Anxiety and Boundaries

Woman looking anxious and worried
Woman looking anxious and worried

by Ama Larsen, Faculty Member, Online Bachelor of Social Work Program, Spring Arbor University

It’s a new year, and I can say with more confidence than ever that I have learned to manage my anxiety. As I read a blog about how partners can cope with a significant other who has an anxiety disorder, I was pleasantly surprised to read a portion that described the kindness and thoughtfulness of most people with anxiety. The fear of hurting others is both a gift and curse. It can also blur boundary lines.

Anxiety and Unhealthy Relationships

The flair of being sensitive can at times be the indiscriminate genuine care and compassion for everyone that crosses your path. However, there is a saying that too much of a good thing can be bad. As I look back at the unhealthy relationships I had over the years and discarded, I breathe a sigh of relief and thank my good Lord for bringing me to my senses.

Anxiety can cause a person to continually invest in unhealthy relationships with individuals who use and reuse their gift until it increases anxiety and worsens self-esteem. Examples of unhealthy gestures toward others as a result of anxiety and lack of boundaries include constantly being available, repeatedly paying for activities with friends, allowing personal needs to be overlooked, and not confronting negative behavior due to fear of losing a relationship.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

A humanistic theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs emphasizes a tier of necessities that must be met before a person self-actualizes or becomes their full “actual self”. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are physiological needs such as air, water, food, and sleep, followed by safety which includes security and predictability, then belonging and intimacy, and before self-actualization - esteem such as respect.

Some individuals with anxiety perhaps missed a step - they didn't feel loved or like the belonged when they were growing up. They never reached self-actualization and therefore are insecure, have anxiety or just have trouble articulating their own needs.

Having anxiety can sometimes mean indirectly fighting to secure connections with very few people. Boundaries are overturned and desperate gestures of over the top acts of kindness and sacrifices are made in the hope of securing relationships. When these grandiose deeds are not reciprocated there can be bitter and hurtful disappointment from not feeling valued.

In the book, Boundaries, Dr. Henry and Dr. Townsend (1992), state “We need a group of supportive relationships. The reason is simple: having more than one person in our lives allow our friends [and significant others] to be human. To be busy. To be unavailable at times. To hurt and to have problems of their own. To have time alone” (p.111).

In addition to having a number of people we associate with, it is important to understand the type of friendships or relationship we have. Many of us, mistaking our acquaintances for close friends or superficial relationships for intimate/romantic relationship are often hurt and confused when expectations and support are not readily given.

Healthy relationships are based on reciprocity and acknowledgement of needs. Respecting the boundaries of others teaches individuals to also accept our limitations. Townsend and Henry further state, “…our lives are our responsibility”(.p.104) ...take responsibility for healing the “treasures” that may have been violated. As you develop a sense of …boundaries…you develop more confidence. You are less enslaved to the fear of other people” (p.114).

I hope this year all of us build our confidence in developing healthy connections with others, become good stewards of our resources, and strengthen our relationships by setting boundaries that allow us to say “no” without fear and accept the shortcomings of others without feeling betrayed.