People often come to therapy with a certain kind of debilitating anxiety:
The need to please and an overly-developed sense of responsibility for the feelings of others.
At best, this anxiety manifests as a sense of panic when others convey disapproval, an over-extending of one’s self with PTA and other random obligations, and waves of fear and inadequacy when given constructive criticism by a boss. At worst, it manifests as a caretaker-role in a codependent and potentially abusive relationship, and/or agoraphobia (complete avoidance of other people).
More often than not, this phenomenon exists as a result of an unfortunate mix of nature and nurture. Nature provides a genetic “sensitivity” to negative emotions (primed neural pathways to the amygdala), and nurture often provides something that looks like this:
An anxious parent who has not yet mastered the art of distress-tolerance, who makes the child responsible for maintaining their comfort.
This is called a “diffuse boundary” between parent and child, and pretty much means that the parent creates an environment where the child is expected to feel and perceive the world as the parent feels and perceives it (because this dynamic offers relational comfort and situational safety for the parent).
A parent with diffuse boundaries tells her kid all about her problems, whether the child is developmentally able to emotionally-manage those topics or not. Often this parent considers her child as her “best” or even “only” friend or confidant.
A parent with diffuse boundaries often projects her own feelings (especially the icky ones: fear, anger, and shame) on her child.
A parent with diffuse boundaries often uses guilt as a behavioral-manipulation tool, sometimes unknowingly. The silent treatment, the “look what YOU made ME do” mentally, and overt “pouting” are not uncommon.
A parent with diffuse boundaries, LOVES her child when the child feels and behaves similarly to the parent, but can QUICKLY become cold and rejecting if the child has a differing feeling, opinion, desired behavior, or perspective.
A parent with diffuse boundaries uses her child as a tool for her own comfort as opposed to regarding the child as an individual with individual needs.
A parent with diffuse boundaries takes everything the child feels of does personally, instead of seeing that the child is a separate person. She often makes the child feel rejected or punished when the child feels or behaves outside of the parent’s expected protocol.
A diffuse parent-child boundary prohibits the child’s development of an identity (thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and needs) that is not tethered to another person. Absent is the message of “you are okay, whether I am comfortable with how you feel and what you do or not.” And when a parent imparts the expectation of catering-to and overlapping-identities, (a parent being a child’s sole sourse of survival, in actual reality), the people-pleasing becomes a strongly-held survival mechanism in the child.
To establish one’s identity by acknowledging one’s own feelings, setting limits according to one’s own needs, and owning one’s own perspectives unapologetically, not only feels foreign: It feels frightening, rife with abandonment-potential, and completely intolerable.
Just something to think about, from the therapist who says never underestimate the value of allowing a child to pick out his own ugly clothes, obsess about One Direction, and argue annoyingly with rules, because that stuff solidifies a healthy boundary and a message of “I don’t need everyone’s agreement or approval to be okay.”
P.S. oh wait- you wanna know how a parent can repair a diffuse boundary with her child? Start by working on strengthening your adult relationships (friendships, spouse, etc.) and healing any existing attachment injuries from the past (addressing your own fears of abandonment and inadequacy; learning how to execute boundaries behaviorally; radically accepting the relational limitations of others -your own parents or spouse- without personalizing; and learning to use plain old distress-tolerance during spikes in emotional discomfort…..in therapy!!), so that these unmet emotional needs are not met through your children.