Boundary problems are usually an indication of early trauma.
We aren’t born with boundary problems; in fact, we come into the world boundary-less, requiring everything from others just to survive. As we grow, we need to quickly find other ways to assimilate and get our needs met because screaming and crying at 3 a.m. is no longer acceptable.
When boundaries feel difficult, it’s because trauma taught us to fear getting hurt, causing guilt and shame to kick in and push the brakes on expression.
Fear acts like a thick fog, keeping us unclear about where to direct our attention and energy. If you’ve ever driven in thick fog, you know exactly how nerve-wracking that can be. We get overcautious. We hesitate. We also feel like we’re advancing blindly, heading into possible risk with fingers crossed. When fear runs the show, our nervous system is disregulated and boundaries feel as enjoyable as petting a hissing cobra.
Unhealthy boundaries show up in a myriad of ways: repeating bad relationships, experiencing social anxiety, experiencing chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, and so on. We can find ourselves over-giving, over-exerting, over-extending, and over-doing. Fearful thoughts say, “If I don’t do it, no one will. If I don’t do it, I am bad. If I don’t put others’ needs first, I am not a good person. If I take too much time for me, I am selfish. If I ask for what I want, I will put others out and inconvenience them, and so on.”
Over-giving says more about us—it’s not about the people we give to.
Honouring our needs becomes anxiety-inducing when we’ve been taught to behave, be good, and be nice. There is a part that is afraid of expressing what we intuitively know is best for us. We fear confrontation, rejection, judgement, and feeling unreciprocated. These are primal fears; no one wants to experience these difficult emotions because our mammalian brains are wired for connection. Cue in guilt and shame. These internal regulators come to save the day and torment us until we comply, ensuring that we’ll be accepted and cared for.
To be clear, guilt and shame are not issues to fix, they are coping mechanisms we need to adjust. Think of them like friends you love to hate—they drive you nuts but will do anything for you.
I see trauma as a spreading vine that travels far, roaming into relationships, work, thought patterns, how we relate to and treat our body, friendships, health, etcetera. Like a vine, trauma can be traced back to the root of origin. This means that, at some point, our young system was inundated, overwhelmed, hurt, or scared. It’s not always a big event; trauma can be relational, like growing up having to normalize listening to arguing parents, being emotionally neglected, or feeling pressured to perform or achieve good grades at school. This way of normalizing suffering is often invalidated as “that’s just the way things were in my family,” but it’s trauma nonetheless.
As kids, we were not consciously choosing our beliefs. We needed to adapt quickly in order to fit in with our environment. Kids are wired to give up authenticity in order to feel acceptance and safety. They do this to better their odds of survival, but it comes at a great personal cost. What was skillful and adaptive in childhood becomes maladaptive later. As adults, we have more experience and more resources. This means we have a chance to release ourselves from the behaviours we adopted way back when.
As Stephen Porges explains, “The removal of threat is not the same thing as the experience of safety.”
Let that one sink in.
Boundaries are a reflection of all the conditioned fears that are still subconsciously running the show. It’s helpful to allow yourself to approach practicing boundaries with more self-compassion. Pause to understand what you learned to do at an age when choices were few and awareness was limited. This type of self-validation is invaluable. Healing must not be corrective; it is connective.
As we shed the patterns that acted as creative survival tactics, we can realign with who we are at our essence—perfectly imperfect and completely deserving of love.