July 12, 2022

9 Signs of Poor Boundaries (And What to Do Instead)

Creating and maintaining healthy boundaries requires education, action, and persistence. Here to help you spot the signs of poor boundary-setting and provide actionable insight into creating effective and healthy boundaries is clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula.

Transcript featuring Dr. Ramani

Hi everyone. It’s Dr. Ramani. And today I’m going to walk through nine signs of poor boundaries that you need to know. Don’t forget to subscribe below and hit that bell. So you always know when we post more videos like this one.

Boundaries affect every way we go through life and it’s often something we were never taught to set. Right? In fact, in many ways, a lot of how we raise children in our world goes against setting boundaries. We tell kids that you have to go hug someone where may not be consensual or the child doesn’t want to hug that person. Or you have to follow rules that don’t necessarily make sense for all kids. We actually kind of teach children to kind of squelch that sense of boundaries. We’re also never taught how to set them. Many people when they set boundaries, they feel guilty. Like, oh, if I set this boundary, this person’s going to feel bad and then I feel bad I’m setting the boundary. So we don’t even feel like we have the right to and even if we can get past the idea that we do have the right to set boundaries, we’ll often feel bad if we set them.

But poor boundaries can really impact our lives in many ways, it can put us at risk for entering into toxic relationships. It can put people at risk for dangerous situations. It can also result in people sort of taking on more than they need to, taking on more caregiving responsibilities, more work responsibilities in a way that can really take a toll on both their physical and their mental health. And there was also psychological fallout from poor boundaries. When a person has poor boundaries, they will often blame themselves even for a very negative or even a problematic or traumatic interaction saying, well, it’s my fault I had poor boundaries. Which can not only results in self blame and shame, but a whole cascade of negative emotions associated with that.

So let’s talk about some signs. Let’s talk about the nine signs of poor boundaries, because I think if people have a sense of, I don’t even know what poor boundaries look like, we might be able to help people sort of navigate these waters.

1. You Can’t Make a Decision

Number one is that a person finds that they can’t make a decision. And the reason they can’t make a decision is often because they feel torn. They feel torn between sort of overextending themselves or doing what other people want and what they really want to do. So I guess the fantasy in that case is really that maybe someone else is going to step in and make this decision. But when you can’t make a decision, it’s also much more difficult to set that line in the sand and say, actually, I can’t come to the movies tonight I have a deadline or I won’t be able to stay for dessert because da, da, da, or I won’t be able to take on that extra piece of writing because I have to get the other report done first. So, that’s a decision, but if a person thinks I don’t know what’s going to happen if I make this decision or something bad’s going to happen, a person then may hold back on making decisions and then may repetitively have this issue around decision making.

2. People Pleasing

The second sort of sign of poor boundaries is somebody who is a people pleaser. Now people pleasing is a massive risk for all kinds of poor boundaries. And it’s how a lot of people paint themselves into a corner. People pleasing is exactly what it sounds like it’s giving in against what a person actually wants and doing what other people want, it’s denying one’s own self-interest it’s denying, one’s own wants, desires, you name it. So when a person is people pleasing, they’re literally just catering to what other people want.

When I have worked clinically with people pleasers one thing that I have really sort of focused on is that be aware of the dynamic, but also there’s sometimes some secondary gain from being a people pleaser, right? Because when you’re a people pleaser you’re the nice person and you get to maintain that identity of, oh, that person’s cool. They’re so nice. They just go along and it’s sort of like this weird kind of strangely manipulative dance. You people please, the people who are being pleaser saying aren’t they great, aren’t they wonderful. So they’re reinforcing something that’s actually harming the people pleaser and the people pleasers buy in, the people pleaser persons buy in, is that they get to walk through the world as the nice accommodating person.

So some of the work in therapy goes a lot deeper. It’s saying, why is it so important for you to be viewed as this person who always goes along, who always makes people’s lives easier. And it’s about sort of breaking down some of those schema, the identity around that, understanding the history around that. Because when we people please we set terrible boundaries, we will stay out later than we want. We will do more than we want. We’ll take on all kinds of additional roles and responsibilities that can really put us in a sort of an uncomfortable again, potentially toxic situation. Because we just keep trying to please that other person.

I think that when a person is a people pleaser and they found an audience of people who are willing to suck up all their people pleasing, that also gets to be, again, of sort of a toxic dance that the people who are being pleaser saying, well, this is great I don’t have to question it. Word to everyone out there who is being people pleased, you’re on the receiving end of it. It’s not our job to hold other people’s boundaries, but it is part of our role as human beings to be empathic and have compassion. So if we do sense that someone is really overextending themselves in our service to really say, okay, you need to please step back. You’ve been doing so much. It can be a very reciprocal and supportive dance that way, but ultimately it is on all of us to know that if we are people pleasers that really is going to negatively affect and erode boundaries.

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3. Overly Focused on Others to the Point of Exhaustion

Another sort of an extension sort of a third sign that people have poor boundaries is sort of an extension of the people pleasing stuff, but it’s people who become so overly focused on other people that they actually become exhausted and fatigued in their own life. So basically they’re taking care of everybody else’s stuff, needs, schedules, whatever. And they themselves are not taking care of themselves, they’re sort of completely depleting themselves. Now, this gets tricky in terms of a boundary issue because we have to look at even things like, for example, caregiving burdens and especially when people have young children. It’s hard to set a boundary and sort of roll up to your kid and say, well, I’m setting a boundary darling, and I’m not going to change your diaper, it doesn’t work that way.

What it does mean is that person who has the responsibility of very young children may need to set those boundaries, those caregiving boundaries in other areas. For example, they don’t need to feel the need to put a five course dinner on the table or they don’t need to do sort of extra things for other family members who could be doing them themselves or even in the workplace.

Before I move on to number four I want to let you know, I have a full MedCircle series on many mental health conditions that may lead to poor boundaries in relationships. These include hours of videos in which I explain the causes and the risks of these mental health conditions, the signs, the symptoms, how to get the right diagnosis and treatment and much, much more, please check it out at watch.MedCircle.com.

4. Behaving Strictly in the Service of Others

People who have poor boundaries often do exhaust themselves because they’re doing, doing, doing for so many other people. And once we even pop it out of the caregiving realm, just to sort of normalize an experience that many people have is that sense of a person thinking, well, I have to do because I’m climbing up the ladder. I’m trying to win someone over. I’m trying to win this boss over or get this opportunity, I want to show hustle. And then that person in their hustle may be doing and doing and doing and doing and the boss or the colleague, whoever it might be taking and taking and taking, and the boundaries are getting worse and worse mostly because the person thinks it’s a means to an end. But then ends up getting really exhausted, really depleted. And it can really, really take a toll on their lives. So it’s just about being aware of, somebody’s sort of completely exhausting themselves while they’re doing everything in the service of others. That’s sort another big sign of poor boundaries.

5. A Lost Sense of Self

Another sign that somebody has poor boundaries is that they have sort of lost their of self. When a person has poor boundaries, they often sort of really start not only absorbing roles in other people’s lives, but almost sort of start absorbing other people’s lives. Like you are other people’s bad days, become your bad days. Other people’s losses become your losses. And a person will say, I don’t even know who I am again. I feel like I exist only for my children or I exist only for my partner or only exists for this job. And they’ve lost them. Who are you? What do you stand for? People with poor boundaries tend to lose that sense of self because as their boundaries get encroached upon, there really are so living their lives not only in the service of others, but almost like again, absorbing their identities so that their own identity kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

This is a really sort of a dangerous precedent and you’ll see this again where I’ve often seen this repeated is in parents where they’ll say I became so about my kids and everything, my kids’ schedules, my kids’ needs, my kids’ meals, my kids’ rooms, my kids this, my kids that. Well, just in case none of you knew this, these kids actually do grow up and if you do it right, they grow up and they make their own lives. At that point, many people will say, I don’t even know who I am anymore. So there’s a risk in that. That may not even happen in child rearing though I think it happens in a very sort of intense way, it can happen in a relationship where a person is all about I’m going to be for them and I’m going to support their career, I’m going to take care of them that a person turns around one day and says, well, I certainly got them to where they needed to, but who am I?

Can happen in a job as well losing one sense of self in a job because the job becomes so all absorbing that a person doesn’t maintain their social connections, their hobbies, their interests, they become the job and subsequently lose their sense of self. So it’s a real sign that a person may not have very good boundaries because they’ve literally lost their sense of self to not being able to maintain these boundaries more carefully.

6. Oversharing

Another way we know that people may have poor boundaries is oversharing. Now this is such a tough one because I’m sure a lot of you’re thinking Dr. Ramani how much sharing is oversharing. It’s not an either or, sharing is almost like a process that should be done over time and is predicated on trust. So when a person overs shares, they may for example, share information with somebody where they have not sufficiently established trust and potentially shared something that they should not be sharing, could be inappropriate to share because it could be sharing the confidences of our secrets of another person. That could make themselves vulnerable. That they could be sharing information that could put them in a really disadvantageous place in terms of a job situation.

One of the reasons that has been suggested that people overshare is that they may feel sort of overwhelmed or dominated in a situation. And to them, the overshare might be a way to sort of establish an attachment need or a connection with the other person. And that idea of if I give, give, give, give, and we’ll also see this as a pattern in people actually who have histories of trauma and we know that boundaries are an issue for people with histories of trauma is to go in there and lay out too much, too quickly. I am the first one out there who is a big fan of emotional vulnerability and sharing, but the thing I’m a bigger fan of is being discerning and making sure we’re good gatekeepers for ourselves. If a relationship is trusting and it’s evolving over time and getting better, as time goes on, we might feel that, oh, I’m trusting this person more. I might be able to share this next thing with them. Heck even in therapy, I don’t expect people to come in on day one and boom, drop the cargo hold in the room. I’m fine with it if it happens, it is therapy, there’s confidentiality and protections in that space. But I also very much appreciate it. If people say, I need to learn you, I need to get to know you a little bit and that’s fine too.

But when it comes to our social relationships or workplace relationships or relationships that don’t have those protections of sort of built in boundaries through things like confidentiality and all of that oversharing is often a sign of poor boundaries because you’re going in there so quickly not only could it potentially make another person uncomfortable, but it also could be putting the oversharer in a position of tremendous vulnerability and might make it harder for them to stay safe in a given relationship situation. What we do know about people who overshare and then that oversharing comes back to bite them, they tend to blame themselves for another person’s misuse of the information. At the end of the day, if somebody harms you with the information you overshared, that responsibility is on the person who harmed you. But many, many people will find themselves blaming themselves and that oversharing is also a real sign of poor boundaries.

7. Feeling Resentful

Another sign of poor boundaries, maybe that a person is getting resentful and annoyed that they’re overextending themselves, but the other people aren’t. And that may very well be because those other people either, A, they may have better boundaries. But B, they may also be sort of advantaging the fact that another person doesn’t have good boundaries and they’re benefiting from that. But, again, when a person has poor boundaries, it can really sort of pump up a sense of resentment, a sense of frustration. And instead of stepping back and saying I’m not maintaining my boundaries. And so yes, of course I feel taken advantage of, that you could connect those two and that should be sort of a call to arms to really start setting those boundaries. But a person who feels that I keep getting sucked into things, I’m really frustrated. Why am I the only one who’s sort of having to do everything? And that relates to another sign of poor boundaries I’m going to talk about. That can really leave a person wondering like, oh, this feels very unfair.

But if you are feeling that in your relationships, that you sort of feel really annoyed and you’re not able to identify it, but you do feel sort of a sense of resentment and frustration, that could be a sign of poor boundaries. And especially when that’s not being reciprocated and it often isn’t. Like I said for those two reasons I gave, either other people do have better boundaries or they’re benefiting so much from your lack of boundaries that they’re thinking, well, why should I stick my neck out?

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8. Passive-Aggressiveness

And all of this relates to another sign of poor boundaries, which is passive-aggressiveness. It relates to that sense of resentment. Passive-aggressive people do not communicate directly about needs, wants disappointments and frustrations.

So, they may sort of do things like common, passive-aggressive technique would be to stonewall and not communicate. A person doing that might actually say I’m setting a boundary, I’m not responding to them, but that’s not going to be appropriate if something’s already underway. People are already in the process of making arrangements or it’s a workplace situation and then a person who has not had good boundaries gets frustrated and then the passive-aggressive play at that point might be, I’m not talking about something, I’m not doing this. But that’s not going to work if you’ve already agreed to do something. Other sorts of passive-aggressive kinds of plays might be barbs that are sort of like, well, it must be easy to live your life since you don’t have any responsibilities kind of thing. And that another person’s say, well, I do have responsibilities, I’m doing them and it’s not on me that you’re taking on so many more. But it doesn’t come out as a person in a healthy way saying this is hard for me because I’m carrying a lot more of this load, can we figure out a way to divide these tasks in a more equitable way and make it very direct?

The passive part of passive-aggressive is that a person is not dealing with a problem that’s on the table, is not communicating about it directly. And that makes sense, because people with poor boundaries communicating directly is a struggle for them asking for what they need or want or setting a line where they say, I can’t do more of this. That is direct. It’s not passive. The other person on the other side of the passive-aggressive communication feels almost sort of ganged up, why is this person coming at me? And as though that the person who didn’t set the boundaries is frustrated and may even be frustrated at themselves. So the passive-aggressive piece almost feels like a projection to the other person too.

So if you find yourself behaving in a passive-aggressive manner, it may very well be that you haven’t set good boundaries. And what’s interesting is that may not even be that you’re not setting good boundaries with the person in front of you. It could be, for example, a person who’s overextending themselves at work through poor boundaries is then passive-aggressive, for example, with family members or friends because they’re so frustrated about what’s happening there. They’ll say like, oh my gosh, well, thanks for starting drinks without me, passive-aggressive. And they may go on to say, am I the only one here who’s working? No, you’re not. Your friends have jobs too. But when it’s those kinds of communications that person’s frustrated about work, where they’re not setting boundaries. And then they’re coming and lashing out or sort of lashing passively at the people in their social purview, because maybe they don’t even feel like they can safely communicate about that in that other situation.

9. Afraid of Rejection and Abandonment

Another sign of poor boundaries is a person doing things and not setting boundaries because they’re afraid of being rejected and they’re afraid of abandonment. This is a very, very common pattern in people who have poor boundaries. They think if I don’t do this, then. Then these people aren’t going to show up anymore. Then this person is going to leave my life. And it’s a very destabilizing fear because what happens is the person will have poor boundaries, but in a way, those poor boundaries give them a sense of control, they can keep overextending themselves and potentially getting ahead of or avoiding this sort of fear, even if it’s an unlikely fear of being rejected or being abandoned. So they won’t have good boundaries and they’ll keep doing what is asked of them to avoid that. Now this can play out in lots of ways, it could play out sexually. A person sort of giving into sexual behaviors, practices and asks, that they don’t feel comfortable with really isn’t consensual, but they do it because they’re afraid of being abandoned by a partner.

Also watch: Attachment Theory: Understand the Psychology of Relationships

Or a person agreeing to do unpleasant tasks in a social situation, in a workplace, so they won’t be rejected. We’ve seen that in styles that for example, have been labeled dependent personality styles. Not a fan of the term, but it’s the sense of a person who feels that I won’t be able to function in the world alone if people leave me, so I’m going to agree to whatever they’re asking me to do or do things that I don’t want to do or eat foods I don’t want to eat or go places I don’t want to go because I don’t want to be left and then have to take care of myself, which I don’t feel like I can do. The fear of rejection and the fear of abandonment are profound fears and people really will mobilize themselves in many ways to avoid it, but having poor boundaries can be part of that. So if a person has those fears, I really struggle with being afraid of being rejected. I really struggle with a fear of abandonment. That becomes a wake up call to say, and is this manifesting and is this playing out in how I set boundaries?

Now, when we think about mental health and mental illness, poor boundaries play a role in a lot of presentations in mental health. We definitely see poor boundaries in a lot of, for example, personality disorders, which is a core interest of mind that I share on MedCircle all the time. We see it pretty much across the board in every form of personality disorder, not even just the antagonistic high conflict ones, but all of them. And some of it really reflects sort of the difficulties with intimacy and empathy that cut across all personality disorders. Either a person has absolutely extreme boundaries or they have sort of intrusively strange boundaries. Like we’d see for example in Schizo typo personality, where a person will come up to someone and do or say strange things to them.

We definitely see struggles with boundaries and poor boundaries in personality issues like borderline personality, which tracks because there’s a tremendous fear of abandonment. The entitlement, we see in a narcissistic personality could definitely be associated with poor boundaries. We see it psychopathy or antisocial personality where a person might have poor boundaries to the degree that they engage in boundary violations, for themselves or others to get what they need. We see it across more of the sort of anxious personality disorders of people with avoidant personalities often really have poor boundaries because they don’t feel socially skilled and often feel that they have to give in to what other people want. And we see it in what used to be called dependent personality, it’s again on the fence if they’re going to keep it, people feel like they have to give in and do things they don’t want to so they won’t be rejected.

We also need to remember that poor boundaries cut across other mental health issues too. Sometimes it’s a result of, for example, in a substance use disorder we might see it as a function of sort of intoxication or impairment or to be able to get drugs or alcohol. In an anxiety disorder, especially social anxiety, there may be poor boundaries because a person isn’t even clear how to set them because they’re so afraid of how they’re going to get scrutinized. In a person with a mood disorder there may be some poor boundaries around because of the apathy because of sort of feeling like, well, why is anyone going to want to spend time with me? And there are sort of behavioral theories of depression where the belief is that a lot of why a person is depressed is that they’re not getting enough behavioral reinforcement from the environment and may not know how to do that.

But I think we need to keep in mind one thing with poor boundaries, we often think of poor boundaries as the person having poor boundaries for themselves, agreeing to do too much, never saying no. But poor boundaries can manifest in another way, and that’s a person violating other people’s boundaries. And that’s where we see, for example in the high conflict personality styles, narcissism and anti-social personality being great examples, of a person sort of reaching in to where they shouldn’t, calling people at all hours, expecting things from people that are not realistic. Interrupting their lives, asking them to do more and more and more. Asking them inappropriate questions. That is a poor boundary where one person is violating another person’s boundary. And I think that’s an important part of the boundary conversation.

Thanks for watching. Don’t forget to check out my full series at watch.MedCircle.com.

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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