By: Christine Louis de Canonville
Excerpt from book: When Shame Begets Shame
Victimisation of a child’s boundaries:
Boundary problems can be seen in all kinds of relationships with others; however, it is most likely that boundary conflict occurs in the early years of life when the child is learning to separate and individuate. It can be a difficult time for everybody, especially as the child is learning how to build their character on the appropriate use of the word “No”.
During this phase, the parent’s patience will be tested, however, it is crucial that the child is allowed to experiment and practice their disagreeable behaviour without having the love withdrawn from them. The child needs the connection to the caregiver to remain constant while they push the boundary out further, and that is very important. It is alright to be angry with the child as you correct their difficult behaviour, appropriate expression of anger teaches them what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour about cultural social norms. This protects the child from being disliked by others in the community.
However, to detach from the child sends out a totally different message: “You are only lovable to me when you behave a certain way”. The feeling of abandonment can be so painful that the child may over accentuate their compliant, loving, sensitive nature, and grow to fear and mistrust their more assertive parts. They will even hide their anger for fear of further rejection because fundamentally, every child needs to be loved and to belong to feel safe.
My attachment bond to both my parents was very healthy, they always made me feel very loved and safe. However, what was not so safe was my affectional bond to Gerard, and this attachment bond played havoc on my sense of boundaries.
As Gerard was four years older than I, we were, for the best part good companions. The attachment bond I had with him made me feel a sense of security a lot of the time. In a way, he provided the outlet for my sense of being needed, and when things were good, he provided me with a sense of worth and competence. In his absence, I missed him and felt lonely. I thought of him as my best friend, and the affectionate bond, despite the difficulties, was indeed long-enduring (approximately 40 years). He left home when he was seventeen, I was thirteen years old at the time, and I can remember feeling the inexplicable pain of separation, and then the joy when once again I was in his company.
But because of the secure base my parents provided me with, I could be confident and engage with other friends. I think, from a very early age I provided Gerard with some relief from the rejection and abandonment he was experiencing in the brutal school he attended. Even back then I was playing a protective caregiving role, and he could confide in me in the knowledge that I would keep confidentiality. I think the “big brother” caretaking role that he adopted with me also helped him feel more secure, more in control and less helpless. Indeed, he did provide me with comfort and care when things were good with him, and that was the Gerard I loved to be with.
It is understandable that the reader would wonder why I would not set limits. The answer is simple really, to set a limit with Gerard was to risk upsetting him, throwing him into a rage, and then losing the relationship. This rejection happened enough times early in our childhood, often leaving me feeling isolated and alone until he was ready to forgive me once again for some misdemeanour or other. I needed the connection with him to feel secure around him. Of course, this left me a prisoner to his wishes, I became his little puppet, where he, as Puppet Master pulled the strings.
In this primary trauma-bonded relationship that lacked good foundations, how could I ever hope to build healthy boundaries? I found my boundaries being violated in many areas for a great many years of my life. Boundaries affect every part of us by defining what is me and what is not me.
For example, our physical boundaries define our sexual and body space. Our mental boundaries define our freedom to express our thoughts and opinions. Our emotional boundaries define our freedom to feel our own emotions. Our material boundaries determine who we share our belongings with. Our spiritual boundaries relate to our beliefs, values, potential, aspirations, dreams, goals, etc. Our first boundary is our body, yet many children who are physically or sexually abused have their bodies violated. A second boundary is our words, and the most boundary-setting word we have is being able to say “no” to the demands of others. Time and space boundaries allow us to get a breakaway when we are feeling overwhelmed and unsafe. However, it is important to remember that it is hard to protect one’s boundaries as a child when you do not understand that you are being manipulated and violated, and especially when you are given little scope to make mistakes and learn from them.
Growing up in an environment of narcissistic abuse is very traumatic and confusing for any child. The narcissist projects their needy and vulnerable self onto their co-narcissist victim, coercing them to take responsibility for surrendering to their needs. Whenever there is any confusion regarding responsibility and ownership it is always a problem of boundaries. However, the co-narcissist child soon learns that failing to conform will be met with bitter disapproval, and not feeling safe enough to say “no” whenever the need becomes terrifying. Rather than developing an “I-self”, the co-narcissistic victim develops a “we-self”, where everything revolves around the other.
Fearing to say “no” to a narcissist because you are afraid of the consequences of their anger fosters a pattern of obedience and compliance. That affects boundary development, not just in early life, but throughout one’s entire life as the co-narcissist melts to the demands and needs of others and becoming cemented in a “pleasing stance”. Of course, boundaries are not meant to be walls that are fixed, they are more like fences, that are flexible to be moved whenever necessary. But when in a relationship with a pathological narcissist, it is not easy to maintain or move one’s boundaries, unless you are willing to accept the consequences.
A big part of the recovery work with the co-narcissistic victim is for them to learn how to define the boundaries between self and other. From their earliest beginnings, trying to contend with the restraints and servitude of the pathological narcissists “gaslighting behaviour” would have been a continual source of struggle for the victim. This struggle would, without doubt, have contributed to their life-long boundary dilemma.
Defining the Boundaries Spectrum (from poor to healthy):
When we talk about boundaries, we are talking about both the physical (our body and material possessions), and psychological (those that deﬁne us as separate and individuated from others). It is this demarcation of self that deﬁne where “I” begin and “others” end. Boundary strength, according to Nina Browne (2006), can range on a spectrum from poor to healthy (i.e. soft, spongy, rigid, and flexible).
For example, when our boundaries are soft, we have poor boundary strength. We feel so much for people that we find it difficult to say “no” to their demands, thus leaving ourselves open to be taken advantage of. When we have spongy boundaries, we have little control over what we let in or keep out, therefore become overwhelmed by other’s emotions. We are likely to have difficulty holding our ground even when we know we are being manipulated.
When we have rigid boundaries, it is likely that we have experienced physical, emotional or psychological abuse. We are so walled off that others cannot get close to us. We find it difficult to trust people or feel safe and use our rigidness to protect us.
When we have Flexible boundaries, we can decide what to let in or keep out. We make our own choices regarding what we will do or will not do, and we can stick to that decision, not allowing ourselves to be manipulated into doing something else. Therefore, we are harder to exploit and manipulate, and our shame and guilt are harder to trigger. We can both give and receive support and treat others with respect. It is especially important to have clear strong boundaries when you are dealing with a narcissist because if your boundaries are not sufficiently developed, they are likely to turn you into an extension of themselves. Also, it is best that you do not over empathise with them, by doing so you open yourself up to their projections (the toxic shame that they cannot tolerate in themselves and want to dump on you), and projective identifications (their shame that you unconsciously take on).
Narcissists cut across every border they can to get full control of their co-narcissist victim:
It is well documented that pathological narcissists have very poor personal boundaries, and therefore they do not recognise the boundaries of others. Stuck in the psychological stage of growth, they see their victims as extensions of their self, to be used and controlled for self-gratification. Narcissists cut across every border they can to get full control, leaving their co-narcissist victim with distorted, and undefined boundaries. The co-narcissist is not usually aware of how inadequate their limits are, and this leads to them having a sick sense of who they are, and what their personal needs are.
Probably the most important change the co-narcissist (victim) needs to make, (if they want to move out of the Caretaker role), is to set healthier personal boundaries. Boundaries are what separates one person from another, and essential for making us who we are. They house one’s thoughts, sense of responsibility, needs and wants from another. Most importantly, boundaries are a way to describe our spheres of responsibility: what we are and are not responsible for (Cloud & Townsend, 1992). I have found co-narcissists to have well established functional boundaries, where they fail miserably in their relational boundaries. What does this mean? It means that when the co-narcissist has a task to complete, they perform that task with a high level of competency. This is where their perfectionism really kicks in, but in a positive way. However, when it comes to their relational boundaries, they are less able to tell a friend that they don’t like their chronic lateness, or how they talk over them in company. Boundaries are not inherited; they are built as our character forms during childhood through either our supportive or unsupportive attachments with others in our environment.
Where my parents may have provided a healthy separation-individuation process for my developing healthy boundaries (i.e. hatching, practicing, and rapprochement), Gerard, my “fledgling psychopath” was a big attachment influence in my formative years. When attachments are faulty the boundaries become twisted. Without internal safety and attachment, the child’s autonomy is stifled, and their world feels unsafe, and their separation and individuation are somewhat compromised.
Living with a narcissist who has neither impulse control or boundaries and who considers himself to be omnipotent is a lethal cocktail for any child to swallow. It makes “building one’s fence” and having realistic boundaries almost impossible, that is if you want to survive. It is especially difficult when the child is in a relationship with a pathological narcissist as I was, because if one tries to set one’s own limit it is likely to end up in rejection, abandoned, and isolated. However, if one does not set limits, one is likely to remain at the beck and call of the narcissist, their virtual prisoner. Withdrawal from our boundaries and hostility toward our boundaries are the ground from which trauma springs (Cloud & Townsend, 1992). Unfortunately for me, Gerard was not the only pathological narcissist I had to deal with throughout my life. The conditioning I experienced in early childhood and my lack of boundaries left me primed for re-victimisation from other pathological narcissists. Had I have known the need for having better boundaries, perhaps I could have saved myself the indignity of further narcissistic abuse in the bigger world.
Most relational conflict is a direct result of poor boundaries, and probably the most common scenario of boundary violations happens in the very family we grew up in. So how do we recognise when there is a lack of boundaries in our family? A “red flag” is when you find yourself giving one person too much power in your life, and this affects your relationships with others. For example, when a married co-narcissistic son does not have good emotional boundaries with his narcissistic mother, each time he has contact with her he ends up frustrated and angry. Because he is unable to speak to his mother about his feelings, he brings that anger back to his wife. His lack of boundaries will inevitably result in conflict between both his families; where his family of origin versus his immediate family, or vice versa. Because he has not completed the “leaving before cleaving” process (Cloud & Townsend, 1992), his old boundary issues with his mother prevented him from moving fully and freely into his immediate family.
Consequently, his wife and children’s needs will always come second to his mother’s and sibling’s needs. Fearing to be shamed (as he was in the past) he will opt for keeping on the good side of his mother and siblings, but this is likely to impinge on his immediate family, which will leave them feeling that they are being treated as second best.
Rather than the man’s immediate family transitioning nicely into his family of origin for becoming an extended family, they will most likely remain like outsiders on the fringe. Over time, this is likely to erode the relationship with his wife and children, who are left feeling abandoned, resentful and rejected. With his narcissistic mother having all the control, in effect, the man’s two dysfunctional families are set up for a certain boundary problem called triangulation.