Boundaries and Codependency


8- Boundaries and Codependency


Codependents have difficulty recognizing where they end and where the other person begins. They tend to become totally enmeshed in the lives of those around us, taking responsibility over their affairs and problems. Codependents are addicted, not to a substance, but to a destructive pattern of relating to other people. Typically, these dysfunctional relationship patterns can be traced back to how they were treated as children, which they continue to model as adults. This article defines what boundaries and codependency are, and explains the defense mechanisms codependents use in putting up with abusive behavior, instead of setting healthy limits on their relationships.


  • What are boundaries
  • Types of boundaries
  • Difficulties in setting boundaries
  • Defense mechanisms vs. healthy boundaries


What are boundaries                                                                   

  • Boundaries are the physical, mental, and emotional dividing lines that set us apart from other people. Boundaries enable us to appropriately separate our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from those of others. Healthy people take responsibility for their emotions and actions. But codependents suffering from low self-esteem and lacking in awareness about their own identity are often unable to separate themselves from other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. The result is that we feel responsible for the emotional life of others and for their general wellbeing. Not realizing that we have choices and rights and being unable to set proper limits on behaviors we find unacceptable, we often experience disrespect or abuse in our relationships. The reason for this is that we don’t value ourselves enough to act in our own best interest. Our inability to express ourselves can usually be traced to being raised in addicted or dysfunctional families that were unable to treat us with care and dignity. We were ridiculed, punished, ignored or shut down every time we expressed our needs and wants and so carry the fear of rejection or abandonment in our relationships as adults. We were brought up to believe we are not worthy to have rights and so as adults are unable to assert what behaviors we find unacceptable and set healthy boundaries in our relationships. Having adopted the submissive and victim role in life, our relationships are bound to be rife in dysfunction, abuse and disrespect.
  • One thing to know about healthy boundaries is that no one is born with them. They are developed and taught to us by our parents. Unfortunately, many codependents emerge into adulthood with damaged, bruised, or non-existent boundaries. Some of us have no idea on how to set boundaries, others have very rigid boundaries, and some of us cant maintain the boundaries we set. Whether or not we are able to set healthy limits in our relationships depends greatly on whether we were taught them as children and the circumstances we were raised in. If our parents were not able to model healthy boundaries, if our rights as a child was violated or if we were forced into inappropriate roles in the family, the chances of being able to set boundaries in our relationships is very dim. If our parents failed to nurture us as children and did not set appropriate limits and discipline, then we are likely to suffer from weak boundaries. In addition if as a child we were emotionally or physically abused, then there is a high likelihood that we will have no awareness of how to protect ourselves by setting limits on behaviors that are unacceptable.
  • Research shows that abuse, humiliation, and shame cause a great deal of damage to a person, often leading him or her to fall victim to codependency. Also, inappropriate generational roles among family members, and inappropriate roles between one family and another, can damage our ability to create healthy boundaries in our relationships. Codependents often assume the role of caretakers. They begin to believe that other people’s thoughts, feelings, and problems are their responsibility. They have an unclear sense of who they are and may experience difficulty discerning the difference between their feelings and someone else’s feelings, problems and responsibilities. They engage in caretaking and take responsibility for others because they are unable to recognize where they end and another person begins. This is called lack of internal boundaries, which results in us experiencing what other people are feeling. In other words, if a significant person in our life is worried or depressed, we feel their feelings and become worried or depressed too. Lack of having internal boundaries is rife in families living with addiction. At times it is the family members who are more worried and scarred rather than the addict who should be concerned for the consequences of his or her addiction. This is because as codependents we cannot separate ourselves emotionally or in other words do not know how to set an internal boundary so as not to get enmeshed in our loved ones lives. When an addicted family member gets arrested for stealing, we feel the shame and behave as if it is our problem. We try all sorts of caretaking ways to “help” them out of their pain and problems, because we think the problem belongs to us. When a codependent engages in caretaking behavior, unconsciously it is themselves they are trying to help. This is because they lack internal boundaries and are unable to see their lives as separate from another. Caretaking behavior for us codependents is our unconscious way of denying our own feelings and emotions. When we put all our focus and energy on rescuing others from their problems, we have the means to escape from and deny our own pain and problems. Unfortunately, what tends to happen after years of caretaking behavior is our own problems pile up and our lives become unmanageable. Even though we may believe we are good and caring people, often the motive for our caretaking behaviors is to avoid the realities of our own lives. In addition we tend to help others out of their problems with the underlying motive for it to be reciprocated. When the help we want is not giving back to us in equal measure, we become indignant and resentful. There comes a time when we realize all our martyrdom has gone unnoticed or unappreciated and we find ourselves furious for not taking care of or own needs and desires in life. That’s the time most of us start our journey into recovery from codependency. It is when we desire to have healthy boundaries in our relationships and are willing to go to any length to achieve it.
  • We all are involved in relationships with other people, and these people may sometimes act in ways we deem objectionable to our integrity and sense of ourselves. Healthy people react appropriately, feeling hurt or angry or sad or disappointed, depending on the situation. They then let the other person know what they are thinking and how they are feeling and they are specific and direct in setting a limit on the objectionable behavior. Codependents on the other hand do not know much about boundaries nor know how to set them. Being raised in addicted or dysfunctional families, we are most familiar with chaotic environments where there were no rules or limits on unacceptable behaviors. As a result, we are not aware we have the right to speak our mind and convey directly what behavior we find acceptable. When we set boundaries, we are communicating with another person, without using blame or any emotional defense mechanisms. We are telling them who we are and what we need. We are learning to love and protect ourselves, and to let others know that we have worth. Some boundaries are rigid – and they need to be. For example, it is not OK for someone to verbally, physically or mentally abuses you. These are rigid boundaries that must be maintained and enforced so as to help you protect yourself. On the other hand, some boundaries can be negotiated. The point is to agree upon limits or variations on behaviors that are suitable for both parties. For example, you may want to set a boundary and wish your son to be home no later than 9 p.m., whereas he prefers 11 p.m. You may want to negotiate on this point to come to an agreement that works for both of you. In cases where a boundary is negotiable, what is required are love, respect and compromise, a situation in which both parties feel heard and respected.
  • The first thing to do in setting a boundary is to establish what you want, and also what you find objectionable about a particular behavior. Some codependents may find this alone difficult. Having been raised in environments where their needs were routinely denied or rejected, the idea of finding out what their needs and wants may be foreign. Yet doing so is the key to recovery from codependency and healthy relationships. Once you have established your needs and wants, then an assessment is required to determine what you have power over and what your limitations are. For example, you may want your addicted son to stop using drugs, but in view of the fact that you have no power to stop someone’s addiction, it is no use setting a boundary that insists he stop using drugs. You may as well demand that someone put a stop to their diabetes. On the hand, you do have power over the ways you may inadvertently be contributing to his addiction, such as by giving him money or shielding him from the consequences of his behavior. For any given boundary, it is important to have a healthy and realistic view of the behaviors you want to set a limit on. The boundary should be something you can reasonably implement and one that has a good chance of having the intended result.
  • Lacking experience and knowledge of boundary setting, codependents often mistake the process for unkind or uncaring behavior and shy from it for fear of displeasing others or provoking their anger. But setting boundaries is a healthy practice that enables growth and happiness in relationships. It helps protect you and your rights as a worthy human being, while conveying to those in your life who you are and what your expectations are. This is the basis of an honest relationship, something that not only helps your recovery from codependency, but also benefits everyone involved.



Types of boundaries

Many people suffering from codependency may be unaware of the concept of boundaries. They fail to realize that they have a right to set appropriate limits and conditions on how other people behave toward them. Below is a description of the various types of boundaries, so as to raise your awareness about the ways you can take care of yourself.


Types of Boundaries and codependency


1. Personal Boundaries

  • Personal boundaries are physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated. They allow us to define whom we are, how we think and feel; they give us permission to have differences of opinions and feelings from the thoughts and feelings of others. They also enable us to tell other people when they are acting in ways that are not OK. Healthy boundaries begin with the recognition that we have not only the right, but also the duty, to take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us.
  • Personal boundaries are limits and conditions we establish regarding what we deem acceptable behavior from those around us. These boundaries spell out how we expect to be treated and guard us from being abused or disrespected. A person with healthy self-esteem and a healthy self-respect will establish boundaries that indicate to others how he or she would like to be treated. This in turn helps them steer clear from unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships.


2. Emotional boundaries

  • Healthy emotional boundaries separate and distinguish our emotions and responsibilities from those of others. A boundary draws an imaginary line separating your feelings from the feelings of those around you. The result is you avoid taking on other people’s feelings for them, or make yourself responsible for their emotional state. Because they have difficulty setting emotional boundaries, and are often in denial or ignorance regarding how they truly feel, codependents are unable to establish an emotional life separate from others. A person with healthy emotional boundaries does not find it necessary to give unsolicited advice, try to make someone else feel better, try to fix or rescue others from their problem, or blame others for the state of their life. The quality of a healthy person’s life is relatively unaffected by how others feel. As mature adults, they are aware of their powerlessness over others and know what and whom they are responsible for, namely themselves only.
  • A codependent person, lacking emotional boundaries, is under the illusion he or she has the power to make someone feel differently. But the codependent’s efforts are really a form of covert controlling. Though the codependent will deny it, rescuing others from their problems fundamentally boils down to controlling behavior under the guise of being good and caring.


3. Mental boundaries

  • Mental boundaries refer to the ability to define and stay true to your thoughts, values and opinions. Healthy mental boundaries enable us to think our own thoughts and form our own opinions, and with that the ability to reject thoughts and opinions that we do not agree with. But codependents, raised in families where they were ridiculed or disregarded, lack confidence in their own thoughts and opinions. They may make a decision but be unable to stick to it or to trust it. Upon hearing another’s suggestion, the codependent will doubt themselves and so change their original plan. The codependent lacks the mental boundary to keep in perspective the opinion of someone else, while keeping true to their own thoughts and judgments. The codependent can also go to the opposite extreme, becoming highly emotional, argumentative, or defensive when someone offers a contrary view. Not being able to separate their own thoughts and opinions from others, they become defensive, imaging other people are trying to force an opinion on them.


4. Material boundaries

  • Material boundaries determine what belongs to you, and what you wish to do with your money and belongings. Codependents in general will do anything to please and thus control others, all with the aim of feeling safe and good about themselves. This extends to what they do with their material possessions and their money. Because they tend to lack awareness of their self worth and identity, they may use their material belongings to manipulate those around them. They may bestow gifts on others when it’s uncalled for with the sole aim of winning their favor or affection.
  • Because their lives are so enmeshed with others, codependents may recklessly lend out money. Ask a codependent to lend you something, and they will give you much more than asked. They tend to have little awareness of what belongs to them, which is the result of low self-esteem that makes the codependent feel unworthy of owning material possessions.


5. Physical boundaries

  • Physical boundaries refer to your personal space, privacy, and body. These boundaries relate to what, where, when, and with whom you would like to get close to. For example when a person stands too close to you or touches you in a manner that feels uncomfortable, they have violated your physical boundary. Codependents have difficulty setting physical boundaries because they were either abused as children or lack self esteem. For instance, someone may touch them inappropriately, and they recognize that they are uncomfortable, but they do not value themselves enough to voice it. Or they may not voice any objection out of fear of making the offender angry.


6. Spiritual boundaries

  • Spiritual boundaries define our beliefs about God and our place in the scheme of life. Having healthy spiritual boundaries enables us to define our personal relationship with God. If we practice implementing a spiritual boundary, then even when others try to impose their beliefs on us, we feel free to define and explore our life purpose, gifts and talents to then decide what suits us best.



Difficulties in setting boundaries

Boundaries are not something we are born with; we learn them as we grow up. But if raised in a dysfunctional or addicted family where there were few rules or limits on unacceptable behavior, it is likely we would not be aware of our right to set healthy limits in our relationships.

Below are some common reasons codependents find it difficult to set boundaries in relationships.


  • We were never taught how to set healthy boundaries
  • We suffer from low self-esteem and low self-worth
  • We do not consider ourselves worthy to be recognized
  • We believe we do not deserve to be treated equally
  • We do not know our needs and wants
  • We do not believe we have a right to assert our needs and wants
  • We believe other people’s needs and wants are more important than our own
  • We don’t know how to say no
  • We believe we are helpless in the face of other’s demands
  • We do not know we have a choice to protest unacceptable behavior
  • We believe we will be rejected, ridiculed or abandoned
  • We believe we may anger and displease others
  • We believe we will appear arrogant or selfish
  • We take on other people’s responsibilities and enmesh our lives in theirs
  • We believe it is against our culture and upbringing to ask for respect



Defense mechanisms vs. healthy boundaries

Many of codependents unconsciously use emotional defense mechanisms to put up with acceptable behaviors instead of asserting their right to set healthy limits on unacceptable behavior. Not being aware of what boundaries are or how to set them, we use mechanisms that are detrimental to our worth and integrity.


Defencs Mechanisms vs. Healthy boundaries in codependency


Below are some of the more common emotional defense mechanisms employed by codependents that serve to promote dysfunctional relationships.


1. Blaming

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable, we blame that person for unrelated problems and unhappiness in our life. For example, instead of directly asking your son to not use drugs in your home, you don’t mention anything about his drug use, yet blame him for making you miserable and creating havoc in your life.


2. Judging

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable, we judge and take the other person’s inventory, omitting our own part in it.  For example, instead of calmly letting your husband know that you expect him to share in the responsibilities of the household, you accuse him of weakness and incompetence. Meanwhile, you fail to recognize that you have contributed to the situation by jumping in to take care of the very tasks that he is responsible for.


3. Rationalization

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable, we rationalize disrespectful behavior, believing that somehow we deserve to be treated less than. For example, instead of asking your boss to treat you with respect at the workplace, you tell yourself this is how all boss’ behave and or you deserve it, as your performance has not been ideal.


4. Anger

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable, we say nothing, put on a friendly face, yet seethe inside with anger. If we do summon the courage and verbalize the unacceptable behavior, we torture ourselves with guilt and shame for mentioning it. We fear we have done something we shouldn’t have, something that will upset someone. Then we feel guilty and anxious, imaging we have done something wrong.


5. Denial

Most of the time as codependents we are not even aware we have a right to say no to an objectionable behavior. We allow others to walk all over us. Though deep inside we know something is wrong, we are in denial that our rights have been violated. What we learned in childhood is that we should never expect anything but disrespectful treatment, that such poor treatment is the norm.


6. Repression

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable, we pretend the abuse is acceptable and repress our true feelings. For example, instead of feeling the pain and anger of being abused by our husband, instead of taking actions to stop it, we repress our feelings about it and pretend there is nothing wrong- that his behavior is normal for a man. Studies have shown that most women stay in violent relationships because as codependents suffering low self-esteem, they lack the resources to take action to protect themselves.


7. Reaction formation

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable, we ally with another person and bad mouth and complain about their maltreatment of us. For example, instead of setting a boundary on our brother’s disrespectful behavior, we pick up the phone to our mother and complain whilst staying friendly to our brother.


8. Displacement

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable and setting a boundary with the person who has offended us, we set hard limits with people who are blameless. For example, instead of setting a boundary on our wife’s unacceptable behavior, we target our children and punish them. Such misdirected boundary setting is called targeting substitute instead of original source. We do this when setting a boundary with the original source is too frightening.


9. Regression

Instead of simply stating what behavior we find unacceptable, we go into a childlike state in which we either act as victims or throw tantrums. For example, instead of demanding that our husband not verbally abuse us, we cry and ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” Or “have I not been a good and loving wife to be treated like this.”


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