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Are Your Boundaries Making You Miserable?

Healthy personal boundaries protect you, but unhealthy ones can imprison you.

Sure, you need boundaries. Healthy ones, that is. And undoubtedly, you have the right to insist on others’ respecting these boundaries—whether they’re to safeguard your privacy, honor, self-respect, or basic sense of decency. It's crucial to develop the ability and self-confidence to say no to others. Or, when you find their behavior offensive, to tell them to stop doing what they’re doing. Otherwise, failing to clarify your needs, you’re inadvertently giving them the message that it’s okay to disregard your standards, beliefs, and values.

But what also should be emphasized (and much too often is not) is that some of your boundaries—that is, unhealthy ones—may be holding you hostage.

Consider that the various boundaries you may impose on others—and on yourself as well—are all designed (however unconsciously) for self-protection. For the most part, they’re to keep others from taking advantage of you, or to hold them at whatever distance you deem necessary to feel safe. But what if your needs for safety (whether physical, mental, or emotional) are exaggerated? distorted? or self-sabotaging? In short, what if they’re dysfunctional? What if they undermine other needs, which you may be less aware of but which are actually more vital to your happiness or welfare? And here I’m referring to such universally held needs and desires as the full, non-constrained expression of self. Or—because we’re all social animals at heart—the need to share yourself intimately with others, and have them do the same with you.

What I want to stress here is that your boundaries may have less to do with maintaining your integrity or safeguarding your interests than with protecting yourself against felt intrusions that may be much more imagined than real.

If, for example, you felt crowded, or even “engulfed,” by a mother who didn’t give you enough space to be who you were—who trespassed on your privacy and meddled in your relationships—you may have developed a variety of defenses (and healthy defenses, at that) to discourage her from further invasions. Nonetheless, what if your strong resistances to counteract her prying behaviors became so iron-clad, so “second nature” to you, that you fell into the habit of pushing others away as well—caring individuals who simply wanted to get closer to you—and not at all in a smothering way? Which is to say that your negative, knee-jerk reaction to offers of intimacy might have been to perceive them as overly intimate, that you just couldn’t help experience genuine closeness as threatening your autonomy.

This is precisely what happens when powerfully influential experiences in childhood (not that they can’t happen as adults, too) compel you later in life to overreact to others—in circumstances that seem the same as those you had to endure earlier. Negatively sensitized to these earlier circumstances, you can’t help but interpret the present-day individual’s intentions as less benign than they actually are. So you’re forced to erect boundaries that prevent you from getting what you really want out of a relationship.

Can you, therefore, appreciate how you might inappropriately be applying the same boundary-protecting defenses to others that you created to protect yourself from being “swallowed up” by an overly involved caretaker? Plus, can you see how such self-protection might today run counter to both your interests and higher ideals?

Another example of self-defeating, misery-making personal boundaries might relate to having learned early in life that those you most depended on (again, typically your caretakers) were untrustworthy. They’d set up all kinds of expectations in you for things they’d then forget about, or deny ever telling you. So eventually you taught yourself not to rely on anything they said. That way you wouldn’t experience anywhere as much disappointment, frustration, or resentment when—almost predictably—they failed to deliver on what they’d promised earlier. For the less trust you placed in them the less of a letdown you’d experience when they didn’t follow through on their supposed intentions. But the question that needs to be asked here is whether, as is far too often the case, this “learned distrust” (cf. “learned helplessness”) is something you automatically came to extend to others—even to the most trustworthy individuals you knew.

In my therapy practice, I regularly work with clients whose elevated level of mistrust, at least in their adult experience, has very little rational basis. Their exaggerated disbelief in others, or their cynicism in general, has far less to do with others’ deceiving them as it does a certain wary reluctance—or even refusal— to even risk being deceived again. That is, their adult experiences with people, though mostly positive, haven’t served to alter their foundational childhood program of distrust.

Without reassessing the current-day appropriateness of their distrust, they’re compelled from deep within to overgeneralize their so-disillusioning “lesson” from childhood. So they can’t help but mistakenly view others as less honest, responsible—or trustworthy—than they really are. And the distancing (alienating?) boundaries they erect to avoid any further incidence of betrayal prevent them from getting core intimacy needs met.

In one sense at least, their boundaries may keep them safe. But keeping others at bay to safeguard against further disappointment can’t possibly allow them to experience the relational comfort, satisfaction, and even joy that can come only from the willingness to trust another and—vulnerably—let them into your most private “sanctuary.”


I could offer countless other examples demonstrating how easy it is to get stuck in a self-protective mode, and so establish interpersonal boundaries that end up imprisoning you. How maintaining such out-of-date boundaries can hinder your relationships from thriving as they might otherwise. But by now I believe my point should be clear enough.

So think about it. Might it be time to reevaluate some of the limits you’ve been putting on others, and probably on yourself as well (as in “self-boundaries” that preclude your opening up to, or confiding in, others)? Consider whether in your relationships there’s a lack of pleasure, satisfaction, or fulfillment. And if so, reflect on whether your mostly unconscious habits—originally contrived to help you feel safer with others—are also keeping you from achieving the closeness and contentment with them that (albeit secretly) you yearn for.

It may well be that in your (needless) efforts to protect yourself, you’ve unwittingly established barriers that are unhealthy. And so—alas—become your own worst enemy.

Note 1: If this post gave you any fresh insights about yourself, and you believe it might for others as well, kindly consider sending them its link.

Note 2: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—or a broad variety of subjects—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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