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Setting Boundaries With Parents With Personality Disorders

How can we set boundaries without the fear of future regrets or guilt?

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  • Setting boundaries with parents with BPD/NPD is challenging as they can be controlling.

  • One factor often looms largest: The fear of regret.

  • With newfound freedom, we can start looking ahead to new possibilities.

Setting boundaries with parents suffering from personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be a challenging process for many, especially when they act in emotionally immature, needy, or controlling ways.


No matter how much you read or how much therapy you had, you may still feel helpless in the face of their constant need for your attention and approval. Perhaps your parent with BPD/NPD always wants validation and demands your presence without considering your needs. When you try to establish boundaries, they may guilt trip you, manipulate your emotions, and make you feel responsible for their feelings.


It's especially difficult when they give you brief moments of warmth, empathy, or the promise of a real connection. It's tempting to keep trying, hoping that this time will be different. However, like quicksand, this glimmer of hope quickly turns into a treacherous game. It becomes an addictive cycle, much like playing a slot machine. You may feel compelled to keep trying for deep conversations and share your life with your parent with personality disorders. Yet, no matter how hard you try, your efforts are met with a stone wall.

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What stops you from stepping away from parents with BPD or NPD? Perhaps it is the emotional blackmail, the long-held sense of responsibility instilled in you from birth, fear of societal judgment, and the pressure to compensate for your siblings who might have left.


But two factors often loom the largest: guilt and the fear of regret.


What if you regret not doing more to care for them, and it becomes too late? What if you feel guilty for hurting their feelings? What if when they pass away, overwhelming guilt and endless regret haunt you for the rest of your life? Conscious or not, these questions might haunt you and stop you from walking away.


Fear of Regrets When You Set Boundaries

Rather than letting our fears take hold and stopping us from taking productive actions, let's confront these fears head-on and explore them with intelligence and reason.


What exactly do you fear? What's the worst-case scenario?


You might find yourself saying, "I'm afraid of missing out on the only chance to have a relationship with my parents." But pause for a moment and consider the truth behind this "relationship." Have you genuinely felt deep connections, or is it a residue of societal expectations about what a parent–child relationship should be? Was it just a story you've been told like you had a "happy childhood" because you were materially provided for?

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As you dig deeper into this investigation, you might realize that there might be little substance behind the facade of a "normal" parent–child relationship with a parent with BPD or NPD. Despite your desires and numerous attempts to establish a genuine connection, your parents' psychological limitations might have made it impossible.


If you can be brutally honest with yourself, you might uncover a truth that resonates: the idea of a genuine and meaningful parent–child bond has always been just that—an idea. It's like a fantasy that has persisted, with your inner child desperately holding onto the idealized image of a nurturing parent and refusing to let go.


When you find yourself stuck in a never-ending cycle of pointless efforts, it's important to face the one tough thing you might have been avoiding: grieving for what you never had.


Grieving What Was Not There

You might be wondering, "What do you mean by grieving what I never had? Haven't I already experienced enough sadness and grief in my life?"


In psychoanalysis, there's a theory that suggests depression can be a form of denial—a refusal to grieve fully. When you find yourself trapped in persistent, low-grade depression, you unconsciously numb your emotions and withdraw from meaningful engagement with the world. It is a way of defending against the darker truth with your parent with BPD or NPD; like a shield, it masks you from feeling the pain of unmet desires and shattered dreams. But this shield comes at a high cost. You end up sacrificing joy, authenticity, motivation, spontaneity, and vitality in life.


Perhaps, to move on is to understand the difference between passive reactivity and genuine mourning. Simply getting caught in a cycle of longing and disappointment, triggered by everyday events and interactions with your parents (when they once again break promises, dismiss you, gaslight you…) isn't true mourning.

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But it is not your fault to keep hoping things with your parent will be different. From fairy tales to ancient folklore, the yearning for ideal parents, nurturing love, and unwavering guidance runs deep in our DNA. As a child, you caught glimpses of what could have been, fueling your persistent longing for a different reality.


Unfortunately, when you have parents with BPD or NPD, your childhood becomes a constant oscillation between harsh reality and sweet fantasy. You catch glimpses of the Fairy Godmother, but all you have is the Wicked Witch.


Authentic grieving requires courage; it might mean giving yourself permission to weep, scream, write, draw, or express your inner turmoil in any way that helps release pent-up emotions.


By releasing the weight of unfulfilled expectations, you open up new possibilities for a different future.


Knowing That You Have Done Your Best

When you can come to reconcile with the reality of who your parents are, including their true limitations, you will come to a profound realization: You've truly done your best. There's nothing more you could have done. Setting boundaries with them isn't just justified; it's the only viable option.


By now, you've learned enough from past experiences that firm boundaries and safe distance are necessary for both your own well-being and theirs. They may or may not understand this, and they may or may not protest against it, but that is irrelevant. Most importantly, you understand that the enmeshed and dysfunctional dynamic doesn't serve either of you, and you choose to do what's right.

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Even if they don't admit it, they might know deep down that their constant need to control your life is toxic. They feel guilty about it, but their emotional immaturity or fragility traps them in old patterns. When you gather the strength to set boundaries with parents who are trapped in their disorders, you embark on a courageous journey of untangling the intricate web that binds both of you. In other words, it is not a cruel act; it's an act of profound honor and integrity.


Reflecting on Your Values

Instead of focusing on what might be lost, perhaps you can reflect on what you can gain. For example, how might you be honoring yourself and your values? Here are some examples:


Personal growth. How can establishing boundaries contribute to mutual growth and understanding?

Honesty. Reflect on times you sacrificed your own true values just to protect their feelings. Is that what it means to live honestly?

Authenticity. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life perpetuating the illusion of a picture-perfect family rather than admitting that human relationships can be imperfect and complex?

Realism. Assess what is realistically possible in your relationship with your parents. You might have to grieve the parents you do not have and come to see them for who they really are, not keep re-traumatizing yourself with disappointment.

Harmony. What might create the most harmony for everyone involved? "More contact," as they might childishly wish for, is not always the best. There might be an optimal "sweet spot" you need to find when it comes to the amount of contact. See if you can find that optimal distance while avoiding enmeshment and discord.


Asking Different Questions

Instead of asking, "What if I regret it?" here are some equally valid questions to ask yourself:

  • "What if I end up regretting sacrificing my own happiness and well-being just to keep my parents happy?"

  • "What if I get stuck in the same old generational trauma instead of breaking free and stopping it from affecting my (potential) future family and me?"

  • "What if, when I'm older, I realize it's too late to discover who I truly am beyond who they want me to be?"

  • "What if I could have leveled up my career, found my soulmate, and enjoyed my freedom if I had just freed myself of their unreasonable demands?"

  • "Will I regret all the compromises I've made when I see how much damage they've done to my self-worth, identity, and ability to connect with people?”

Setting Boundaries With Parents With BPD/NPD: An Honourable Act

It is certainly not your fault that you hope to have parents who will love and understand you unconditionally. But the painful reality is that not all parents are capable of fulfilling those expectations, and sometimes we need to be the bigger person and do the hard thing by setting firm boundaries with them.

Setting boundaries with your parents doesn't make you cruel or defiant; it is a sign that you value yourself and want to live life honestly rather than hiding in the shadow of their dysfunction.


As you go through this process, you'll realize that your personality and psychological limitations do not diminish who you are and how much you deserve to be loved.


With newfound freedom, you can start looking ahead to a world of possibilities. The wounds may still be there, but they no longer define who you are. Your scars become powerful symbols of resilience, showcasing your ability to rise above adversity.


The most important thing to remember is the love you've been searching for, and it resides within you. Ultimately, you are your best parent and have the power to nurture and care for yourself.


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References:

Bartsch, D. R., Roberts, R. M., Davies, M., & Proeve, M. (2015). Borderline personality disorder and parenting: Clinician perspectives. Advances in Mental Health, 13(2), 113–126.


Clewell, T. (2004). Mourning beyond melancholia: Freud's psychoanalysis of loss. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 52(1), 43–67.


Fonagy, P. (2001). Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis. Other Press, LLC.


Pedder, J. R. (1982). Failure to mourn, and melancholia. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 141(4), 329–337.

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