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Growing Up Without Healthy Emotional Boundaries

1. Intimacy feels suffocating and terrifying.

Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

No parent sets out to sabotage their child's development. But when a parent fails to provide healthy emotional boundaries, they unwittingly cause lasting damage to their children's ability to trust others and embrace intimacy.

Separation, individuation

As children mature, they naturally seek independence. From the moment they learn to walk, they delight in autonomy. Parents with healthy emotional boundaries become cheerleaders for their children as they strive for independence. They applaud their children's efforts, celebrate their unique voices, and praise their talents.

This process, known as separation, individuation, is key to a child developing a strong sense of self.

When a parent doesn't support separation, individuation

Unfortunately, many parents who experienced emotional neglect in their childhood are often saddled with unmet emotional needs. Long after childhood, they continue to struggle with feeling incomplete and unappreciated.

In an attempt to resolve those gaps in their development, parents may affix their yearning for unconditional love to their children. In a strange turn of events, they seek adoration, approval, and affection from their child.

During early childhood, when their child is very young and relies on them, they feel nourished by the child's dependence. However, as their child enters the separation, individuation phase and craves more freedom, such parents start to feel rejected by their child. To quell their anxiety, they begin to discourage their child's efforts toward independence; they want to keep their child attached to them.

Rather than celebrate separation, individuation, such parents see it as a threat. They feel abandoned and betrayed by their child, and start to criticize, shame, or guilt their child.

Sadly, the joy of independence is crushed under the weight of their parent's emotional demands. The child feels held hostage, burdened, and weighed down. Such children are frequently described by adults as "old souls," when the reality is that their parent's emotional neediness shortened their childhood and caused them to grow up too quickly.

Soon the child starts to internalize the parent's critical voice and feel ashamed for having their own needs. They're told that they're selfish so many times that it takes root in their psyche and they begin to feel guilty for wanting an independent life. Self-doubt plagues them. They develop a profound mistrust toward anyone who tries to get close to them. Bouts of depression and social anxiety cling to them.

Such children grow up feeling alone in the world, often preferring to remain isolated rather than taking the risk of getting close to others.

Childhood imprints that endure

Tragically, the parent's critical voice becomes the child's inner voice. The child starts to engage in self-criticism and self-shaming. As an adult, rather than crave intimacy, they reject closeness because it triggers this early traumatic experience with their parent.

Frequently, they accuse their partner of "being needy", undermining or suffocating them. They act destructively in relationships in an effort to break free of the "prison of intimacy" that they endured in their childhood. The phantom of oppression clings to them and undermines their relationships; the closer someone gets to them, the more claustrophobic they feel.

Group Therapy: A corrective emotional experience

In group therapy, a central part of the healing process lies in helping group members learn how to assert and maintain healthy emotional boundaries. The group therapist seeks to foster mature communication between members so that the group relationships can provide a corrective emotional experience. For example, therapists often intervene in the exchanges to provide members with guidance and leadership that they were denied in their childhood. (See "Group Therapy in Your Living Room")

Group therapy helps members master the central tasks needed to establish healthy emotional boundaries, such as:

  1. Dismantling fear-based decision making.
  2. Asserting needs maturely.
  3. Respecting their own and their partner's wants.
  4. Containing destructive impulses.
  5. Engaging emotional communication through better attunement.

As group members begin to internalize healthy emotional boundaries, intimacy is no longer threatening. Relationships feel more rewarding. A gravitational shift occurs in their unconscious; they feel freer and more hopeful about their relationships. Instead of feeling trapped, they feel liberated.


To hear an interview with Sean Grover about the power of group therapy CLICK HERE.


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