Boundaries: Why Some People Can’t See Them

I was talking to my dad this week and he was describing his father to me, who he invariably speaks of with great admiration. My dad said that my grandfather was a kind, patient, and respectful man who treated others with courtesy, while still maintaining expectations of how he should be treated in return. As a single parent after the death of my grandmother from the early 1940’s in war-torn East London, through to the late 1950’s when my father became an adult, my grandfather took on the roles of both provider and caregiver of the family. They were never wealthy, but they worked hard and maintained their integrity in the community.

The way my father describes his father is the picture of parenting with just the right balance between kindness and autonomy, mixed with rules and consequences for breaking them. This type of parenting is known as Authoritative and is considered to be the only style of parenting which produces a secure attachment style in relationships throughout the life of a child into their adulthood.

The reason why this style of parenting works best for mental health and social adjustment is because it teaches boundaries as a fundamental principle of navigating interpersonal relationships. There are clearly delineated lines between the self and other people.

Within the framework of those boundaries is a space of autonomy and freedom which is treated with respect.

The old saying; “good fences make good neighbours” is an example of how it functions. By showing a child where a fence exists, and letting them know what the consequences are for wilfully crossing that line, but otherwise allowing them to be their own person and make their own choices, a parent provides a sense of security to the child as well as teaching them how to negotiate relationships.

Outside of this sweet-spot of parenting are the extremes which are either too controlling or too permissive. These produce insecure attachment styles and a lifetime of dysfunctional relationships unless the person seeks help to re-learn how they form attachments with other people.

Theory of Attachment

If a parent is too constricting to the child and doesn’t allow any personal autonomy, the child will grow up resigned to the idea that they should expect to be controlled by others. If a parent doesn’t provide any boundaries, or perhaps is too soft on the consequences for breaching those boundaries, the child will grow up to become an adult who tramples over the people around them.

The combination of these two insecure attachments is co-dependency.

These are the people who have no idea that boundaries exist or have trouble seeing them and reading social cues as to when they might be infringing on someone.

How oblivious are they really? Why are they unable to spot those boundaries?

Attachment v’s Identity

The insecure attachment style is only one half of the puzzle in this picture. The other half is the person’s identity.

Psychology considers personality to be fully formed and quite stable from the age of seven, however in the teen years kids often regress from a phase of reasonable empathy into a second round of egocentrism featuring two specific cognitive distortions known as the personal fable and the imaginary audience.

The imaginary audience is when a teenager believes that everyone is hyper-focused on them, noticing all the little things that they notice about themselves, and judging them as harshly as they judge themselves, or (conversely) admiring them as much as they admire themselves. Of course, the reality is that nobody is paying them very much attention at all, so eventually a healthy teen has that epiphany and starts to get on their lives without obsessing about what other people think of them. An unhealthy mental state in the teenage years will result in this notion of being the centre of attention continuing throughout their life and impacting on their self-esteem by either artificially inflating it, or easily knocking it down.

The personal fable is an extension of the imaginary audience when the teen believes that they are special and unique enough to warrant the epic saga of their life to be retold through countless generations. This cognitive distortion can lead to all sorts of reckless behaviour if they think they’re invincible or that the rules and statistical probability don’t apply to them. It can also translate into extremes of mood and emotion, from elation to despair. Most teenagers go through this phase, but most grow out of it as their prefrontal cortex finishes developing. If it persists into adulthood, it might be a symptom of bipolar or a personality disorder. For some individuals, they simply are never confronted with contrary feedback from someone who cares enough to correct this perception and tell them that it’s ok to be ordinary.

This stage of psychosocial development is described in Erikson’s theory as Identity v’s Role Confusion because it is the final stage of personality formation before the adult years and also the time of life when someone tries on different identities to find one that fits them. Think of all the different cliques you see in a high school with all their various rigid categories of music, clothing and hobbies, then you’ll have some idea of how it works. Of course, identity can still morph over time throughout adulthood, but it doesn’t change substantially so as to render the person unrecognisable. If identity is so unformed that it is subject to major shifts, that is a sign of role confusion and it means the person doesn’t really know what their values are, their direction through life, or how to stick with something and become productive. They’ll be shallow, fickle, and unstable in their sense of self.

This unstable sense of identity leads to a few coping mechanisms, outlined below:

Subsuming other people’s stories and identities into themselves as though it happened to them, and character traits of another person belong to them. This can show up in someone being overly invested in someone else’s decisions or reacting to stories they hear in an exaggerated way and then repeating them to other people when it isn’t appropriate to share. It can also resemble something like fanfiction (which is why teenagers do it so much) where someone identifies with a fictitious character and creates elaborate fantasies about being that person and living that person’s life or being in a relationship with them.

Trying to control other people’s behaviour and choices. Because they have invested heavily in other people’s stories and personalities instead of developing their own, the boundary between who they are and who other people are is permanently blurred so they see nothing wrong with interfering with other people’s lives. If you have become involved with someone like this, they will start to make decisions on your behalf and speak on your behalf because they don’t understand that you are not them. In conversation you will hear a lot of “should do this” “should do that” statements and they will constantly give you unsolicited advice very loudly and very forcefully, often ignoring your social cues telling them politely to butt out. They may even begin to feel entitled to your time, money and attention which is why you’ll get text messages demanding to know why you haven’t responded yet or they will begin to appropriate your stuff without asking. They don’t feel the need to reciprocate because that would be like reciprocating with themselves, which isn’t necessary. Your money is their money, just like their money is their money. Your time is their time, just like their time is their time. See?

The grandiose entitlement is not conscious. It’s just who they are.

Often, they see their behaviour as a form of benevolence to you. They’re doing you a big favour by making decision you asked them not to make or meddling in your life. This is the role they have taken on as a consequence of not having their own direction in life; they’re going to live yours for you. People need occupations and purpose of their own, but if they don’t know who they are or what they want, then they need to adopt your purpose and your occupation and your hobbies.

In terms of attachment style, they may have been raised by an overly permissive parent who wasn’t very good at saying “no” to them or enforcing boundaries. So, boundaries are often interpreted as meanness on your part because you’re denying them their right to you and everything you have. This isn’t because they’re malicious necessarily, it’s simply because it is equivalent to denying them their own bodily autonomy.

We can see examples of this in the bible:

And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.

1st Timothy 5:13 (NKJV)

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labour and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us.

For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread.

But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good. And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

2nd Thessalonians 3:6-15 (NKJV)

In psychology and counselling training it is very important for a therapist to never impose their opinions onto a client because the therapist is not the one who has to live with the decisions afterwards. It can also create a form of dependency where the client has to go back to the therapist in order to know what they should do next, since the wisdom and understanding has not been developed within themselves.

Likewise, people who appoint themselves the position of decision-maker in your life are not the ones who experience the consequences you experience from those decisions. This is why they often don’t understand why you’re complaining about the choices they made on your behalf without consulting you.

So What Can You Do?

According to Operant Conditioning the motivation to persist in certain behaviours depends to some extent on positive feedback, or rewards, and the extinction of certain behaviours can be achieved by negative feedback or consequences. According to 2nd Thessalonians 3:6 & 3:14-15, a healthy dose of social shame is necessary to provide that feedback before the person learns that their behaviour is not socially acceptable.

Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to learn something is through fully experiencing the negative consequences, which is why attachment style is so important. An authoritative parent provides consequences within the context of reasonable boundaries so that their child can navigate social situations in the future. They allow their child to make small mistakes without trying to smooth the path for them because they understand that small mistakes early on are better than big mistakes much later. The permissive parent prevents their child from experiencing consequences, which is why some of them have become known as snowplough parents, clearing the path through life so their child never encounters difficulty.

It is a massive disservice to their kids, which is often done out of a mistaken definition of love.

Resilience is a muscle which only develops through encountering difficulties and then figuring out how to overcome them or learning from pain and making sure not to repeat something which led to negative consequences. How can someone learn to problem-solve if they never have problems to solve?

Unfortunately, sometimes you have to be the one to provide adversity for someone else to learn from. In the long-run you can hope they become more socially competent and build resilience, which is why 2nd Thessalonians advises to admonish them like family.

The family they should have had to begin with.

References:

Berk, L.E. (2018). Development through the lifespan / Laura E. Berk. (Seventh edition.). Pearson.

Corey, M. S., & Corey, G. (1998). Values and the helping relationship. In Becoming a helper (3rd ed., pp. 153–173). Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole. ISBN: 0534347940

Cory, G. (2016). The counselor: person and professional. In Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (Tenth edition, pp. 17–36). Boston: Cengage Learning. ISBN: 9781305855953

Geldard, D., Geldard, K., & Foo, R. Y. (2017). Influence of the counsellor’s values. In Basic personal counselling: a training manual for counsellors (8th ed., pp. 19–26). South Melbourne, Victoria: Cengage Learning. ISBN: 9780170364362, EISBN: 9780170278607

Goldstein, E. B., (2017). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (5th ed .)

Unless otherwise noted, scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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