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Overcoming the Challenges of Setting Boundaries After Experiencing Childhood Emotional Neglect

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Boundaries keep us safe, and they promote our self-worth. When children grow up in an environment where their needs are acknowledged and met, and their caregivers provide a climate of safety and security, they have a better chance of learning and subsequently developing healthy boundaries. However, those who have experienced repeated Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) will have grown up without a sense of emotional safety, security, and validation of emotions, and an understanding of the importance of boundaries. When children are exposed to repeated CEN, the process of having basic emotional needs ignored by caregivers can send the message that they are less important than others, and it induces a sense of low self-worth and shame for having feelings and needs. Discarding your own feelings becomes an inchoate coping mechanism that aids survival in an environment where your feelings are not validated. When you have cut yourself off from your feelings over many years, your ‘internal warning system’ won’t be optimal. You may have a vaguely visceral sensation that something doesn’t sit right, but that feeling isn’t trusted as you have learned to minimise it. So, your boundaries aren’t explicitly known to you, and this can lay the ground for more toxic dynamics in your life.

Getting re-acquainted with feelings again can take time. The challenges arise because we are enmeshed in well-established patterns in family or friendship dynamics. The interactions that occur in these patterns may involve minimization, control, manipulation, disrespect, being talked over, or toxic judgment, to mention just a few manifestations. Becoming aware of your own feelings in response to interactions involves creating a new habit that takes time to become automatic. This also involves thinking about what action needs to be taken. Self-advocation will involve disrupting some problematic relationships in your life that you have formerly humoured and tolerated.

Hope for Relationship Repair?

You may feel uneasy raising your feelings around toxic relational patterns with your family or friends, so this will need some consideration/preparation. If your family or friends are generally well-intending, they are more likely to be receptive to what you have to say. There is hope for repair in the relationship if your friend or family member not only apologizes for their actions but demonstrates a commitment to change. A lip-service apology just for the purpose of moving past an argument and wiping the slate clean isn't progressive. The purpose of repair is to reset the balance so that each of you has equal power in the dynamic, not to return to a dynamic that existed before you expressed your voice. You need to hear a) what their apology is for, b) what they've learned from reflecting on their actions, and c) how they will do things differently moving forwards.

However, if your parents or friends are toxic and mean-spirited, then there is a chance that you could become the target of this behaviour if you challenge them. If their response is negative, it isn’t your fault. You have every right to raise any concerns about the dynamic between you. Just be prepared that their response may not be positive.

If you are considering challenging a parent with no emotional maturity, then the parent may be unable to receive what you say and do the necessary reparative work. In Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (Gibson, 2015), it is outlined how these parents get overwhelmed by any authentic and meaningful connection, and they don't have the capacity to meet their child's emotional needs, nor take accountability for falling short of this. This leads to emotional loneliness in the child, a wound that is carried through to adulthood. In instances of narcissistic parenting, the parent may see you as an extension of themselves, and fail to recognize elements of your life that demonstrate independence from them, so in this process of enmeshment, boundaries between you and them are paper-thin.

The key element of this is, if the relationship fails to survive any sense of self-advocacy / boundary-setting, then this poses a warning. If a relationship is dependent on being self-sacrificial, then how will this relationship nourish you?

Boundary recognition/management: tips

  1. For immediate situations, pay attention to your feelings. If something in your interaction with another doesn't feel right, whether that be a request or an expression of disrespect, pay attention to that feeling, this is important information. Listen to what the feeling tells you. What would need to happen to settle that feeling? Let that be the guide for how you proceed. This may be saying 'No' to what the person is asking of you, or assertively telling them that what they said is disrespectful. It may be as simple as leaving the conversation, removing yourself from that interaction.

  2. Develop a working framework of what you need and want from healthy relations with others. How do the relationships that you currently have measure up to this?

  3. Reflect on the dynamics that you have. Do those in your life target you on purpose? Are they too self-involved to notice the negative impact that they have on you? Or are they generally well-intending, but lack insight into emotions? This will help you to ascertain what boundaries you need to build.

  4. Communicate: This can either be an explicit conversation about how they are making you feel. If this doesn’t feel like an option, then there are other ways of protecting your boundaries. You may feel like you need to make yourself less vulnerable by limiting what you share with them. This will make it less disappointing when they continue to fall short of meeting your emotional needs. You may want to keep the contact on your own terms: It may be helpful for you to say “no” to their invitations to chat, so you may decrease the frequency of phone calls, and keep them short. You may also want to see them in neutral settings or on your own turf. Whatever you decide, it’s important to remember that your prime responsibility is to meet your own needs, and there should be no guilt or shame in executing those needs.

  5. Talk about this in therapy. There may be many feelings from your childhood that haven't had the chance to be voiced with no judgment. Talking these through with a counsellor can help you to gain some clarity on how your history has informed the issues that you have currently, and it can help you on the road to self-compassion and self-advocacy.


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