The surprising truth about setting boundaries and how to overcome

When I first started setting boundaries, I had no idea the primal fear I was up against. It’s true boundaries are mainly a matter of saying ‘no’. But, we can’t underestimate how difficult that is for some of us.

If you grew up in a home where your needs were not met, saying ‘no’ can feel like life or death. That’s because as a child you depended on the adults around you to keep you alive.

You intuited correctly that you had to keep these people happy in order to survive. They provided your food, shelter and clothing, and you were too young to provide these for yourself.

So, if saying no, having needs and wants, and expressing them, got you punished abandoned or rejected? Well, you did your best to suppress those needs and wants. You learned to focus on what other people wanted instead.

We take this conditioning into adulthood. And we treat our equals as if they had the power to end us like our parents did. We fear their rejection and abandonment in a way that feels life-threatening.

So, please know there are good reasons why you’ve been afraid of setting boundaries. There’s the fact that you never learned and were discouraged from doing so. Compounded by the fact that your life depended on you catering to others’ needs instead of your own.

Setting boundaries is also tied to our self-awareness. If you grew up without praise or guidance, you may have no idea of your strengths and weaknesses. What you like and dislike, and your values, may remain a mystery to you.

Self-awareness and setting boundaries

setting boundaries

It’s essential to understand yourself this way before you can start setting boundaries. Knowing your likes and dislikes will help you make decisions. For example, you’ll accept or decline invitations depending on these truths about yourself, NOT whether people will like you.

How to love your inner child after insecure attachment

insecure attachment
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Insecure attachment means we didn’t receive the care and protection we needed as children, and lost touch with our playful side.

That’s because we needed to know our parents were there for us in order to branch out and confidently explore the world around us. If our parents were unavailable, either physically or emotionally, we became fearful of our surroundings rather than curious about them.

Unlike children from stable backgrounds, those of us with insecure attachment became preoccupied with trying to keep ourselves safe. We went into survival mode because we believed, often rightly, that no one would take care of us so we had to take care of ourselves.

That child who was forced to become hypervigilant, over responsible, and suppress her needs becomes the child or children inside you as an adult. This inner child can hold you back by trying to protect you or get your needs met in childish ways.

The child might make you procrastinate because she’s fearful of criticism once the project is complete. She may be protecting you by helping you stay inside your comfort zone rather than putting yourself out there.

The outcome of insecure attachment

The inner child who evolved out of insecure attachment is also the one reacting to triggers and having emotional outbursts. If you never learned to regulate your emotions, it makes sense that your response to stimuli would remain immature.

If you’ve been trained to suppress your emotions, they will come out somehow because we are humans not robots. And the way they come out will not be the way you wanted or planned.

In the same way, if you had to abandon your needs to survive, ie., keep your parents love and acceptance, your inner child will try to get those needs met in ways that work against you.

If you want a fulfilling life where your needs get met in healthy ways, you have to assure your inner child she’s not in charge anymore. Let her know she can relax and you’ll take care of her because you’re the adult now.

How to care for your inner child

Remind the inner child that you’re able to take care of adult matters so she doesn’t need to jump in and save you. The proof lies in the fact that you have a job or an apartment or you can drive a car or take care of a pet or pay your bills.

Reconnect with your sense of play and curiosity with the world.

Thank your inner child for keeping you safe and protecting you when you needed it. You’re the adult now so she can relax and enjoy being with you.

How to use self-advocacy to improve your life

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Out of all the self-help terms, we hear about self-advocacy less often. In the beginning of any healing journey, we’re consumed with self-care, self preservation, self-protection.

But as our sense of self improves and we learn our value, we take things a step further. We begin to advocate on our own behalf.

That means going beyond what can sometimes feel like the defensive state of setting boundaries. And really standing up for ourselves and demanding what we deserve.

Since we all have different needs, self-advocacy begins with understanding your own. You no longer apologize for having unique needs, but self-advocate by requesting that they be met.

You don’t expect other people to know your needs. Instead, you vocalize them clearly or in writing with specifics about what you require.

The role of childhood trauma

If you grew up in a home where your needs went unmet consistently, you may struggle with self-advocacy. For many of us, it’s a foreign concept which we simply never considered as a right.

If you grew up in a home where your needs went unmet consistently, you may struggle with self-advocacy. Click To Tweet

We’re so used to having our needs pushed aside, that we’ve suppressed them. We might shrug our shoulders and accept things because that’s what we’re used to.

Unmet needs can feel like home to us. Speaking up for ourselves can feel wildly self-indulgent and even verboten. We may have an image of ourselves as “good” because we don’t ask for too much.

But as you travel on your healing journey, that “go with the flow” amicability may not work for you anymore. You will become more active in your desire to have your needs met and more confident in expressing those needs.

That’s where self-advocacy comes in. I believe it happens when your inner child has received enough nurturing that she’s no longer running the show.

You’ve stepped in as the adult to protect that inner child. You won’t put up with your needs and desires going unrecognized anymore.

When I was younger, I found it easier to advocate for others than myself. Though it’s noble to defend the underdog, we often bypass our own needs and try to earn our “goodness” by helping others instead of ourselves.

Self-advocacy means asserting yourself and voicing your needs. It means acting as that strong protector to yourself that you’ve always been to others.

Self-advocacy means acting as that strong protector to yourself that you've always been to others. Click To Tweet

Reasons we avoid self-advocacy


There are many solid reasons to avoid self-advocacy so don’t blame yourself.

1. Fear of anger

A fear of anger may stop you from self-advocating. But anger is an amazing catalyst for change. It tells you that something is wrong and can propel you to take action.

A powerful emotion, anger can be harnessed for immense good and life improvement. When suppressed, however, internalized anger can make you ill and has been linked to many diseases.

2. Childhood trauma

If you were raised to believe your needs didn’t matter, punished for your anger, or worse, self-advocacy will not come naturally to you. It will feel dangerous and there’s good reason for that – it was.

3. Need for acceptance

All human beings want to feel accepted and loved. If you fear that advocating on your own behalf will result in rejection, you’ll think twice about it.

Again, there’s a fear of ostracization that goes back to childhood. And it can go back much farther than that to our reptilian brain.

4. Fear of consequences

Just as boundary setting elicits consequences, so can self-advocacy. It’s not as though everyone will applaud you for standing up for yourself.

Many won’t like it and will try to stop you from changing your life and getting what you want because it doesn’t benefit them. Do it anyway.

How to overcome emotional dysregulation and its effects

Emotional dysregulation is marked by an inability to control one’s emotional responses and having outsized reactions to emotional stimuli. Those of us who were never taught to regulate our emotions or that emotions were even acceptable, may struggle with this.

It’s a childish response to an adult situation because we never learned to process our emotions. Instead, we learned to suppress them to win the love and acceptance of our parents and caregivers.

Those of us who were never taught to regulate our emotions or that emotions were even acceptable, may struggle with dysregulation. Click To Tweet

Since it’s impossible to repress emotions indefinitely (we are human, after all), they will come out eventually. Often at the most inopportune times and in the most confusing ways.

Since alcohol lowered my defenses and inhibitions, drinking made my emotional dysregulation flare up. But I also overreacted to any kind of criticism at work, bursting into tears at the suggestion that my work might be less than perfect.

The role of invalidation

Because I had been raised without value placed on me as a person, I believed my only worth lay in my accomplishments. So, if you said my work was less than perfect, that meant you were calling me worthless.

Although I didn’t put it together in my head at the time, that’s the dynamic at work with complex PTSD. And along with an overreaction to emotional triggers, you have difficulty returning to your emotional setpoint.

That’s why you fear anger and sadness. You believe they will pull you under because you never learned how to process them. And, in a sense your fears are correct in that it may take you longer to recover once triggered emotionally.

I’ve written here before about the shame we feel simply for having emotions. On top of already difficult feelings of sadness and anger, we pile on shame and guilt.

We’ve been forced to distance from our feelings to survive and therefore we are out of touch with them and feel guilty for having them.

No wonder we try to avoid our feelings as long as possible! That’s your inner child trying to protect you and she deserves credit for that.

How to deal with emotional dysregulation

emotional dysregulation

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness seems like the catch phrase of our time, but it has proven helpful in regulating emotions. It means simply bringing your attention to the present moment.

You can practice mindfulness through meditation which includes sitting still and letting your thoughts and feelings go by. You can also ground yourself in the present moment by focusing on sensory elements in your environment: what you can see, hear, touch and smell.

2. Acknowledge your emotions

Much of our emotional dysregulation stems from a childhood in which our very existence was constantly invalidated. We learned that our needs didn’t matter and that no one would take care of us consistently.

Emotional dysregulation stems from a childhood in which our very existence was constantly invalidated. Click To Tweet

As adults we can begin to care for our own needs and that starts with validating our feelings. Release the shame around certain feelings and comfort yourself when you experience them instead.

Remind yourself that you have a right to feel the way you do, that it makes perfect sense considering what you’ve gone through. Journal your feelings or simply observe them without judgment.

3. Understand your triggers

For example, if you’re hungry or tired you may be more prone to emotional dysregulation. Self-care means meeting your needs as an adult, even though they went unmet as a child.

Because of your childhood neglect, meeting these needs will not come naturally. Even eating regularly might feel wrong if meal times were inconsistent in your home.

Pay attention to your body’s signals and honor them rather than overriding them. If you’re hungry, eat, and if you’re tired, take a nap. Meeting your body’s basic demands is the first step in giving yourself the care and attention you deserved all along.

What are emotional flashbacks and how to deal with them

emotional flashbacks
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Emotional flashbacks are different from the flashbacks we associate with PTSD. Rather than visual and auditory reminders of a specific event, emotional flashbacks are more of a feeling. They take you over and immerse you in the unsafety you felt in your childhood.

These emotional flashbacks stem from unmet childhood needs and complex trauma. Unlike regular PTSD flashbacks, we tend to blame ourselves for our feelings during these episodes. That’s where the shame comes in.

When we were children being abused, neglected, or ignored, we were too young to process our feelings. As children do, we blamed ourselves and did our best to cope with them by disassociating or going into freeze mode.

Now, as adults, we may find ourselves overcome with these emotional flashbacks that take us right back to the fear and helplessness we felt as children. They can be debilitating and make it difficult to enjoy life or function at the level we need to thrive.

Emotional flashbacks can be confusing because we don’t always relate them to what happened in childhood. This can increase the pain of isolation and feeling there’s something wrong with us. This in turn makes us hide how we feel and perpetuates the cycle further.

Emotional flashbacks can be confusing because we don't always relate them to what happened in childhood. Click To Tweet

Let’s say a new contact fails to text or call and you spiral into overwhelming feelings of abandonment, rejection and not-enough-ness. You may not realize how your parents neglect or abuse has triggered this response in you.

Criticism over comfort

Instead of looking at things objectively or even mourning the small loss, you would instead feel overwhelmed by shame and assume it means you’re not good enough. You might also try to win the person over by suppressing your needs. Just as you tried to win your parents over in the past.

However it looks for you, chances are you would not simply let the person go without much rumination, suffering, and feelings of inadequacy. Then you might berate yourself for not being able to let things go instead of comforting yourself in the face of disappointment.

If you never received comfort from the adults around you when you were a child, comforting yourself as an adult will not come naturally. You will criticize yourself for having what you view as a less than perfect response, the same way your caregivers might have done.

If you never received comfort from the adults around you when you were a child, comforting yourself as an adult will not come naturally. Click To Tweet
emotional flashbacks

How to deal with emotional flashbacks

1. Understand the root cause

Emotional flashbacks don’t appear as concrete memories and may not feel like flashbacks at all. Instead they flood you with feelings of shame, fear and hopelessness that have their roots in childhood abuse and neglect.

If you realize why you are experiencing these episodes, and that it’s not your fault, you may feel better. If you acknowledge the truth that they arose out of a traumatic childhood, you can seek support to process what happened to you in the past.

2. Mindfulness

When you find yourself in the midst of an emotional flashback, ground yourself. You can say, “this is a normal traumatic response I’m having and I’m safe right now”.

You can also use your senses to bring yourself into the present moment. Take note of what you see, touch, and smell in the room to remind yourself of your safety.

3. Comfort yourself

When we experience these emotional flashbacks, we tend to criticize ourselves for our feelings which only exacerbates them. Instead, offer yourself comfort and compassion for the way you feel.

Give yourself the unconditional love you missed out on as a child. Remind yourself that it’s not your fault you’re feeling the way you do. Give yourself a hug or wrap in a warm blanket, or some other self-care activity that feels good for you.

Recommended Resource: Emotional Flashback Management by Pete Walker