of another. It can be verbal abuse such as name calling, shouting and nasty little comments but it can also come in the form of threats and intimidation. Financial abuse includes theft or controlling someone else’s money determining what they may or may not spend. Social abuse includes isolating someone from their family and friends so that the abuser has more control and the victim has no support system.
If you have been subjected to abuse it is important not to make excuses for someone else’s bad behaviour (like a tough childhood/stress at work) abuse is abuse and the reason that someone is abusive is irrelevant. Abusers will treat you as badly as you let them, usually with abusive people they will see what they can get away with. If you take one level of abuse they will push to see if you will accept more. Abusers may or may not be aware that their behaviour is abusive but that doesn’t mean that you have to accept it. You are not obliged to take abuse from someone because they have problems and nor are you obliged to teach them how to behave. Trying to teach an adult how to behave is a complete waste of time and can lead to more abuse. Most abusers have little or no self-awareness or an ability to introspect so focus on yourself and not the abuser, if it doesn’t feel right or okay with you, then it isn’t.
Many of us who have grown up in narcissistic families of origin have very poor boundaries, or at the very least porous ones. Some of us are not comfortable for example with the word “no”, because we were not allowed to use it as children, or if we did it was ignored. If you have been involved with an abuser as an adult, getting involved with someone new might make you feel nervous. There is no way of knowing if someone is abusive or not at the beginning, everyone is on their best behaviour at the start of a relationship. The only way that you will be able to tell if someone is abusive or not is to take it slowly and see how they behave in various situations. Take note for example how they treat people who are serving them in one form or another.
It is important to have boundaries for your integrity and safety. Many of us were brought up to be excessively polite but that brings with it a certain amount of danger. Always keep the word “no” in mind for when you feel someone is crossing a line. Another thing to remember is just because someone asks you an intimate question about yourself, you are not obliged to answer, especially if the question exceeds the intimacy of your relationship. The more you practice upholding boundaries the more respect, love and support you will get. Boundaries are a form of protection both emotional and physical they also protect you from taking on other people’s “stuff” by being too open and accepting. Boundaries are there so that you can be true to yourself and not always looking for validation outside of yourself.
Boundaries are really important, but being educated about narcissism and its manifestations is also very important. Being able to pick up subtle hints on how the mind of an abuser works is also important, for example, if someone says something negative in a joking manner, they are probably not joking and it should be taken into consideration. If at the beginning of a relationship it feels “too good to be true”, it probably is. Everyone can put on an act for a while, it is only over time that you will see the mask slip. It is also important to know what you want from a relationship. Don’t let someone “choose” you, that is a recipe for disaster, the “choosing” must be mutual. Never enter a relationship because you think that it would be rude to say “no”. You are not for sale, so if someone showers you with presents and dinners it doesn’t mean that you owe them anything.
Boundaries will help you to build up your confidence, they won’t get rid of the limiting beliefs that caused you to have poor boundaries in the first place but they will protect you.
Boundaries will help you to tell who is trustworthy, who is respectful and who is showing up as their authentic self and not someone who is trying to create a persona of who they think that they should be (or think that you want them to be).
Boundaries mean that you will stop putting the needs of others before your own. Many of us who grew up in narcissistic families have been taught not to take up space, to be as small as possible so that are narcissistic parents can “shine”, this causes inner conflict because we are taught that being assertive is pushy, setting limits deprives the other person and asking for our needs to be met is selfish. Acting in your own best interest can feel self-indulgent rather than self-care.
Many of us who grew up in narcissistic families don’t even know what are emotional needs are because they were always ignored or met with anger. Here are a few basic ones:
- I need to be acknowledged for myself and not as an extension of someone else
- I need to be accepted
- I need to be listened to (have a voice)
- I need to be understood (as far as possible)
- I need to be loved
- I need to be appreciated
- I need to be respected
- I need to be valued
- I need to feel worthy
- I need to be trusted
- I need to feel competent
- I need to feel clear and not confused
- I need to be supported
- I need to be safe both physically and emotionally
It is really important to embrace your emotional needs, especially if you were never allowed to have any as a child. They will determine how you allow yourself to be treated by others and take control of your life.
You will know that you are being manipulated and in an unhealthy relationship if:
- Your mood is determined by the state of your relationship
- You live in fear of losing the relationship
- You have massive mood swings from euphoria to desperation
- Your relationship has the same mood swings that you have
- You don’t feel like there is a piece of your partner that is “hidden”
- Your relationship doesn’t feel straight forward
- There are issues in your relationship and you don’t know why you cannot sort them out
- Your never sure where you stand with your partner and you are not sure really how committed s/he is
- Your gut tells you that there is something that isn’t quite right
- You have developed trust issues and are constantly trying to catch your partner out to see if what they told you was really true
- You feel a lot of anger and resentment
- You feel like you cannot openly express yourself without being interrupted or “shut down” or “corrected”
- You are losing confidence
- You don’t feel that you would be accepted if you were just you and not constantly controlling what you say and your expression of emotions
- You do things that aren’t really “your thing”, but they are your partners
- You wonder is this really as good as it gets?
You stay in the relationship because things aren’t always bad. There are highs and lows, you think that all relationships have highs and lows but this is not the normal high and lows it is manipulation. In a healthy relationship you can talk and solve differences. In an abusive relationship the abuser will let victim think that all of their relationship problems are their fault. They will let them know by either saying it directly or by inference. A healthy relationship doesn’t have extreme highs and lows. Boundaries keep you intact, in touch with your emotions, needs and wants and who you want to spend time with and who is toxic for you.
Boundaries protect your self-esteem, your self-worth they provide you with a sense of self, security and a place in this world.
When we don’t have boundaries we:
- Don’t realise our own self-worth
- We don’t know who to trust
- We believe that others have our best interests at heart (especially if they are family or “friends”)
- We place more importance on the needs of others than on our own
- We sacrifice stuff we need, to give to others
If we don’t have good boundaries we constantly look to others for a sense of self. This is particularly dangerous if the person to whom we are looking for reassurance from is destructive and needs to strip you down so that they can feel good about themselves.
Setting boundaries can feel seriously uncomfortable at first because if people are used to you not having boundaries they won’t like it at all when you put them in place. Many of us will shy away from confrontation or we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Often people will say “what is wrongwith you, you have changed!”, but that is only because they preferred it when they could use your lack of boundaries for their own benefit. There is a huge difference between having healthy boundaries and mistreating people the people who do not like you having boundaries will imply that you are mistreating them by being less available for them to use.
We are all entitled to basic human rights, those of us who come from a narcissistic family of origin will have had our human rights badly eroded to the extent that we are not even sure what they are. If we enter into abusive relationships later on in life they will only confirm to us what we are not entitled to because the abuser will see that they can “get away” with a lot of abusive behaviour without being called out on it. Here are what some basic human rights look like:
- My needs and feelings are as important as anyone else’s
- I have the right to own my feelings and express them if I want to
- I am not responsible for anyone else’s feelings or happiness
- I have the right to express my opinions
- I have the right to be independent if I want to be
- I have the right to decide how I spend my time
- I have the right to decide how I live my life
- I have the right to change myself, my behaviours, my values and my life
- I have the right to change my mind
- I have the right to make mistakes
- I have the right to develop and express my talents and interests
- I have the right to choose who I spend time with
- I have the right to choose who I share my body with
- I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect
- I have the right to be listened to respectfully
- I have the right to ask for what I want
- I have the right to say “no”
- I have the right to say “yes”
- I have the right to set limits and boundaries
- I have the right to walk away from relationships that are not good for me
- I have the right to have my boundaries respected
Asserting boundaries includes recognition of these basic rights and defending them. Defending boundaries takes daily practice and being on constant alert so that you do not tolerate violation of your boundaries like you did in the past. People will treat you as badly as you allow them to, so the thing is not to let them treat you badly. Standing firm on your boundaries increases your respect for yourself and the respect that others have for you.
Signs of weak boundaries include:
- Low self-worth and self-esteem
- Apologising all of the time
- Blushing easily
- Doing things that make you feel uncomfortable
- Doing things that you really don’t want to do
- Going against you values, rights or needs to fit in with others
- Putting other’s needs ahead of your own
- Letting someone touch you when it makes you feel uncomfortable
- Not being able to notice when someone’s behaviour is inappropriate
- Staying in a relationship that makes you unhappy
- Letting others direct your life and define who you are
- Over giving without getting much or anything in return
- Accepting food, drinks or presents that you don’t want
- Letting others describe your reality
- Not being able to ask for what you want
- Feeling responsible for other people’s feelings, constantly trying not to hurt them at your own expense
- Complaining to others instead of talking directly to the person who you have an issue with
- Seeking the approval of others
- Self-consciousness and social anxiety
- Saying yes when you want to say no
- Feeling guilty for saying no
- Saying no when you want to say yes
- Not speaking up when you have something to say
- Not calling someone out when they mistreat you
- Avoiding conflict and difficult conversations
- Spending time with people who drain you and who you don’t really like
- Feeling that you do a lot for people but they don’t really appreciate it
- Ignoring problems “to keep the peace”
- Expecting others to know what you want without telling them
Self-worth comes from honouring who you are and what you want, you need to have your own best interest at heart and live an authentic life. When you have healthy boundaries you will expect honest, respect, loyalty and emotional and physical safety. You will not tolerate people destroying the things that you value ranging from dreams, beliefs to physical possessions. It is important to have these expectations, otherwise it is very easy to bully you and make you conform to what the abuser wants.
If you come from a narcissistic family of origin you will have been taught that putting other people’s (and in particular your parents) needs before your own is a virtue and what “nice” children do. There are people who will suck the life blood out of you and leave you gasping for air without a backward glance, you are not a child anymore and being “nice” isn’t necessarily going to serve you well when you are dealing with toxic people.
Highly empathic people have a tendency to think that they have more than enough love and emotion to share liberally. This is not so because people who are takers have no limit on their ability to take, they are bottomless pits that cannot be satiated. They will give the impression that if you just gave a little bit more all would be well, but the truth is they are never satisfied. Their inner landscape is completely blank and they need to feed off others in order to feel alive (narcissists have frequently been referred to as emotional vampires). The reality is that they think that empaths are “stupid” to try so hard because somewhere deep down in the psyche of a narcissist they know that they are not worth the effort. Gratitude is not part of the make-up of narcissists, they just take what they can get where ever they can get it. As such they have no sense of loyalty, integrity or honour.
It is important to have a very clear idea of what our boundaries are and what we are prepared to tolerate. People make mistakes but if they appologise and then repeat a behaviour that was not acceptable to you, then that apology is insincere and only uttered to make you back down. We also need to have deal breakers/one strike too many/a step too far. Minor discrepancies can be overlooked to some extent but there are some behaviours that are just too big to be ignored and it is important that you do not make excuses for the abuser’s bad behaviour. In short some traits and behaviours are simply non-negotiable.
When a narcissist meets a potential partner who s/he believes will “serve” them well, they will try to fast track the relationship and might well talk about marriage or cohabitation after the second date. This is a red flag as no one can know someone else in such a short time. You will know that you are being preyed upon. They will love bomb you and tell you that no one has ever understood them like you do and that they have finally found their soul mate. They do this for two reasons they want to control you and also because they can see your good qualities and they are afraid that you might meet someone else.
Never feel obliged to say “I love you too” if you do not feel it. The narcissist will try to force proclamations of love from you so that they say “but you said you love me” and hence will try to back you into a corner. You decide on the pace of the relationship, what feels comfortable and how much you want to see of this person from the beginning. Never feel guilt tripped into giving more of yourself than you want to. If you lose a person because you have put up boundaries, then you know that that person would not have made a good partner/friend.
To protect yourself in a new relationship it is really important to maintain your other relationships and interests. This helps to maintain a sense of perspective and how the person in a new relationship reacts to you doing things without them will be very telling. They might say that the don’t mind you doing stuff without them but call you twice in an evening that you are out with friends or “accidentally” go to the same restaurant, which of course means that they are lying about being “okay” with it.
Narcissists will expect you to trust them from day one. In fact, they depend on it and will bristle with self-righteous indignation if you withhold your trust until they have proven that they are worthy of it. Trust is something that is built up over time and in many different situations if someone tries to extract trust from you – this is another red flag. In a healthy relationship both parties know that trust is built not extracted from others.
Another good way to view a potential partner is to see how they treat other people and animals. In particular, how they treat people who are not “useful” to them. Listen how they talk about their exes and other people, it will be indicative of how much respect and space they can or are willing to hold for other people and you. Trying to teach another person how to behave is a complete waste of time. One cannot make another change, that has to come from within them, if they do not treat you with care, love and respect then that person has their own issues and you (or anyone else) cannot iron them out for them. You cannot show them that there is a problem, because if they cannot see it, then it probably isn’t somewhere that they want to go or are not sufficiently emotionally developed to be able to go there.
If they do not respect your boundaries they do not respect you. Most boundaries violations start off small and then they grow according to what they have been let get away with. It is important therefore, that you address the small stuff so that you can determine if they respect you enough to correct their behaviour or not. It is important that you state clearly what the boundary is that you feel that they have violated, don’t expect the other person to second guess why you feel disrespected. Different people have different boundaries, what you consider to be a boundary violation might have been perfectly accepted in their family of origin or by their ex. You can use the classic “when you do that I feel” opener (not “you make me feel”).
There are some boundary violations which are just unacceptable from the word go, such as if a person treats you with contempt, distain or treats you differently in front of other people than they do in private. Someone who treats you differently depending who else is around does not respect you as a human, they are objectifying you and treating you as a prop or possession.
You do not have to explain your boundaries to anyone. They are your boundaries in the same way that you do not have to defend your core beliefs. They are your set of “rules” for you. It is impossible to justify boundaries to someone who refuses to acknowledge them, the only thing that you can do is to put distance between yourself and that person. They are violating boundaries to get what they want at your expense, so it is important not to be too easy going about boundary violation. On the other-hand it is important that your boundaries do not define you a bit of flexibility in a safe environment is not a “bad” thing so long as it does not compromise you and your dignity.
It takes time to see the true nature of a person and it is easy to project good intention where there is none (because that is who we want them to be), don’t fall for a person’s potential, if they seem problematic it is probably because they are. Walking away from someone who is problematic is not an insult to them (although they might not see it that way – but that is part of the problem) it is self-care, when you take care of yourself you can make a much greater contribution to society at large.