Having healthy personal boundaries allows us to get close to other people in relationships whilst staying protected from emotionally hurtful or manipulative behavior. However, people who have experienced emotional trauma may have unknowingly constructed impenetrable walls in place of healthy personal boundaries. Emotional walls make close intimate relationships very difficult and create a distance which makes relationships weak and unable to 'get off the ground'. Learning how to set and work with personal boundaries is vital to experiencing healthy relationships.
My growing-up experience was common in our society. I learned to put up walls as the only way to keep others from taking too much from me too often. The implication is that I can’t trust you, so I have to protect myself from you. The downside is, walls keep everyone out all the time. The price I paid for walls was way too steep. I experienced only a limited connection with others. With walls up, I was never fully “seen” for who I was, nor could I deeply know my loved ones. - Do You Know The Difference Between Boundaries And Walls?, Judy Widener, SelfGrowth.com
What Are Emotional Walls?
If you struggle with healthy boundaries it is very likely that your caregivers had loose or non-existent boundaries. Boundaries help define our separateness from others, some families suffer from enmeshment where there is no consideration to individuals autonomy and family members are held overly accountable for each other's thoughts and feeling. Caregivers may also have been abusive, emotionally immature, neglectful, critical or distant. This means the child's emotional needs are not being met on a regular basis, and some children coped by deciding it was safer not to have needs from others. All these factors can lead to unresolved childhood trauma which can create an underlying core belief that people can't be trusted, will take from you, are unreliable and that you are not worthy of love. Not knowing how to constructively say no to another person's requests, communicate your needs and communicate behavior that you won't accept, can lead to avoidance. This is when emotional walls start forming which is a type of emotional unavailability. The strategy is 'I'm not going to let others close enough to me that they will ever be able to hurt me again'.
So you keep building these walls. You keep people at arm’s length. You become emotionally unavailable when you like someone. You’d rather let that person go instead of letting them in because it’s safer this way. This is how you protect your heart. This is you how you don’t get hurt. This is how you treat anyone you meet like they’re temporary because you don’t remember the last time you actually fell in love or found a relationship worth fighting for. You stopped trying. You stopped fighting. You stopped giving chances as you built your walls higher brick by brick.
These walls tell you not to make the first move. They tell you to curb your excitement. They tell you to take your time responding to them. They tell you that you should always have the upper hand. They tell you that they’re not genuine. They tell you people will eventually leave you. They tell that you’re better off alone. They tell you that you need a lot of more proof and actions before you trust someone. They tell you that people should ‘earn’ your love before you decide to give them your heart. They tell you not to feel. They tell you not to believe. - The Sad Truth About Why People Build Emotional Walls, Rania Naim, Thought Catalog
Having walls means that you only want to show partners small parts of your life. You may struggle to show or express affection. Will limit time spent with partners, minimize the importance of relationships in your life and use self-sabotaging behavior.
Here are some behaviors that can signal boundary problems in a romantic relationship:
- Saying “yes” to your partner, when in fact you’d rather say “no” – this is usually done to please the other person or to avoid conflict
- Saying “no” when it might be perfectly appropriate to say “yes” – this is often done to keep a partner at arm’s length, or punish him or her. Good boundaries require honesty. Neither of these behaviors are honest ways to communicate.
- Making your partner read your mind instead of saying specifically what you’re thinking or feeling
- Trying to control your partner’s thoughts or behavior through aggressive or subtle manipulation - The Importance of Boundaries in Romantic Relationships, Gary Gilles, Mentalhelp.net
Moving To Healthy Boundaries
Discover your needs and values - The first stage of setting healthy boundaries is discovering your emotional needs and values in relationships. Sometimes it's easiest to think about the behavior you will not accept first. Write these down in a list, for example, infidelity, abuse, controlling behavior may be the obvious ones in romantic relationships. For each behavior consider also if it is more a wall to connection than a boundary, for example, a rule that your partner cannot talk to any members of the opposite sex would be an impossible wall and indicates an unresolved issue on your part. Now consider what you like in relationships which will help you discover what is important to you and makes you feel loved. These are emotional needs, which can vary largely from person to person.
Communicate your boundaries at an early stage -Tell your partner or prospective partner your emotional needs and behaviors you will not except and explain that these are your boundaries. Encourage them to tell you theirs. It is important that if they cross a boundary you address this as soon as it happens and explain what will happen if they keep crossing your boundary. Try to use 'I' statements wherever possible explaining how you feel when the behavior happens instead of phrases like 'You should do this' which will is likely to put them on the defensive.
If they’ve overstepped a boundary, mention this. “Say that you want them to respect the boundary, and explain the importance of this to you.”She shared this example: “I need you to know that I love you and have every intention of us working through whatever issues come up. But I am not OK with you being verbally abusive when you get angry. If you want to talk about how it upset you that I ran into my old girlfriend, we can do that, but only if you don’t attack me.” - Why Healthy Relationships Always Have Boundaries & How to Set Boundaries in Yours, Margaret Tartakovsky, Psych Central
Get comfortable with saying no - If you had no healthy example of adults setting boundaries in childhood than it is likely that you witnessed some co-dependent behavior, excessive arguing or the other extreme where everything is swept under the rug. This may result in a fear of saying 'no' as a way to avoid conflict or subconsciously trying to control the other person's emotions. Which helps reinforce walls as a way to stop people ever asking anything from you for fear that you will not have the ability to say no. Saying no is when it is reasonable to in the context of a non-urgent request, situation or event. Perhaps you like to have one afternoon a week to catch up on some reading or relax on your own but your partner wants to watch a movie together. Give yourself permission to say that you need this time a week alone to recharge your batteries and look after your well being. Learning this one skill will also help you not to be overstretched or taken advantage of in professional or other types of relationships.
When you find yourself having difficulty saying “no” to others, doing things out of feelings of guilt or obligation, attempting to please others even at the expense of what's best for you, or not expressing your thoughts and feelings when someone upsets you, you are putting yourself last and putting others first—which doesn't serve any of the parties involved.
If we say “yes” to others asking of our time and energy and we’ve not filled ourselves up first, we are giving from a place of lack—which is a fear-based choice that sours the energy in a relationship and doesn’t serve either party. It also breeds codependency and prompts us to attract people and situations that drain us because we aren’t honoring our own needs and boundaries.
Many times, this way of being can create anger or resentment in the person who is putting her or his own needs behind others’. This might manifest as complaining, feeling taken advantage of, or feeling powerless. These feelings are messages to us that we've chosen to perceive ourselves as the victim of a circumstance rather than stepping up and making choices for ourselves based on love.
The truth is, we're never a victim of our circumstances. We can choose how we would like to perceive something in any given situation—we can choose to perceive fear or we can choose love. And when we act from a place of love, rather than a place of fear, we experience a radical shift that transforms our struggles and breaks old patterns that are no longer serving us. - How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Every Relationship, Jennifer Krass, Greatlist
Judy Widener, Do You Know The Difference Between Boundaries And Wall, SelfGrowth.com- http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/do-you-know-the-difference-between-boundaries-and-walls
Rania Naim, The Sad Truth About Why People Build Emotional Walls, Thought Catalog - https://thoughtcatalog.com/rania-naim/2017/10/the-sad-truth-about-why-people-build-emotional-walls/
Gary Gilles, The Importance of Boundaries in Romantic Relationships, Gary Gilles, Mentalhelp.net - https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/the-importance-of-boundaries-in-romantic-relationships/
Margaret Tartakovsky, Why Healthy Relationships Always Have Boundaries & How to Set Boundaries in Yours, Psych Central - https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-healthy-relationships-always-have-boundaries-how-to-set-boundaries-in-yours/
Jennifer Krass, How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Every Relationship, Greatlist - https://greatist.com/happiness/how-to-set-boundaries-in-relationship