How To Re-Define Boundaries & Overcome Even The Messiest Childhood

The intimate dance of emotional boundaries begins in childhood, but bad boundaries don't have to be a life sentence.

Woman setting boundary by saying no  nicoletaionescu | Canva 

We spend a lot of time discussing how bad other people’s boundaries are, and their intrusions into our lives. But the truth is, our boundaries are our responsibility.

That doesn't mean boundaries are easy to set — or even simple to know where they should belong. For some, healthy boundaries come naturally, while for others, knowing where and how to set boundaries can be a real challenge.

As a therapist for more than thirty years, I've seen it proven time and again that how we operate in the world has everything to do with our childhoods and our relationship with our parents and siblings.


How our childhoods shape our boundaries

1. We believe our family's patterns are "just how it is" 

I call this experience with our families "the dance of intimacy". This dance sets up most of the interactions in our lives. 

We assume that parents love kids. Unfortunately, that is not always true. And often, what they see as love is simply control and abuse. And few parents are perfect. They have their wounds and often pass them on to their children.

The dance of intimacy that we learn from our family, we take into the world and believe that is just how the world works. It is how sexual abuse, violence, substance abuse, etc., are passed on from generation to generation. It takes commitment to change a family pattern. We download the family survival methods; from our perspective, it is just how the world is.


Examining, probing, questioning, and accepting what you uncover is the beginning of healing and solidifying your boundaries.

RELATED: How The First Relationships You Observed As A Child Shape Your Life As An Adult

2. We treat family culture almost as a religion 

In many cultures, I call it the religion of family. While there may be some external spiritual orientation, following the family rules and edicts is required to continue being a part of the family.


For example, you must love your family. What your family thinks of you is more important than what you think of yourself. You are required to do whatever is necessary to take care of your parents, siblings, etc. Your wants and needs are secondary. You must follow the family’s spiritual orientation. Otherwise, you are no longer a family member until you repent and acknowledge that the family is more important than you.

We usually take this mentality to our jobs. We project our family into the workplace. Our bosses are our parents, and our coworkers are our siblings. It is common to hear people talk about their work, mother, sister, brother, dad, etc. It has become normalized in our culture.

The family paradigm is pervasive and insidious if a person is unaware of what is happening and how it impacts them.

This process leaves people boundaryless and vulnerable to being controlled and manipulated. If you have unfinished business with family members, and most do, you may unconsciously attempt to work that out with others who cannot — and should not be expected to — help you resolve it.


We pay a high price for not knowing how these family paradigms are affecting us, and just acting out our issues in an inappropriate venue, like at work.

For example, most bosses don’t take care of you. They take care of the business, and you are a cog in the machine. But if you go to work and a boss reminds you of one of your parents, unconsciously, you will attempt to get what you did not get from your parents from your boss. The boss will likely not understand what you want from them, resulting in a complex relationship for both when it was never necessary or valuable.

We are attracted to friends and mates because of an unconscious similar dance of intimacy. We just click, and so many things go unsaid. When the dances of intimacy don’t match, the relationship usually fails, and often not well, because of the mismatch of intimacy expectations.

Becoming aware of the pattern and how it affects your relational choices is helpful in solidifying your boundaries. 


3. We get stuck in a 'regressed' perspective left over from childhood 

Too much of our focus is on what others do to us instead of how we react.

This is what we call a "regressed perspective" because it is based upon our past, not our current situations. We did not have the power to say no, then, so we just had to take what others said about us or did to us.

For example, if someone is bullying you it can be devastating in the long-term, but only if you submit to their beliefs about you and give your power away to them. Bullies are usually good at reading people and looking for their weak spots. They poke the button to get a response, dominate, and/or inflate themselves, but it only works if you take on how they see you to be who you are. It means you have no boundaries, and they are rolling over you.

Otherwise, the bully’s projection and attempt to own you will fall flat. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and phyical assault is to be taken seriously. 


The truth is, most people have not done a thorough investigation of themselves or their families. A big part of holding onto our power comes from knowing who we are and not just who we think we are. Illusions die hard and often require painful experiences to bring us through illusions and denial.

RELATED: Signs You Grew Up As The 'Lost Child' — And It's Affecting You Now

Here's what you can do about interpersonal boundaries

1. Know yourself!

Sadly, most people have done minimal introspection. It is often not a part of a family's dance of intimacy. Thinking for themselves can be seen as threatening to the power structure in a family. But it is essential to have your own life. There is a mythology that children owe their parents everything because the parents had sex and produced a child.

While a Buddhist perspective suggests that we pick our path and parents before birth, I assert that the parents owe the children everything. If the parents have been good and loving, successfully launching their children into the world, the children can choose to be there for their parents out of gratitude. There is no rule against it, but there is no requirement that they sacrifice themselves for their parents.


Being introspective means that you are aware of who and how you are. We are constantly changing, so staying attuned to our growth is necessary. This prevents others from defining us. It also allows us to take in validating reflections and consider reflections that are a surprise.

With this knowledge, anyone attempting to bully or own you will be met with an unexpected response. For example, someone calls you fat. If it is true, you can either feel bad about it and collapse or respond with something witty or shame them. It is the difference between "Thank you for sharing; I had no idea." Or, "What does it say about you that you would attempt to make someone feel bad about themselves?"

Both responses hold onto your power and prioritize your response over their attempt to abuse you. Bullies will learn to leave you alone.

Knowing who you are is invaluable when you go into a new relationship. They won't either if you don’t value who you are and what you offer.


2. Know what is you and what is not you

This is crucial when establishing boundaries. We do this at work all the time. This is my responsibility, and that is not. It also applies to feelings, energy, and thoughts. If you don’t know whose feelings, energy, or thoughts you are experiencing, then you can’t sort out what you want or need to do. Again, introspection is a vital part of this, but more importantly, it is an understanding of how feelings, thoughts, and energy are transmitted from one person to another.

This falls under the description of energetic boundaries. Understanding them, how they work, and how you can use them to differentiate between you and others will keep you safe and clear about who you are and what is yours and what is not yours.

Energetic Boundaries explain how we absorb other people's feelings and moods. It is possible to know what the other person is experiencing without absorption, which is facilitated by learning how to manage energetic boundaries. And this is how you keep what is them over there and what is you inside.

3. Use compassion and empathy

Popular culture tells us that to empathize or have compassion, we must merge with the other person to let them know we understand. However, this is rude and intrusive and does neither party any good. Instead, we can use energetic boundaries. In this way, you can know what the other person is experiencing and reflect on their experience (which is validating and healthier for all parties) rather than merge with them.


RELATED: 5 Ways To Heal Your Childhood Trauma (So You Don't Have To Suffer Any Longer)

4. Avoid burnout

Burnout is common, and while a brief vacation can make a difference, it does not solve the prevention problem. Burnout is caused by the oversaturation of other's feelings and energy and an almost total loss of boundaries. It is drowning in the energy around you, and there is no way to block or discharge it. Learning how energy works and adequately protecting yourself will result in more productivity, clearing thinking, and, most of all, leaving you energy for your life outside of work.

5. Say 'no'

While some people like to say no, we are acculturated to please people by giving them what they want. This starts in families that condition us and allow others to take advantage of the programming because they had the same dance of intimacy in their families. This is deeply programmed into our socialization, and most people have enormous guilt and shame about saying no. But NO is an essential boundary tied to self-care, productivity, and a happy life.


6. Emphasize self-care

All of the above is tied to a lack of self-care. Most articles and websites on boundaries endlessly talk about meditation, yoga, walks in the park, etc., all the classics. But for the most part, they are band-aids to make you feel better temporarily and send you back into the war with no defenses or useful tools.

Meditation is the one thing that can make a huge difference if used properly. But it requires an approach that directly addresses the problem of intrusive people taking advantage of you and filling you with their energy, which is not helpful to you. Mindfulness is an advanced meditation with other useful goals, but boundaries are not its goal. Other much more useful forms of mediation will leave you grounded, centered, AND boundaried to face your life successfully, leaving you whole at the end of the day.

Making the choice: A new dance of intimacy

You have a choice to make. You can continue being wiped out by Tuesday with the rest of the week ahead of you, or you can take a different path and discover more about yourself and how the world works. Your parents didn’t know this information (most likely). So, they could not share it with you, but you can share it with your kids and make their lives much more manageable.

You will stop giving yourself away, which is what we all need to do to make this a better world.


RELATED: How To Set Healthy Boundaries For Harmonious Relationships

Merle Yost, MA, LMFT is a full-time writer, speaker, and consultant. Retired from private practice psychotherapy after 30 years, he now lectures and consults to help people make sense of their lives. His course, The Unspoken Boundaries® Seven Steps to Powerful Boundaries, takes clients on a journey to explore all the parts related to boundaries that help them learn new ways to experience the world.