3 myths about boundaries and how to navigate them

myths about boundaries
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

When you start healing from dysfunctional family dynamics, you learn the importance of setting boundaries. But those lessons from well-meaning people often re-inforce myths about boundaries that hinder your progress.

The mainstream approach to boundary setting is highly strategic. It consists of a set of steps laid out in a one-size-fits-all fashion.

When you’ve never set boundaries (or even heard the word, like me back in the day), a clear road map sounds like a life-saver. However, setting boundaries before you’ve done the internal work to increase your self worth comes with several caveats.

Note: at 1:52 I’m referring to the first myth not the first consequence of setting boundaries

That’s not to say you shouldn’t set boundaries before you’ve done your healing. It does mean you should protect yourself and your nervous system from the fallout of setting that boundary.

If you are a childhood trauma survivor, setting boundaries will not feel good at all. That’s because you’ve been primed since childhood to believe setting boundaries can lead to death.

If you are a childhood trauma survivor, you've been primed since childhood to believe setting boundaries can lead to death. Click To Tweet

Let me explain. If, as a dependent child, failing to do what your parent wanted got you rejected, that felt like life or death.

Without resources to care for yourself, omitting boundaries was the smart thing to do in terms of survival. We need to thank our child for protecting us by pleasing our parents instead of feeling ashamed over our lack of boundaries.

Myths about boundaries ignore trauma

Since trauma is stored in the body, we still feel that dreaded fight or flight response when we go to set a boundary. It feels much easier to not set the boundary because our survival brain thinks short term.

Get through this one time, it says, instead of looking ahead to all the future times the same thing will happen if you don’t set a boundary.

Survival brain and body keep you safe right now; they don’t have plans for the future. The same way you wouldn’t negotiate with a bear poised to attack – you’d do what it took to keep yourself safe right now.

So, one of the consequences of setting boundaries can be a feeling of deep unsafety in your body. You do not know how this person is going to react to your boundary (or you do, and that’s terrifying).

One of the consequences of setting boundaries can be a feeling of deep unsafety in your body. Click To Tweet

It can bring up all sorts of trauma from childhood, and lead to you feeling worse after setting the boundary than you did before. This is why you need to be kind and gentle with yourself during the process and practice extra self care and compassion.

Experts rarely talk about the consequences of setting boundaries. They tend to focus on the consequences of not setting boundaries, which is important, of course.

But ignoring the ramifications that come when you do set boundaries can be dangerous. It leads to newcomers on a healing journey feeling blindsided and re-traumatized.

This brings me to the first myth about boundaries:

myths about boundaries

1. Myths about boundaries: they are empowering

Many self-help experts leave out the fact that some will reject you over your boundaries. As a childhood trauma survivor surrounded by unsupportive people, you may experience this rejection over and over.

With your body encoded by the belief that rejection equals death, this is not an empowering feeling. The rejection that comes from setting boundaries will bring on deep grief and self-doubt.

You will question whether you should have set the boundary in the first place. And berate yourself for not setting the boundary in the right way (perfectionism being a common affliction among complex trauma survivors).

You will not put your arms in the air in a spirit of victory because you got your way. You have been conditioned to believe your needs come last, so fulfilling them does not give you pleasure in the early days of healing.

It makes you feel guilty, wrong, and dysregulated. The first of our three myths about boundaries assumes we will derive joy or victory from asserting our needs when that may not be the case.

2. Boundaries are one and done

The second of our three myths about boundaries says you only need to set them once. But, whether at work or in your family, you may need to set the same boundary over and over.

These damn things are so difficult to lay down, it feels overwhelming that once is rarely enough.

Experts tell you to restate your boundary devoid of emotion. However, this may feel impossible when your nervous system has been activated.

Trying to remain calm when your trauma of being dismissed in childhood is triggered can be a monumental task. Instead of cutting yourself off from your emotions to recite rote lines, tune into yourself and discover what you need.

Find a way to give yourself a feeling of safety before re-setting the boundary. The common advice assumes you can detach from your emotions at will. But that is counter-intuitive to your work of connecting with yourself authentically.

3. Boundaries are for other people

myths about boundaries

The third of our myths about boundaries is that they are for other people. The common definition is that they let other people know what you will and won’t tolerate from them.

We normally speak about boundaries in relationships, but we forget about the relationship we have with ourselves. One of the deepest forms of self care comes in setting boundaries with yourself.

One of the deepest forms of self care comes in setting boundaries with yourself. Click To Tweet

We mentioned that setting boundaries can feel turbulent to the childhood trauma survivor. In the same way, setting boundaries with yourself is a form of care that may not feel good.

It’s a promise you keep to yourself that benefits you in the long run. Remember, that survival brain you adopted in childhood to survive wasn’t interested in long-term plans.

But now that you’re in charge, and not your inner child, you get to plan for the future. You might set limits on the foods you eat, the media you consume, and the people you spend time with (even if you like them).

It would feel better in the short term to eat a pint of ice cream, binge watch a Netflix show, or have sex with someone who will never commit to you.

Setting boundaries with yourself reminds you that you are worthy of protection. If you grew up in a family where no one seemed to care, now you get to care for yourself.

The first module of the Self-Parenting Solution is all about boundaries. Learn more about the eight-lesson course here.

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  1. This is one of the most profound things I have read because it explains why I spent the best part of 2 years sitting in a chair (in between washing, eating, drinking and sleeping badly), playing the same game on my mobile, so desperate to be rewarded with a win, while at the same time, numbing my brain from the debilitating grief, blame and shame I felt for creating a boundary against an old, frail woman, who was my mother. But, the mother I sorely grieved, existed only in my love and belief in her. Falteringly, the missing pieces of our dysfunctional family jigsaw fell into place, revealing the lies, which I had loyally, but confusingly believed. It explained the false accusations, the crumb dropping, the seed planting, the manipulation. The punishing ostracization to instil guilt, doubt, fear and extreme loneliness. Fear had rooted me in that chair. I couldn’t understand it, what exactly was I frightened of? A pleasant, old frail woman who was respected by the outside world? But I knew, and know what she is capable of and had every reason to be frightened. How dare I create any kind of boundary for myself.

    • Hi Lorna,
      This is so well put and you are not alone in these feelings. This describes the freeze response which is common among childhood trauma survivors. It keeps us rooted in that chair and numbing ourselves out to cope, to survive. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. Sharon

    What a great article! It clearly articulated the painful feelings that surround setting boundaries for trauma survivors, and the need for gentleness and self-love during the ongoing process of setting boundaries. Thank you for compassionately understanding a very challenging issue.

    • Hi Sharon, I appreciate the kind words, thank you. Boundaries are a challenging and multi-layered issue. They can continue to trip us up even after we think we’ve “healed”.