Boundary Development Interrupted

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In the same way a toddler learns to walk by falling (often…and for a long time), boundary development is a process that requires a lot of trying and a lot of falling. If a toddler doesn’t fall until the 5th year of walking, he or she is going to be in for a rude awakening! If she falls on day 1, 2, 47, and 564, and then falls again during year 5, quite a tolerance has been built. So, don’t go trying to set boundaries in all your relationships as soon as you finish reading this post. Believe me, it won’t go well.

Boundary development begins in the womb. Did you know that? Crazy, huh? Before we are born, our mother shares A LOT with us: nutrition, a comfy home, movement, and life-giving blood. Sometimes, she shares some not-so-good things, too. The process has to be like this; until we enter the physical world, we are completely helpless and dependent on another person. Then, during that first hour of life, we’re hit with cold air, discomfort, and voices that are NOT our mother’s. We learn to be dependent on others beside our mothers, which (depending on your story), may be a healthy or painful experience. Regardless of your position, this is development. 

I often ask people to think about what they learned, growing up, about boundaries. Will you take a second and ask yourself that question right now? Some common answers I hear: 

  • Nothing. There were no boundaries in my house. We all talked and walked over each other. 
  • Children are to be seen and not heard. 
  • Emotions are best hidden. 
  • I was not allowed to say “no.” 
  • Rules applied to me, but not my older siblings. 
  • We talked about everything, but I don’t really “know” my family members. 

There is a stage of boundary development called individuation. Individuation applies to that phase of life starting in toddlerhood when you realize “I am not my mother.” You realize you can get your own food, you can use the bathroom on your own, you make mistakes that cause reactions from others around you, and you have your own likes, dislikes, wants, and needs. When our preferences clash with those closest to us, we have a boundary problem. We are well-aware of where we begin and end, but that awareness causes problems. 

Welcome to relationships! 

You have experienced individuation, an essential stage of personal development, and, so has everyone else. We step on toes when we work to set ourselves apart, and others step on OUR toes when they set themselves apart from us. 

When there is conflict in a relationship, here are a few things to remember: 

  1. Conflict means you’re actually in a relationship! This is a good sign. If there is no conflict, there is either a lack of connection or a lot of pretending going on to keep the peace. 
  2. There’s usually a feeling underneath the conflict story. Take a second to run your story through your mind. Now, what do you feel in your body? That’s your emotional response to the conflict. 
  3. We create meanings about conflict that transfer to the relationship as a whole. 

Example: “I told my sister I didn’t want to bring pumpkin pie to Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted to bring pecan pie. She got really quiet. She must not like pecan pie, so maybe she doesn’t like me as much. Maybe she’s disappointed in me.” 

  1. There is fear about engaging in conflict because we desperately want to preserve the relationship. This is normal and healthy. However, when we respond out of fear, we often lose our individuality. The line between “you and me” becomes blurry.

If you grew up in a home where conflict was avoided, I would not be at all surprised that you run from conflict as an adult. It was NOT a normal and healthy part of your nuclear family, so therefore, the threat is alive and real, even 20 years later. 

If you grew up in a home where conflict was invited, I am not surprised you thrive in a conflict-rich environment. You have figured it out. You actually feel comfortable engaging in conflict! I get it. 

There are consequences for both avoiding and engaging in conflict. That’s why we need personal boundaries! We need to know ourselves and our limits well enough in order to relate with others who may be different than us. And let me go ahead and burst your bubble…most people are different than us. 

Not many circumstances other than the holidays and family gatherings bring out the fact that our boundary development was, and is frequently, interrupted. 
Tune in next week for some practical tips about how to engage with those you are closest to…that don’t involve throwing a dinner roll at your uncle or numbing out with that bottle of wine that was supposed to be a gift for Aunt Sally…

Written by Lauren Eisleben