*The following is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished next book- The Boundaries Handbook- about Internal Family Systems (IFS)-informed boundaries, which will be exclusively released as part of my six-week Heal Your Wounded Boundaries online program.
It’s heartbreaking to realize that way too many humans grew up without good boundaries- and that our wounded boundaries create patterns of pain that we keep repeating until we can’t bear the pain again and wind up in therapy. And it’s not our fault, although it is our responsibility to try to shore up our boundaries, not only to protect ourselves from people who crash right through our boundaries, but also to make sure we’re not using rigid, inflexible walls that boundary against intimacy, and also to make sure we’re not crashing through the boundaries of other people unwittingly.
Boundarylessness can be so seductive, ecstatic even, that we may not even realize how dangerous it is for everyone if we walk around the world without healthy boundaries that protect us from others and protect others from us. It’s understandable that so many people would either give in to the “urge to merge” with boundaryless enmeshment / fusion- or they would wall off in ways that make them unavailable for closeness and connection.
But the price of such boundaryless or walled off connections is high. Sadly, the pain tends to compound as our boundary-wounded parents pass these patterns down virally in families, and one boundary-wounded relationship begets another, with heartbreak building upon fresh unhealed scars. In order to cope with all that boundary wounding and heartbreak, which usually starts in childhood, we understandably develop coping strategies that help us survive as children but tend to outlive their relevance once we’re grown adults.
In the Christian, recovery-oriented bestseller commonly recommended in 12 Step programs and churches, Boundaries: When To Say Yes, When To Say No To Take Control Of Your Life, authors Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend break down boundary injuries into four patterns we tend to see in adults who were developmentally traumatized. The authors describe four distinct types of boundary injuries, related to how you process “yes” and “no” and how you got hurt in your childhood development. You may have all four types of boundary injuries, you may use different strategies or exhibit different tendencies in different relationships, you may resonate with only one or all four tendencies, and you may mix and match how your boundary-wounded behavior shows up relationally. But as preparation for learning a bit about Internal Family Systems and how your “parts” might try to protect you if your boundaries got wounded in childhood, it can be helpful to learn about the way boundary-wounded parts might show up in relationships.
Keep in mind that nothing is ever black and white, and there’s always shades of gray and nuance when you talk about these kinds of boundary wounded parts, but for the sake of learning about boundaries, we’ll exaggerate the stereotypes of these parts, while also holding the understanding that it’s never all or nothing.
COMPLIANT: These people can’t say no. These are the people-pleasing, approval-seeking, “nice” people that may be vulnerable to being taken advantage of and are easily victimized by people with other types of boundary wounding. But don’t be completely fooled by their niceness. They may also have a hidden agenda, luring people in with their niceness and helpfulness, covering up their own feelings of essential unworthiness by selling themselves to others as helpful, generous, and giving. This type of boundary-wounded individual tends to see themselves as very saint-like in their generosity and helpfulness, and indeed they can be. But their boundary wounding can also make them well-meaning but intrusive meddlers who “help” as a way to disguise that they may also have controlling parts that manipulate others who might be in distress or otherwise vulnerable and are therefore easy to control. Compliant types often think they have a right to control others by manipulating them with the gifts, caretaking, money, blessings, and niceness they offer. Then they’re devastated and passive-aggressive when others, who don’t like to be controlled and can sense the transaction and insincerity in the way they try to help, turn away from them and fail to give them what they really want- unconditional love, attention, loyalty, kindness, and help getting their own needs met.
CONTROLLER: These boundary wounded folks can’t hear or respect someone else’s no. While compliant types might disguise controlling tendencies through rescuing, caregiving, generosity, and helpfulness, controlling types may be more overtly controlling. These are the boundary-violating people who bulldoze over your boundaries and then try to convince you that there’s something wrong with you for saying no, setting limits, or trying to enforce painful consequences when they won’t respect your limits. They may be shameless about making outrageous requests and they’re used to having their entitled demands met by compliant people. If someone says no to an outrageous request, they may pout or cry or become sexually seductive or have a tantrum. If that doesn’t work, they may try to bully you or intimidate you into complying. They try to control others by emotionally manipulating people, harassing people, getting abusive, or even threatening violence, abandonment, a drinking binge, or self-harming behaviors like cutting or suicide, hooking the fear of those they seek to control and trying to pressure them into changing their mind and withdrawing their no.
NONRESPONSIVE: While compliant types can’t say no and controller types can’t hear no, nonresponsive types can’t say yes to the responsibilities, inconveniences, sacrifices, compromises, and ways of showing up when our loved ones are suffering that real love requires. These are the people whose partners fail to support them through chemotherapy or stay close when someone needs to emotionally process a trigger. They struggle to show up when a loved one is genuinely in need and deserving of support and attention and nurturing. They may even use the “I’m setting a boundary” excuse when what they’re really doing is justifying a cruel and abusive kind of neglect, often born out of avoidant attachment wounding that boundaries against intimacy. Those who are in our inner circle deserve to have an appropriate expectation that those closest to us will show up with support, love, nurturing, co-regulation, and healthy interdependence, as best we can. Nonresponsive types may tend towards workaholism or be excessively overscheduled or otherwise have excuses for why they can’t show up for their loved ones, but that’s part of the boundary wounding, that they can’t boundary against overcommitting elsewhere, such that they don’t have enough time or haven’t prioritized being sensitive and attentive to those closest to them. These conditions cause these boundary wounded folks to be nonresponsive to love’s demands. They may expect to get their own needs met in a non-reciprocal or entitled way, or they may not even be willing to let others nurture them, including nurturing themselves with healthy self-care. Regardless, they tend to withhold care from others and fail to show up in loving ways when others are needy or deserve to be treated well. In other words, they set boundaries when they shouldn’t, saying no when they should be saying yes to being responsive to and responsible for the needs of their closest loved ones.
AVOIDANT: If nonresponsive types can’t say yes, avoidant types can’t hear yes. These are the people who simply can’t receive when others are willing and even wanting to shower them with love, support, blessings, and healthy caregiving. While they may have countless people who love them, they tend to fail to ask for help when they need it and are not willing to be helped, even when others are lining up to support them. In their boundary confusion, they set self-destructive boundaries against getting help and receiving the love, support, co-regulation, and nurture they desire and deserve. While they may be surrounded by people who love them and want to help care for them, they may feel like they’re in a love desert, parched for care when rivers of love weave all around them. These people tend to have a panic attack if too many blessings come pouring their way. If you try to pour the waterfall of your love and support on these people, they’ll say, “I have a straw. I can only tolerate a sip.” Dependency is terrifying to these folks, so they boundary against getting support or relying on anyone else, because they can’t handle feeling indebted and don’t realize relationships can be healthy and reciprocal without score-keeping transactions. Because they can’t let love in, they are robbed of the human need for intimacy and healthy interdependence and may wind up sorely unsupported and alone, especially in times of great need.
While this classification of the four types of boundary injuries from Cloud and Townsend’s book Boundaries have helped millions of people spot their own boundary wounded tendencies and understand those of other people, the way some readers might interpret these categories can elicit shame, confusion, judgment, and condemnation if these tendencies are not fully understood as trauma symptoms deserving of our compassion. Especially because the compliant and avoidant tendencies tend to get lumped together and labelled as “co-dependent,” while the controller and nonresponsive types tend to get bundled up as “narcissist,” people can have a lot of feelings if they identify these behavioral patterns in themselves or others. We’re all welcome to our feelings, and if you read these categories and feel angry, sad, scared, ashamed, confused, overwhelmed, or any other emotion, go ahead and feel.
But let’s also frame these tendencies through a trauma-informed lens using the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, as developed by family therapist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. All of these tendencies are trauma responses, and all trauma deserves our compassion. You are not these tendencies. They are just “parts” of you, not all of you. Sure, maybe you have tendencies towards being compliant, controlling, nonresponsive, or avoidant. You might have all four parts, or you might have your “greatest hits” favorite strategy. You might identify with one tendency in one relationship and another in a different relationship, depending on whether you’re the one with more or less power in the relationship.
For example, if you’re the boss at work or you micromanage your kids, you might be controlling with your employees or your children, but you might be compliant with your mother or your spouse. You might be non-responsive with one close friend but avoidant with another. Either way, there are “no bad parts,” as IFS founder Richard Schwartz likes to say. Plus, you are more than your boundary wounded parts.
What do we mean by “parts?” Most of us grew up with the “mono-mind” paradigm, thinking that we are a unified “self” and that only really mentally ill people, like the characters in movies like the 1976 movie Sybil or 1957’s Three Faces Of Eve, have multiple personalities inside us. While people with multiple personality disorder, now called “dissociative identity disorder,” have suffered more horrible traumas than most and their personalities inside are more fragmented and blown apart than others, they’re not so different from the rest of us in that we all have little voices inside that talk to us and to each other.
We call it “thinking,” or if you’ve ever tried meditating, you may have heard it called “the monkey mind.” Why monkey mind? Because our thoughts are chattering away inside like little monkeys with endless commentaries about our “to do” lists, a string of worries and problems, a host of plans and fantasies, and voices we often grow to hate, like the inner critic, judge, or perfectionist that tears us up or shames us when we make mistakes.
If you think you don’t have multiple personalities, just think of the last time you made a New Year’s Resolution, went on a diet, tried to give up a bad habit like smoking, or convinced yourself you were going to finally muster up the discipline to do something hard, like join a 12 step program, run a marathon, attend a silent meditation retreat, go to the gym to build a buff body, write a book, or get a degree. Typically, one disciplined, health-conscious, inner critic part pushes us to make the New Years Resolution or do the good, hard, disciplined thing. Then within a week or two, another free-wheeling, trouble-making rebel part that likes to do the naughty, undisciplined thing comes in to tempt us to break our promises to ourselves. Given how few New Year’s Resolutions actually lead to real change, you’ll understand that these parts tend to go to war with each other inside, creating a kind of angel on one shoulder, devil on the other. Then when those two duke it out, yet another voice comes in to beat us up and shame us for being weak, lame, and undisciplined. And the cycle of self-hatred and self-sabotage continues.
IFS aims to resolve these inner polarizations by befriending and healing all of our parts, without glorifying one part or demonizing another. The goal of IFS practice is to become intimate with all of our parts, gain “Self-leadership” over them, and negotiate the differences between our parts the way a good mediator might negotiate between two people with conflict. When we approach our parts inside as if there are no bad parts, only hurt parts, then our parts start to soften and may relax their extreme, self-destructive, abusive, hurtful behaviors.
Who do you think is making and breaking those promises inside of you? It’s clearly not a unified “you,” because if it was, you’d just do the good thing and never look back. Clearly, things are more complicated inside than our culture has led us to believe. Although it may sound disturbing to consider that you might have different personalites inside, both motivating you to self-improve but also sabotaging your efforts to do so, it can also be quite a game changer once you realize that the mono-mind myth is false. We are not one unified self, and there’s nothing abnormal about that! Every single one of us is made up of many personalities inside, which IFS calls “parts.” And guess what? Boundary injuries that make us compliant, controlling, nonresponsive, or avoidant are all just that- parts of us. They’re not trying to get us hurt or hurt others. They genuinely think they’re helping us.
We’ll be diving more deeply into how to heal our wounded boundaries and how to negotiate boundaries with others in relational ways that help us share power rather than overpowering someone with one-sided ultimatums in the Heal Your Wounded Boundaries online program that starts in October.