Reneau Peurifoy
From Overcoming Anxiety: From Short-Term Fixes to Long-Term Recovery

When applied to human relationships, a boundary refers to the limits we place on relationships. As we grow and develop, we learn to set limits on how much of ourselves we disclose to others, to what extent we allow others to influence us, what we will do, and what we will allow others to do to us. These limits can be thought of as our personal boundaries.

The person with weak boundaries is like a piece of property with little or no fencing. Anyone can walk in and out with little resistance taking or leaving whatever they want. The person with rigid boundaries is like a piece of property with high, thick walls and no gates. Nothing gets in, and nothing gets out. In contrast, a person with healthy boundaries is like a piece of property with a strong wall and a gate that can be easily opened or closed by the owner depending upon who is approaching and what the approaching person wants. The gate is opened to receive people who have proven themselves trustworthy and whose requests seem reasonable. Similarly it is closed when people approaching are hurtful or are making inappropriate requests.

In order to have healthy boundaries you need to be able to:

  • recognize when your boundaries are being ignored by others;
  • identify what you can do to establish healthy boundaries in a given situation; and
  • use assertive skills to enforce your boundaries.

The concept of boundaries takes us back to one of the central themes of this book: that anxiety is a messenger. Unfortunately, when they have been ignored for years, messages about boundary violations are difficult to recognize. Mary presents a good example of this.

After several months of therapy, Mary’s symptoms had reduced considerably and she was able to do more and more of the things that had been difficult for her when she first came to me. She was moving from the level of basic symptom control to a high level of advanced symptom control. Since much of the work at this stage is in the area of systematic desensitization and applying the skills presented in the previous chapters to everyday situations, we were now meeting only every three weeks. During one session Mary came in and reported that after doing well for several weeks, her symptoms had begun to increase and she was finding it difficult to practice. I asked her if anything unusual had happened, and she reported that everything in her life was just as it had been before.

Things often seem to be going well for a client when, all of a sudden, symptoms seem to escalate for no apparent reason. Closer examination usually reveals a logical explanation. In order to understand the increase in Mary’s symptoms, I asked her to give me a detailed account of daily events starting just before her symptoms began to increase. In describing the previous week, she mentioned in passing, “My mother’s birthday is in two weeks, and my brother called to arrange a family get-together.”

Because Mary had described so much pain associated with her family, this simple statement became a giant red flag. Indeed, as we began to discuss this upcoming get-together, Mary realized that she was very anxious about it. It had been some time since she had seen her family all together. Furthermore, she began to recall how abusively she was treated at family gatherings. As the cause of the increase in Mary’s anxiety became clear, she became puzzled as to why she had missed it.

As a child, Mary viewed her parents’ inappropriate behavior as normal. Since there was nothing she could do to stop her family’s abusive treatment, she learned to become numb to it. Ignoring the rejection and emotional pain associated with her mother also allowed Mary to obtain the small amount of positive attention that her mother was able to give her. Ignoring was also the way in which both Mary’s father and mother dealt with difficult emotional issues. Thus, the rule “don’t look, don’t feel, run away” can be seen as something that Mary learned not only due to necessity, but by example.

Mary’s perception of her family’s abusive behavior as normal, and her ability to bury the hurt associated with her family, had become so automatic that she had immediately pushed out of consciousness the fact that the upcoming time with her mother would be painful. However, the pain she connected with her mother and the deep-seated belief that Mary would be helpless to protect herself from her family were realities that, on an unconscious level, could not be ignored. The result was an increase in her anxiety symptoms as her fight-or-flight response was triggered.

Because Mary had learned to become numb to her family’s abusive behavior and had carried this defense mechanism into adulthood, she was unable to hear the message being conveyed by her anxiety: she needed to decide what she was going to do about the upcoming family event. Did she want to participate in an event that would be painful? If she decided to attend, she needed to develop a plan for coping with the hurtful behavior of her family—a plan for enforcing her personal boundaries.

If you have important issues from childhood that you learned to ignore or label as normal, you probably have times when your symptoms seem to increase for no apparent reason. When this occurs, take a moment to see if there are any significant family-related events or commemorative dates, such as birthdays or anniversaries, coming up. If so, it may be that the upcoming event or date has triggered anxiety related to family issues.

Another common experience is “holiday anxiety.” Many people who come from dysfunctional families find that their symptoms increase around Thanksgiving, decrease a little, then increase again as Christmas approaches. Their symptoms then remain at a high level until after New Year’s Day. The cause for this is simple. The increased tension of the holiday season often makes parents with limited coping skills become more abusive during the holidays. A critical parent, for example, becomes more critical, while a physically abusive parent becomes more out of control.

When holiday decorations and music are associated with pain during a person’s childhood, they tend to trigger the re-experiencing of childhood anxieties when that person is an adult. This phenomenon is so common I often tell clients who are experiencing holiday anxiety, “You’ll probably feel much better around January 15th.” As they begin to feel better after the holidays, many are amazed at my “predictive” ability. However, a quick review of the causes of holiday anxiety makes this prediction less remarkable. What is amazing is how blind we can be to key issues.

What Are Boundaries in Human Relationships?