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Boundary Anxiety and Fear Is Real

Why setting a boundary, especially in a new relationship, may cause anxiety.

Key points

  • A certain type of personality does not respond well to a boundary and he or she may inflict emotional pain in response.
  • Inflicting guilt, unfairly attacking and playing the victim are dysfunctional responses which manipulate the person setting the boundary.
  • A person's attachment relationship may exasperate a person's "boundary anxiety" because a parent violated emotional boundaries.

Setting boundaries in a new relationship is important, yet it may cause fierce anxiety. A person often fears she will be rejected or punished in response. And the fear is real. A certain type of personality does not respond well to limits in a relationship. Understanding three dynamics and their contribution to “boundary anxiety” may help a person gain insight and remain strong.

First, a person intuitively recognizes the individual may not react well. A specific type of personality tends to punish a person for issuing a boundary. This type of character often throws a fit, inflicts guilt, unfairly attacks and accuses, or plays the victim to shame the person into relenting. Incurring this emotional blast is awful and often causes a person immense distress.

For example, Ron’s partner, Pete, has knee surgery. Wanting to help, Ron takes care of Pete’s laundry and household chores. One evening, weeks after Pete’s surgery, Ron heads to his house for pizza and a movie. As the night progresses, Pete continually laments about the amount of laundry and cleaning he needs to finish. Pete cheerfully offers to help, assuming they will do the chores together as a team.

As Ron gets to work in the bathroom, he notices Pete playing video games on the couch. As he is leaving, Pete hands him a basket of dirty laundry and says, “Thanks for the help!” Ron is frustrated but wishes to avoid a fight. The following day, he drops off Pete’s laundry and explains to Pete that it is the last time.

Pete escalates and accuses Ron of being cruel. He says he is in tremendous pain and that he is shocked and disappointed that Ron won’t help him. Ron feels intense guilt. He apologizes. Pete refuses to talk to Ron for several days because he claims he is hurt. Ron feels terrible, so he relinquishes his boundary and diligently completes Ron’s chores every Saturday, wishing to remain in Pete’s good graces.

In this scenario, Pete pulls out all the stops when Ron establishes a boundary. He induces guilt, shifts the blame, and acts like he has been victimized to manipulate Ron into rescinding the limit. Also, Ron is now anxious about setting boundaries with Pete, which provides Pete with control in the relationship.

A second dynamic involves a problematic personality reacting passive-aggressively to a boundary. The egocentric individual is angered because the boundary prevents them from manipulating the situation, so they attempt to regain control by alienating the person from mutual friends and family. They talk negatively behind the person’s back, aligning others against her.

For example, Paul and Lisa get in a fight. A resolution is not identified, and Lisa feels the discussion is cyclic and unproductive. After several hours, she suggests they agree to disagree and move on. Paul is angry he didn’t get his way. Three days later, Lisa receives a call from her father. He reprimands Lisa for her stance in the argument with Paul. Lisa is upset.

Paul went behind her back, reached out to her father, and “told on her.” He did not respect Lisa’s boundary of ending a discussion that wasn’t healthy, nor did he appreciate that things did not go his way. In response, he acts passive-aggressively and manipulates the situation. He aligns Lisa's father with him and against Lisa.

After several experiences like this, it is natural for a person to worry about setting boundaries in any relationship. They may intuitively anticipate the fall out which is frequently painful and unfair. Yet, an extreme and negative response to a boundary is evidence that the individual may be emotionally manipulative. In this case, the emotional abuse may continue, so “getting it over with” by creating limits in the relationship may be the best option. Otherwise, a person may prolong the inevitable and is exploited in the meantime.

Third, a person may experience extreme anxiety setting a boundary because they had an attachment figure who punished and shamed her for voicing a feeling the parent did not like. For example, say a child admits she is fearful about attending summer camp the following day. In place of attempting to understand the child’s feelings to support, empathize, and reassure, the parent says, “Do not say that. Other kids would do anything to go to this camp. Show some gratitude.”

Alternatively, an emotionally healthy response that respects a child’s feelings may be, “I get it. It is hard to be away from home. I miss you too. It’s not easy, but you are tough, and you love this camp and your camp friends. What can I do to help? Should I send you a funny text after dinner every night?” Letting the child know that her feelings are normal assists the child in feeling understood, close to the parent who “gets it,” and less alone in the predicament, which is usually comforting and empowering.

A parent who lacks empathy and continually shames a child for feeling different than the parent violates an emotional boundary. The parent indirectly but succinctly communicates to the child that their feelings are wrong unless they match the parent. Often, the young person continually second-guesses her feelings. She devalues her own emotions and prioritizes her parent’s perspective to avoid being shamed. This often transcends to her future relationships. This type of attachment figure also tends to inflict guilt and play the victim to sustain control of the child.

Understanding the attachment roots of “boundary anxiety” and why it occurs may help a person see through manipulations and protect herself from exploitation in a relationship. Noting how a partner responds to a limit in the relationship may also provide important data about their emotional health. Lastly, the ability to consciously prepare for the possibility of an unfair attack after establishing a boundary may help a person buckle down and stick with it.


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