Dissociative Identity Disorder and Boundary Setting

Monday, February 28 2011 Holly Gray

How many times have those of you with Dissociative Identity Disorder drawn a boundary of some kind and later felt awash in guilt and anxiety? If you're like me, the answer is "just slightly less than always." And it's not just those of us with DID that struggle with boundary setting. That backlash of guilt and anxiety isn't unique to Dissociative Identity Disorder. But I suspect the path to resolving it might be.

[caption id="attachment_1701" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="Photo by Evil Erin"]Photo by Evil Erin[/caption]

Dissociative Identity Disorder and the Boundary Setting Cycle

Because I have Dissociative Identity Disorder, my perceptions, skills, memories, and very identity are fragmented and highly compartmentalized. What that means when it comes to boundary setting is that some system members are blithely unaware of the need for boundaries, some are desperate to say no but are too afraid to do it, and others exist almost primarily to set boundaries and do so in a heavy-handed way. As far as I can tell, this boundary setting cycle of mine is similar to what many with DID experience:

  • Yes, I can! Yes, I will! Certain personality states live in blissful naiveté, meeting expectations and demands gladly ... until they get tired.
  • Yes. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I will. Then other personality states take over and drag themselves through the actions necessary to meet expectations, struggling madly, feeling powerless to create change ... until they're exhausted and stripped of their resources.
  • No. Under no circumstances will I do anything of the sort. Finally, boundary setters take over and lay down the law, effectively creating the necessary boundaries and freeing the rest of the system.

The Boundary Setting Backlash

The backlash occurs when the rest of the Dissociative Identity Disorder system becomes aware that a boundary has been set and is consumed with guilt and anxiety. I always experience this part of the cycle as remorse. I moan about what a jerk I am, and how I'd better make things right. In these moments, I sincerely believe I've done something wrong and must make amends. Recently, I realized what that backlash is really about:

What I experience as appropriate guilt is actually a highly predictable, programmed response to boundary setting. It's an illusion designed to motivate the destruction of the very boundaries I've just drawn; boundaries that I long ago learned are at best useless and at worst unsafe.

But boundaries aren't useless or unsafe anymore. And that guilt is just a mind trick.

[caption id="attachment_1716" align="alignleft" width="245" caption="Photo by Gail Williams"]Photo by Gail Williams[/caption]

Resolving the Boundary Setting Backlash

None of us are naturally obligated to anyone or anything. We choose our obligations and responsibilities. We define our limits. But that's counter-intuitive for many of us with Dissociative Identity Disorder. If you struggle with guilt and anxiety in the aftermath of boundary setting, maybe that's an illusion for you too. Maybe it's a way for parts of your system to spur you into action, undoing the boundaries you've set and apologizing for your audacity. And maybe it's an illusion you don't have to believe anymore.

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Author: Holly Gray

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Dissociative Identity Disorder and Boundary Setting

Mareeya
says:
March, 2 2011 at 6:04 am

Great post. I struggle with this daily. I see this struggle as a huge step forward for me because there was a time in the not so distant past when the concept of boundaries was entirely foreign to me. So the fact that I have this internal struggle, (very similar to the cycles you mention above), means that I have made progress when it comes to setting boundaries. I'm grateful to find that the boundary setting parts of me are there!

I am so glad you talk about the backlash. The guilt, anxiety, remorse...all of the aftermath of setting a healthy boundary, feels like a war going on inside my head. I like how you describe it as a predictable, programmed response to boundary setting. So very true!!

I do believe having DID makes this whole boundary setting process a little more complex, and less "cut and dry".

"None of us are naturally obligated to anyone or anything. We choose our obligations and responsibilities."
Love this!! I'm finally paying attention to that voice inside that has been trying to tell me this for years. I have set some pretty serious boundaries this past year, which have created some pretty heavy duty backlash, both internally, and externally. I'm in the process of setting more boundaries which I'm sure will create even greater backlash both internally, and externally. Intellectually, I know this is a good thing, and a very necessary thing, for my own emotional health, and safety. I think I have a head start in preparing my system for the internal backlash. I just hope I can stand strong against the inevitable external backlash I will receive.
I worry this will shake up my system, and undo my internal preparation.
I will remind myself that it is an illusion that I don't have to believe anymore. I'm determined to stay true to the boundaries that I'm setting, and I refuse to apologize for keeping myself emotionally safe.

This post came at a very important time for me. It's validating to know that you and so many others go through similar struggles, and that it's possible to see through the illusion, and stick to your boundaries.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 3 2011 at 3:12 pm

Hi Mareeya,

"I see this struggle as a huge step forward for me because there was a time in the not so distant past when the concept of boundaries was entirely foreign to me."

I like your perspective. I try to view my struggles in a positive way but honestly, I can be the world's biggest pity party host. I throw 'em full scale.

"The guilt, anxiety, remorse…all of the aftermath of setting a healthy boundary, feels like a war going on inside my head."

Yes, war is the perfect word. It's exhausting.

"I’m determined to stay true to the boundaries that I’m setting, and I refuse to apologize for keeping myself emotionally safe."

If your progress with boundary setting does shake your system up, and you find yourself struggling, maybe come back and read this comment of yours. It might help to reground you. And it can be so hard to remember why we're setting those boundaries in the first place when the backlash is in full swing.

"“None of us are naturally obligated to anyone or anything. We choose our obligations and responsibilities.”
Love this!!"

Here's another one: we determine our own worth. :)

Suede
says:
March, 3 2011 at 4:35 pm

Oh my it has taken me days to type on this one!

Every time I try it gets deleted so I have no idea how much will get posted but I am typing fast!

I had no idea I had no boundaries at all until my T informed me.
Now I can't even wrap my head around what they are really. It goes like this.

me " well what are they really?"
T "well mine look like this or that"
me "oh those are good"
T "yes boundaries are helpful"
me now confused "well what are they really?"

You know I swear I can hear my T mentally sigh.

I have to kind of laugh at it otherwise I would drive me nuts. At least I can say the word now it used to be I could not so its moving forward, slow but forward.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 7 2011 at 6:28 pm

Hi Suede,

I guess I'm very fortunate in this way - I've always understood the concept of boundaries and even set and enforced them regularly. Parts of my system are very good at setting boundaries. But other parts are not which generally means boundaries aren't set until the system is depleted. So I'm thinking about your question, what are they? and I suppose the answer to that for myself is that they are limits I set for myself to ensure self-care.

Have you read any of Kellie Holly's blog, Verbal Abuse in Relationships? http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/ Kellie spent almost 20 years in a verbally abusive marriage and clearly learned a lot about boundaries. Her posts are really insightful. I recommend this one in particular: http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/2011/02/bo…

You might find it as helpful as I did.

kerri
says:
March, 3 2011 at 7:28 pm

In the past Holly I have been the worst boundary setter ever. I was literally afraid until a few years ago to say NO to anyone. But didn't realize it was fear that was driving me, because I rationalized everything with, I'm a nice person, nice people do for others and don't let them down ever, etc. I never once thought I might have needs and that my needs could be as important as others, or that I had a right to express them. No one had ever told me I could. So I just took it as a given. Then I went into therapy and was told I have rights too and needs that should be expressed, because otherwise I was signaling  to people that only their needs were important and they were always more important than me. Well this was an eye opener. After this I tried to say no to people, but God it was hard. Once I stood up for myself in a toy store when an employee was rude after a toy pram fell on my head. Anyway long story short, after I did this I felt great for a whole 30 minutes, then I went into panic mode and became incredibly worried that I was the last straw that broke the camels back, and this male employee was going to find me and come to kill me, gun me down or the like. I was so distraught with fear I had a constant urge to return to the store and apologize for standing up for myself, to make everything right so I didn't have to be so afraid. This fear continued for four days until I had a therapy session and my therapist helped talk me through it and lessen my panic. Still, this is how terrifying saying NO and standing up for myself was. I didn't know how terrified I'd be once I said NO, because I'd always made sure I said yes. It's taken a couple of years now, but I am slowly getting better at it. But even so, when I am not concentrating, I still fall back into old habits and automatically say yes to people before I've even asked myself if their request is feasible or even appropriate. And when I do say NO, the panic still comes up and I have the urge to ring people back constantly to say yes, because I still worry that I have angered them and there will be a confrontation as a result. When I was young, my mother was strict and I wasn't given the opportunity to say no to her, whilst my father always paid out on me or my mother if I said NO so I guess my childhood trained me to fear the word. Now I'm in a very different place in my life, so I do believe this struggle will continue to lessen over time. It's just slow going, thats all.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 7 2011 at 6:38 pm

Hi kerri,

"Once I stood up for myself in a toy store when an employee was rude after a toy pram fell on my head. Anyway long story short, after I did this I felt great for a whole 30 minutes, then I went into panic mode and became incredibly worried that I was the last straw that broke the camels back, and this male employee was going to find me and come to kill me, gun me down or the like. I was so distraught with fear I had a constant urge to return to the store and apologize for standing up for myself, to make everything right so I didn’t have to be so afraid."

I think these extreme fears are founded in history, which is why they are so hard to combat. There may have been a time when standing up for yourself really was a genuinely dangerous thing to do. I think it's just so difficult to convince yourself it's safe to say no when your earliest experiences with any attempt at boundary setting were met with threats or actual physical harm. I guess I'm pointing out the obvious here. I mention it because I don't know about you, but I tend to be hard on myself about my reluctance to set boundaries, saying things to myself like, "Geez why are you overreacting? It's no big deal!"

"And when I do say NO, the panic still comes up and I have the urge to ring people back constantly to say yes, because I still worry that I have angered them and there will be a confrontation as a result."

I understand that. Even when I haven't said no or set a boundary with someone! Just the other day I badgered a friend, asking, "Did I offend you?" about something that had nothing to do with her in the first place because I was afraid there was a chance she'd *thought* it was about her. In other words, there was no problem at all and yet I managed convince myself there was. It's slow going, for sure.

Suede
says:
March, 8 2011 at 6:45 am

Thanks Holly I will read the links. I have been "gone" so trying to catch up now. I find it a bit funny that the issue of boundaries came up right before I was gonna need a whole bunch of what I do not even understand. Thankfully someone else does within my system but the trade off is the loss of a few days.

Thank you for being so brave.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 10 2011 at 3:45 pm

Hi Suede,

"Thankfully someone else does within my system but the trade off is the loss of a few days."

There's always a trade off isn't there? ;) Ah well.

Poser
says:
March, 8 2011 at 2:19 pm

Hi Holly,
I realy appreciate your blogs...they hit home on so many levels.

I never knew what bounaries were until I started in therapy. Once I started setting boundaries at home, work, grocery shopping etc, the fall out was horrible. The internal discord was amazing and frustrating to behold. We work together much better now and we realize that we may even have a little bit of self worth (shhh, don't say it out loud). I have to say that if we did not have DID, then the learning would have been easier...self sabotage being what it is.

Keep up with the blogs, they help us see our progress. :-)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
March, 10 2011 at 3:51 pm

Hi Poser,

"I have to say that if we did not have DID, then the learning would have been easier…self sabotage being what it is."

Yes, I can certainly understand that. Dissociative Identity Disorder complicates things to say the least. It's good to note our progress, as you've done here about yours. For me, taking stock of my progress reminds me of why I'm trying to get better in the first place. So it's wonderful to hear that the blogs help with that. Thank you so much for that feedback.

Saragrl
says:
March, 29 2011 at 8:19 am

Hi Holly,

I was just recently diagnosed with DID and I have been having a hard time accepting it, other then trying to keep a sense of humor about it. Finding your blogs last night along with some really great comments have really struck a cord.

This particular post describes me to a key. I have severe issues setting boundaries, especially with close friends. If I feel I hurt them, I have been known to hurt myself.

Up until now I have felt very alone in this. I developed DID from long term emotional trauma. That seems to be at odds to how others feel it can be developed.

I do have one other question that is sitting on me lately. Due to one of my alts living my life for me for 10+ years, most memories of that time of my life is consisted of only a few "snapshots". I believe due to this I really don't feel, or act nearly as old as my age. I will be 32 and I am always thought to be 19-22. I like to think of it as reliving lost years, but other times I feel really behind socially and I get depressed about it.

Thank you for posting so others like me can know we are not alone.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
April, 3 2011 at 3:53 pm

Hi Saragrl,

Thanks for reading and joining the discussion.

I think I missed your question. I'm going to take a stab and assume you're asking if your experience is normal. And my response to that, and hopefully other readers will pipe if they disagree, is that it's a perfectly normal phenomenon within the context of Dissociative Identity Disorder.

" ... I feel really behind socially and I get depressed about it."

I think that's also really common, for whatever it's worth.

Saragrl
says:
April, 6 2011 at 5:58 pm

Thank you. It's comforting knowing I am not the only person to feel this way.

Deanna
says:
August, 3 2011 at 6:19 pm

Holly:
First, your blog has been such a gift to me. At a time when I have been craving understanding, I have found your articulate words comforting, incredibly insightful and soothing.

I work in an amazing Church office with two gifted pastors. They both know I have DID and understand it quite well. One pastor we call "the Boundary Queen" because she is so good at setting appropriate boundaries. I have learned so much from her yet have felt so frustrated that I keep repeating some basic boundary "violations".

I read your blog (DID and Boundary Setting) and for the first time I saw how my experience was different and why I have difficulty. So I took in your blog today and said "read this now. this is me. Please help me SEE this in me when I can't." The conversation that followed was so amazing on so many levels. We all agreed that something holy and lovely happened in that room. Thank you for helping us find words for sharing our experiences.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
August, 5 2011 at 3:05 pm

Deanna,

It was wonderful to get your comment. I am so glad you have such supportive people in your life. And I'm thrilled to know this article was helpful for you. I remember when I made the connection between boundary setting and DID and it was like a revelation. I thought, "I have to write about this and tell others!" So it really pleases me to hear from you. It sounds like you had the same experience I did when you made the connection. That knowledge has really helped me and I hope it's as helpful for you too.

Thank you for letting me know about your experience. There's something very special for me about getting to, in a roundabout way, be a part of it.

And thank you for reading! I hope to hear from you again.

Murray
says:
March, 4 2013 at 6:20 am

All I can say is I'm now finally desperate enough to seek an explanation door the tornado that occurs in me after setting a boundary. Usually after ova had enough I lash out with a boundary in not such a nice easy. I have an ideal I'm me that assertion a boundary should notinn effect stir up the anger that effectively makes me set up the boundary thus I feel guilty for being angry and nor seeing a boundary nicely. What a crazy circle im in. Most specifically its most prevalent inn a relationship that I strongly despite. The problem is that user the boundary nicely over & over and its not heard until I lash out effectively setting a boundary that makes the receiver wonder why I just did not daddy it Buckley and now they are hurt. Now this is what I feel guilt and remorse. The cyclebehind. I want to stop this

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