Codependency: Setting Healthy Boundaries

I deal with many co-dependent people on a daily basis and one factor that is extremely common is the inability to set healthy boundaries.

Codependent people experience emotional abuse in relationships because they are basically not able to form firm boundaries and allow others to take down those that they have. They are not usually assertive enough and dare not express feelings due to fear of rejection and disapproval. Most of them are enmeshed in some way that stops them seeing that they have their own identity and psychological space that needs protecting.

Not having healthy boundaries means that codependents have an unclear sense of “who” they are and have difficulty defining the difference between theirs and other’s feelings, problems and responsibility. Due to these blurred boundary lines, codependents take responsibility for others, absorb other’s feelings and have no sense that boundaries draw the line between “you and me”. They often mistake sacrifice and codependency for love and that having no boundaries is “healthy and normal” when in a relationship.

The reasons for this are many and too numerous to mention here but research shows that mostly developmental trauma but also abuse, shame, humiliation, inappropriate intergenerational roles have a major impact on the development of codependency and subsequently on boundary formation. When parents fail to or are unable to demonstrate or model healthy boundaries, it is no surprise that children come into adulthood with the same issues and have difficulty forming a sense of “self”.

Often even codependents who see the need for boundaries fear what will happen to the relationships around them, thinking that people will reject the “new” assertive person. What can happen is that people who are not used to having boundaries put around them will maybe fall away. At the same time, other maybe discarded relationships may revive themselves in a healthier way.

Hints for Setting Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries exist to give us a sense of ourselves and to distinguish us from others physically, intellectually and emotionally and are there for our protection. They are flexible, not fixed and can change with how we feel and who we are with but they are our boundaries. They define how people should treat us and are linked to our definite choices and values. They are a measure of our self-esteem and individuality. The easiest way to think about a boundary is a property line. We have all seen “No Trespassing” signs, which send a clear message that if you violate that boundary, there will be a consequence. Look at the list below for more help.

When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, get angry, or apologise for the boundary you are setting.

You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful manner. If it upset them, know it is their problem. Some people, especially those accustomed to controlling, abusing, or manipulating you, might test you. Plan on it, expect it, but remain firm. Remember, your behaviour must match the boundaries you are setting. You cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologising.

At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway and tell yourself you have a right to self-care. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety or low self-esteem prevent you from taking care of yourself.

When you feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively.

Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. Set them in your own time frame, not when someone else tells you.

Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic persons from your life—those who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you.

One thought

  1. Your articles give me food for thought, and though I have never been co-dependent, nor dependent I have had a lifetime of people thinking I was a repository for their crap. I was married twice. I am an “adult”. I was taught to think for myself, support myself, respect others, have good manners, help others …
    Through the years I have realized my parents forgot to tell me that other people’s parents were telling them to take, use, get what they wanted, look after #1, only family (their own) matters …
    I have found that my mother was completely wrong telling me to NEVER “lower yourself to other people’s level”. There comes a day where you realize that those people who have “lower” values have lower values because that’s the BEST they can do. If you really cannot extricate yourself in any other way you have to devolve to ‘quid pro quo’.
    Significant conversation with first husband went something like:
    Me: You aren’t at all like the person I married 4 years ago.
    Him: Don’t be stupid C. Everyone pretends to be someone their not. You can’t keep that up after you’re married! (That may be verbatim.)
    Me: No R. Some people really ARE who they are. Try it next time. You might find the right person for you.
    Significant points to note with second husband:
    He really DID need to be told he was “not allowed” to do, say, whatever and he found no reason to listen until literally YELLED at.
    eg. You are not allowed to talk about how you hate the Chinese any more. You had one experience of a silly woman who woke you as she had no comprehension of time zones. (Constant insulting of the Chinese stopped. Worthy of note is that he still hates the Chinese and he married one.)
    eg. After 7 1/2 years of marriage and repeatedly asking him to stay out of the bathroom when I was in there, daily, I finally yelled at him:
    Me: Stay OUT of the bathroom when I am using the toilet … etc.
    My small girl cat leapt across a side space throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me on my face repeatedly. She was so distressed that I had raised my voice.
    Him: You don’t need to yell at me.
    Me: Yes, obviously I do!

    I have two ex-husbands. They both loved the idea that I am independent and that I had no intention of changing my surname. First husband came home one day to tell me that we should have one surname, that would make it easier. I told him I had no problem with that, he was welcome to use my name and have all his ID changed to reflect that.
    Second husband did the same, he became accustomed to people who knew my surname addressig him as Mr. R.

    Both husbands were abusive after marriage. Both saw that once married people outside the relationship, socially, professionals, etc. would not only be supportive of them, as the males, but would start problems that didn’t exist. The old “battle of the sexes” that so many people no longer voice in that phrase, but live in word and deed.

    It’s difficult for women to gain enough life experience to deal with the many men who behave like this because while we were being taught to be respectful of others, help those in need, mind your manners … They were being taught from another instruction book.

    It’s not surprising that post-menopause women want as little as possible to do with men.

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