From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A
7. Thou shalt allow your boundaries to be violated, especially by those who “love” you.
Sample Situation: A child trying to accomplish a task continues to persist and work on it, hoping to gain a sense of accomplishment and approval. “Don't be so stubborn!” mommy says. “Just give up. There’s more important things than that to be done! Now put that stuff away and clean the house so that mommy knows you love her.”
Lesson Learned: Anything you want is not worth protecting. Only those you love can tell you what is important and what’s not. Quit thinking for yourself and just do what makes everyone else happy.
Motto: Because others are more valuable than you, you don’t have the right to maintain your own boundaries or to make decisions.
Some of us aren’t clear on what boundaries are. According to Wikipedia, “Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits. They are built out of a mix of beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning.
“Personal boundaries define you as an individual, outlining your likes and dislikes, and setting the distances you allow others to approach. They include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries, involving beliefs, emotions, intuitions and self-esteem.”
If you are the child of a Narcissist and/or grew up in a dysfunctional family, you have been raised to have no boundaries. Nothing you own is yours, not even your body, certainly not your thoughts and beliefs. If you have any boundaries at all, they are in your head and you keep them to yourself because letting your NParent know about them guarantees they will be immediately disregarded, trampled, forbidden. You are not an individual, separate person to your NParent, you are an extension of him, her, or them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change when you grow up.
“Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Boundaries impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances— Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions— Emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others—”
“…boundaries are a healthy, normal, and necessary part of life. Boundaries are a way to manage one’s life and one’s interpersonal relationships—a way to set limits.”
I spent most of my childhood waiting to be 18. I really didn’t have any plans for my life after that, I was simply focussed on turning 18 because, I believed, once I was 18 I could move out of my mother’s house and she would not be able to hurt me any more. Somehow I expected that when I turned 18, not only would I have boundaries, but NM would be obligated to respect them.
I was wrong.
I had never thought of myself as being an extension of my mother until I learned about boundaries: the better your boundaries, the more autonomous you are…and I was not allowed to be autonomous, nor was I allowed to have boundaries. To even hint at having them was to invite a retaliatory rage; to give away the slightest feeling of dismay or displeasure at having my boundaries violated risked indignance, aroused suspicions, and punishment. Not only did I have to tolerate the constant and unrelenting violation of my boundaries, I had to pretend that it was ok with me, that it was no big deal, that I had no rights and that was fine with me.
Just what are we talking about here? Well, when I was a kid, NM would come into my room and “clean out” my closet, my dresser, my room…usually when I was not home. At the end of one her forays, I would be missing clothes, books, toys, cards from my grandmothers and drawings I did (“worthless trash” in NM’s estimation), and even pets. I had no voice in the matter, things just disappeared when I was not there. And I was expected not to object.
I was not allowed to have physical boundaries: if she wanted me to sit on the lap of a smelly old man who happened to be the producer of a movie she wanted me to have a part in, I was expected to do so (and I faced severe punishment when I refused). When punishing me, she would make me lay across a bed with my bare buttocks and thighs exposed. She had a thin leather strap, once a dog leash but with the metal clip removed, with which she would “spank” me. These were no spankings, they were whippings in the truest sense of the word, because The Strap left the same thin, raised red welts across my tender flesh that a whip would leave. I was not allowed to move during the whipping—if I so much as rolled to one side in my agony, I was given more lashes for attempting to get away—“defiance,” she called it. She could hit, slap, pinch, whip, push, trip, beat me and even pull my hair, but I was not allowed to even look like I wanted to protest. When I had boils (which I did during childhood—lots of them), I was not allowed to object or protest or even cry out in pain when she sat on me (to hold me still, she said) and squeezed them. I had no dominion over my own body whatsoever—any physical boundaries I might try to set were trampled with hob-nailed boots.
When I was an adolescent, she ransacked my dresser and my closet, searched my school books, coat pockets, handbag, even turned my bed out, looking for stuff. Nothing of mine was sacred, anything could—and did—disappear if she either disapproved of it or fancied it for herself. I cannot begin to count the sweaters, skirts, and tops she “borrowed” without asking and subsequently stained, stretched out of shape, or simply never returned. She snooped in everything, demanded explanations for doodles in my school notebooks, even beat the stuffing out of me one afternoon when she found some money in something of mine—I wasn’t allowed to have money until I got a job in high school, and then, only as much as she allowed me to have for bus fare and school lunches. Nothing was private, nothing was sacrosanct, and if I wanted something that she didn’t find necessary in her life (like a can of hair spray), I had to submit a justification for buying it. I could not wait to get out of there and have some privacy and autonomy!
I actually did rebel and set a boundary when I was about 16… We lived about a block from the beach and every afternoon I went down there with a towel, my books, and the dog, and did my homework while working on my tan. I came home one afternoon to find my two-piece bathing suits missing (they were bikinis by the standard of the day, but covered a great deal more than modern bikinis). Outraged—I knew exactly where they were and who took them—I went to NM’s room and searched her drawers and closet as she must have done mine to find my swimsuits. I found them, hidden under some of her lingerie, retrieved them, put one on and went down to the beach. When I got back, she was home and she was livid. How dare I go into her room without permission and go through her things? She had a yardstick in her hand and she smacked me on the bare thigh with it and I—very unexpectedly—went ballistic.
It was like I had split in two, one person standing on the sidelines watching, horrified, as the other put herself in deep, deep trouble. The other, seized by rage and indignation, snatched the yardstick out of NM’s hand and broke it in half, then put her hands on NM’s chest and pushed her, with short, sharp shoves, right out of the bedroom and slammed the door in her face. All the while this was going on, she was screaming her outrage, “Stay out of my room! Stay out of my things! And I’m too old for spanking—don’t you ever hit me again where the marks will show in my gym shorts!”
How pathetic is that? So brainwashed, so lacking in real boundaries or sense of personal power, that I couldn’t tell her not to ever hit me again, just to limit her beatings where I would not be humiliated in front of my peers with the evidence of her brutality. Not only did I not want to reveal to my peers that she still treated my like a little kid, I had come to recognize that those bruises were not badges of my mother’s brutality, they confirmed my culpability…I had gone unbelieved for so long, I no longer expected people to believe me, I just wanted to stop showing them marks on my skin that proclaimed me at fault for my mother’s volatility.
I was careful to keep my thoughts to myself, my opinions and my beliefs. Since my beliefs and values and convictions were pretty much always different from those she expressed, and knowing that she took disagreement as a challenge that she had to win at all costs, I forestalled confrontation with her by simply not informing her of what went on in my head. If she knew what my private thoughts were, she would have done her level best to change or eradicate them.
Before I reached that magical 18th birthday, I got pregnant and married and out of her house. And I expected that would be the end of her predations. She had told me that when times got tough, not to run to her for help—a boundary she set down and I never attempted to cross. And I fully expected her to respect my boundaries after I was on my own. But it didn’t work out that way. As much as she was an ignoring NM, there were times that she decided to visit me—always unannounced—for reasons known only to her. “I was in the neighbourhood” was as false an excuse as one could make, considering that she lived down by the beach and I lived a good 20 miles inland. During those visits she made it clear that even as an adult living on my own, I was not allowed to make decisions for myself without hearing her opinions on where I was wrong. I was supposed to live my life according to her dictates, even though I was on my own and a mother in my own right.
One of the problems with a dysfunctional family and boundaries is that we aren’t allowed to set our own. Someone else sets them for us and they tend to be pretty one-way: they get to set boundaries that keep you out of their business but you are not allowed to do the same. Your boundaries exist only insofar as you are admonished to keep silent about the goings-on inside the family. The problem with growing up this way is that when you reach adulthood, you don’t change: you don’t really know how to set and enforce boundaries and anybody who presumes him/herself your superior will set up the same kind of dynamic with you: your boundaries may be violated at will while you must respect the boundaries of those who have assumed a position of authority over you, be it a boss, a boyfriend, or even another family member like your sister or daughter.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family that tramples all over your boundaries sets you up for two distinct problems in adulthood: 1) an inability to set and enforce boundaries in adulthood and 2) guilt about boundary setting, viewing it as “rejection.”
Learning to set boundaries and enforce boundaries can be tough. We don’t know what is too strict a boundary, what is too lax; we are conditioned to permit any kind of intrusion into our privacy, any kind of control, and sometimes it is difficult for us to even recognize these incursions. After a 13 year marriage to a paranoid malignant narcissist I took a two year hiatus from men and just worked on healing and becoming a healthier person so I would attract healthier men. When I resumed dating I went out with a guy I’ll call Bill who, on the surface, seemed nice enough but I couldn’t quite pin down my unease. One day Bill and I were in a video rental shop and I asked to open an account. The clerk was asking questions and writing down the answers…the problem was, Bill wasn’t letting me answer, he was just taking it over. Finally I interrupted him and said “Bill, who is opening this account, you or me?” He looked puzzled and said “Well, you, of course,” to which I replied “Then kindly allow me to answer the questions, since they are about me, after all.” He sulked all the way back to my place. On another occasion, Bill and I took a car trip down to LA (we lived in Silicon Valley). On the way back, I got food poisoning at lunch and by the time we came into this quaint and romantic little inn he had booked us for the night, I was desperately ill. He was very unhappy with me that I wouldn’t “set it aside” and be romantic and sexual with him…he even complained about how much he paid for the suite and how much trouble he went to in booking just the right room…I was sick and was up and down to the bathroom all night while he sulked. My expectation that he would respect my feeling ill was stomped all over—he moaned and complained all night and in the morning assumed I was well and ready to be frisky when, in fact, I felt like death warmed over. We parted shortly after that trip, for I had seen that nothing, not even my being sick with food poisoning, put a dent in his sense of entitlement.
My brief relationship with Bill taught me a lot about boundaries—setting and maintaining them—and reinforced my resolve to kick to the kerb any man who could not or would not respect them. The next couple of boyfriends didn’t even last as long as Bill because not only was I noticing their boundary violations, I wasn’t sticking around long enough to let them stomp on my sensibilities. Eventually I found a lovely man who understood and respected boundaries and I married him.
We often find boundaries difficult to deal with because we equate them with rejection and we are conditioned to put the feelings of others before our own…and we therefore fear that setting a boundary with someone will be perceived as a rejection. “Dysfunctional families are often dysfunctional in large part because they don't set healthy boundaries. As a result, during their crucial years of development, the children of…dysfunctional parents very frequently are rejected by their loved ones. Children from dysfunctional families commonly develop a hypersensitivity to rejection as a result.” Because setting boundaries is alien to us and because we, unlike our dysfunctional parents, retain our compassion and empathy, setting a boundary may feel like a rejection to us. We feel like we are rejecting the person (or people) who would be most affected by our boundary and we feel guilty for it despite the fact that boundary setting is actually healthy for us and for the people we expect to respect it.
Even though we intellectually recognize the difference between reinforcing boundaries and rejection it does not mean that our emotional perceptions follow suit. This make it difficult to set boundaries for dates such that we end up being promiscuous not because we are lusty, sexual women but because we cannot say “No.” We have been conditioned since the cradle to let someone else be our boss and we know the sting of rejection…and we also know the crush of guilt. We say “yes” to spare the guy what we perceive as rejection and ourselves the guilt that comes from saying “No.”
This carries over into our marriages and our mothering. We agree, we permit, when we don’t want to in order to spare our husband or child the feeling of rejection that we would have felt—and to spare ourselves the guilt that comes along to haunt us when we hurt someone. It is neither good for our marital relationship, as it breeds resentment that our husbands can’t read our minds and just know we wouldn’t like something nor is it good for our children when we cannot set limits for them because we don’t want to bear the irrational guilt our psyches will visit upon us when we violate one of the old boundaries set down by our dysfunctional parents when we were helpless children.
So, for a myriad of reasons, it is important for us to close the door on people violating our boundaries and to learn to set and enforce boundaries in our own lives. It is the only way we can ever gain respect and maintain respect from those around us and teach it to our children.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
7 (2). Thou shalt be hyper-vigilant (there are actually two #7s in the original document!)
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.