Boundaries and Borderline Personality Disorder – a heavy topic, indeed. When people have healthy boundaries, meaning they are aware of where they end and the other person begins, they usually know the right amount of information to disclose to another person based on the relationship (a stranger at the grocery store, an acquaintance at yoga class, a friend of many years, lover or spouse, co-worker or boss, etc.) and when to stop before it’s TMI (too much information). They also set limits when others violate their boundaries by over-disclosing to the point that they are uncomfortable, or when someone violates their personal space.
For many years I struggled with boundaries in a couple of ways that I learned many other people with BPD also struggle. One was the over-disclosure. I would often tell someone my life story in the very first meeting. All the gory details of my childhood abuse, etc. I didn’t know why at the time, but in retrospect, I’ve been able to conclude that I did so because I felt flawed and broken. I was and am very sensitive. I wanted to be liked and loved. I was terrified of rejection. Because I had been rejected and abandoned in the past, I wanted to put all my cards on the table, right off the bat, so if this new person didn’t like me/want me/care for me, they could just make their decision right then and there and move on. I didn’t need to go and get attached and then go through the pain of them leaving me later.
The problem with this “reasoning,” of course, is that emotionally dumping on someone – whether it’s upon first meeting them or when you’ve had a miserable day – unfortunately usually serves to do the very thing we fear: alienate us and push people away. Healthy people can sense that something is “off” when a person doesn’t have a clear sense of what’s appropriate to share and when. Now that I have done extensive work to build my sense of boundaries (and in the process, self-respect), I observe with compassionate understanding when others over-disclose to me. I remember being there. I think about the GOAL of the over-disclosure. While I can’t read minds, and motivations can be different from person to person, I try to remember that part of me – a very vulnerable part – was desperately trying to connect and be accepted. I just didn’t know how to do so appropriately, so my behavior was counterproductive.
I do feel uncomfortable when others have a hard time respecting boundaries, whether it be through major over-disclosure or through violating my personal space, for example, touching me or getting too close in physical proximity if I don’t know them, or if we haven’t developed our relationship to the point where we both feel at ease with such things. This leads me to the other way that some people with BPD have issues with boundaries. In the past, people would violate my personal space and touch me, and even if I felt extremely uncomfortable or even unsafe, it was very difficult for me to put a stop to it. My need to be loved and not rejected/abandoned was so strong that I even allowed people who I didn’t like or who made me feel uneasy into my personal space. I had a hard time setting any type of limit or boundary. I just wanted them to like me, even at the cost of sometimes feeling violated.
Over years of reflection, I realized what might be obvious to some. Many of us with BPD also have experienced trauma. Some of us experienced abuse and neglect. We didn’t have very good models for boundaries. We didn’t learn how to protect our hearts and bodies by setting limits and by learning how much to share or to receive from another person. For others of us, our boundaries were very badly violated, as in the case of sexual abuse. How can someone be expected to have healthy boundaries if they grew up with theirs being violated and if they had few or no healthy role models in this area?
The good news is, even as an adult, and as difficult as an undertaking as it might be, if you want to improve your relationships (to yourself and with others), have a better chance of succeeding and advancing in the workplace or at school and in romantic relationships, you can learn skills that can help you learn, develop, and practice healthy boundaries. You can learn how to manage the thoughts and emotions that come up when you feel compelled to take that emotional dump so that you can make a more skillful choice, keep your self-respect intact, and give the relationship a fighting chance. You can learn how to stand in your power and no longer allow others to invade your mental or physical space, and you can do so from a place of kindness and compassion.
For me, this process happened through learning DBT Skills. I know it’s possible, because I had no real sense of boundaries, and now I feel quite confident in terms of setting them and respecting them. If it was possible for me, I have hope for you, too.
Do you struggle with boundaries? Have you gotten any better at them? How have boundary issues affected your relationships and other aspects of your life?
Thanks for reading.
I believe that understanding and practicing healthy boundaries are such important parts of building a life worth living. Part of my process and story is that I have gone through much pain, largely in part to having BPD, but I managed to overcome the disorder and no longer meet the criteria for the diagnosis. YES, this is possible. I now help people like us from around the world to have hope and to learn the skills that I learned. You can learn more on my Online DBT Skills Course at www.emotionallysensitive.com