Depressed people often describe themselves as feeling helpless and hopeless. They say their lives are not what they had hoped for, and many times they point to others as the source of their unhappiness. "If only he or she would stop doing this or start doing that, my life would be so much better." What they don't realize is that they can't make other people change. The only person you can change is yourself! Here is where an understanding of boundaries is essential. Think of a boundary as a line which you do not allow others to cross. It is the point at which you say, "No!"
Do you know who you are? People with weak boundaries think of themselves in term of others--John's wife, Mary's husband, Keith's girlfriend, Janie's mother, Lou's daughter--and have little sense of who they are when they are alone. They see themselves as obliged to do the will of others and don't feel comfortable being or doing things by themselves. Sometimes they don't even know what to do when they're alone! In other words, they are needy, but they don't realize it. They see themselves as "being nice, sacrificing for others, and keeping the peace." They feel responsible for everyone else's happiness, and their lives are often full of drama. At the same time, they're miserable because their own needs aren't being fulfilled. They're too busy taking care of everyone else.
How do our boundaries form? We learn to make them, or not. Parents with healthy boundaries usually produce children with healthy ones. Children learn there are limits on their own behavior, and they learn to place limits on the behavior of others.
Parents with weak boundaries may never teach their children to pick up after themselves, to be responsible for their homework to take care of their possessions, to get a job or manage money. When the children become adults, their parents will still be bailing them out of trouble, giving them money, even housing them because they feel it's their job to make their children happy. What they have really done is to infantilize their children and turn them into helpless adults who aren't prepared to solve their own problems. At the same time, the parents resent their children for being leeches. Nobody wins!
Parents with overly strong boundaries may come across as cold and "having walls," producing children who constantly hope for approval, feeling they are never quite good enough. Conversely, sometimes the children interpret their parents' behavior as "not caring." Both attitudes have consequences for them as adults.
The worst case is that of abuse. Children who are abused often can't form boundaries. They become ready to do anything to prevent further abuse and never feel they have the right to say, "No!"
Healthy boundaries put you in control of your own life. This doesn't mean you never sacrifice for someone else; it simply means you get to choose when and how much you will do for others. You will not allow them to take advantage of you or manipulate you into doing things you don't want to do.
In my next blog, I'll discuss how to learn to set boundaries without feeling guilty.
Dysfunction: failing to perform the function that is normally expected; unable to function normally in social situations; displaying abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior.
Dysfunctional personalities cause a great deal of unhappiness, leading to depression for them and for those around them. Unfortunately, dysfunctional people often think their behavior is normal, usually because they've grown up in a family with dysfunctional members. The only way to change things is to learn to recognize dysfunction. Here are some of its manifestations:
Frequent displays of temper
A two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum is pretty normal. An adult doing the same thing is demonstrating dysfunctional behavior. People around this person find themselves walking on eggs to avoid explosions. Of course, anyone might lose control under extreme circumstances, but if you or someone around you frequently loses control when things go wrong, you are looking at dysfunction. Such people can become dangerous under enough stress. Hitting, throwing things and breaking things are signs that you need to remove yourself from the situation.
This behavior should have disappeared in elementary school. I was once present when a woman started calling her daughter all sorts of names. I asked, "How can you speak to your daughter that way?" The woman shrugged. "Oh, she knows I don't mean it." That is not true. Words hurt. You can apologize, and say you didn't mean what you said, but you can't erase the memory. Too many people think that the words, "I'm sorry" automatically make everything all right again, but they are not magic! They are important words, but can only heal when followed by lasting change in behavior.
Often, blaming others is simply a failure to take responsibility for one's actions. A great example of this is the man who hits his wife and then seems to apologize by saying, "I'm sorry I hit you, but it's your fault! You made me mad!" Sadly, the abused wife often believes him.
A less obvious version of blaming is simple defensiveness. Tom says, "Julie, you forgot to pick up my suit from the cleaners as I asked you to." She replies, "Well if you hadn't done such and such, I would have remembered to do it."
Parents who feel tired, angry or overwhelmed often resort to yelling at their children. If you grew up in a home where yelling was considered a normal means of communication, you probably felt scared and insecure. Under these conditions, some children become anxious and withdrawn, trying to avoid triggering more parental yelling. As adults they become people-pleasers, sacrificing their own needs and desires in an effort to "keep the peace." Other children will accept their parents' behavior as a model and yell at their siblings or playmates, thinking it normal. Aggressive behavior may develop at the same time. As adults, they frequently become controlling, making everyone around them miserable.
Lack of common courtesies
I was once watching a little boy who demanded that his sibling do something for him. "You should say, 'please'" I said. The boy relied in all candor, "She's family. You don't have to be polite to family!" I have since seen adults order other family members around with no thought as to how those members felt, and I wondered whether they grew up in a family like that little boy's.
If you grew up in or are living in a home where any of these behaviors exist as a pattern of life, you may well be experiencing depression. In my next blog, I want to talk about setting boundaries to take control of bad situations.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.