Through a Jungian Lens

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Problems With Boundaries and Saying No

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Calgary horizon as boundary between night and day, between earth and sky

“The crucial psychological fact is that all of us, female as well as male, fear the will of woman . . . Female will is embedded in female power, which is under present conditions, the earliest and profoundest prototype of power.” (Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, p. 166 – cited in Bly & Woodman, The Maiden King, p. 51)

I am not going to try and explain this quote directly, but would rather approach it in talking about what might appear to be something unrelated. Hopefully, the thread can be followed back to the quote and provide in the process, my understanding of what Dorothy Dinnerstein was talking about.

Following from yesterday’s post, there is the issue of Magical Other which is traced back to the desire to want to return to a pre-birth condition which can only be understood as some sort of Garden of Eden.  In the garden, there are no issues of separation, of abandonment, of contradiction – all is as one. Somehow, an act propels what is to become a person with a soul, from a state of oneness to a state of separateness. Being born is a bit of a traumatic affair for both mother and child, but I want to focus on just the child for now, the infant. This newborn child is essentially helpless. Left to his or her own devices, the newborn soon dies. There must be a person with power to create the conditions for survival, nurturance and growth. And, in the typical scenario throughout human history, it is the mother.

For a child, all things come from mother.  I need to repeat that to myself, all things come from the mother. Of course, this is objective reality from an infant’s point of view – mother gives and mother takes away, and as such is to be loved and to be feared; but beyond everything, mother is all powerful.

It is only as months and as years pass that a child learns to put boundaries in place in order to claim some of mother’s power for him or herself.  That learning is assisted by the parent teaching the child about boundaries by also building boundaries that begin the process of separation – weaning the child, teaching rules, teaching the words yes  and no! Now, this is where things began to break down for me, the failure to build and maintain boundaries. Given life circumstances, my mother’s needs were too great and her breaching of frail boundaries out of control left me almost hopelessly lost. And, as an adult, it often creates confusion and conflict in relationship with others. But, to be fair, it also resulted in me becoming very empathetic. I could feel the pain of others and reach out to help, I was one easy to trust, to confide in. But one of the biggest impacts on my later childhood and all of my adulthood was the intense difficulty I experienced in trying to say the word no, especially to the feminine.

I watched my own children grow up. It seemed as though the word “No” was programmed into them as they had no difficulty in saying what they thought and claiming their space. I was the father and because of my failure to develop a sense of boundaries, I had a problem saying “No” in return. At work, I had the same issue, the problem of saying no and standing up for myself and what I believed in. I knew what I wanted, what I valued, yet I caved in and obeyed authority.

How well has that worked for me? Well, I could say it has been a disaster, but it hasn’t if I am to be honest. I was a good teacher and my students generally liked and respected me. I was and am a good father and grandfather. I am a good counsellor for those who find themselves lost. I am a good friend who listens well, smiles and is willing to give them the lead in activities shared together bolstering their self-worth. But, and there is also a but, it leaves those closest to me adrift in relationship to me.

Where is the strength, the foundation in family where the father struggles with the word no?  Where does “Papa” begin and end? Where does a spouse find strength and certainty in an uncertain world? I become the authority only in absence of the real authority, the mother. I gave up authority, it wasn’t taken from me. And that, was and is the biggest obstacle to relationship. I left a vacuum and that vacuum needed filling. It is time for me to learn the word no, to build boundaries in order to create balance in relationship, to find balance within myself.

And learning this, there isn’t anyone to blame, there is only an awareness of the way it was, the way it is. For me, it became imperative to become aware of this and to take responsibility for my self.  Setting boundaries is not abandoning, is not a statement of “I don’t love you” or “I won’t be here for you.” In saying this, I am talking not only to my wife and my children, I am almost screaming these words at myself. I am a slow learner.


Written by Robert G. Longpré

March 14, 2012 at 6:18 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Robert, I faced this very same thing myself and only, in the past year or so, after a separation, and subsequent divorce, have learned to start saying “no”. Much of this was thanks to recognizing myself in a book called, No More Mr. Nice Guy. An excellent book by Robert A. Glover, PhD.

    I saw how I grew up to service my mother because my father wasn’t there, so to speak. I became the one to make her happy, dry her tears, entertain her, and care for her. None of which was my job. My father was mean and verbally abusive, so I learned to keep my needs to myself and not rock the boat.

    This has served others well throughout my life, but not be, as you can well imagine, or understand. If you’ve not read the book, I encourage you to give it a read. It’s based on sound psychology. The title may be a little misleading, but it isn’t a book about how to become a jerk. 🙂 It’s about taking care of yourself, learning to set boundaries, and healing those old wounds.


    March 15, 2012 at 8:57 am

    • Book is on order and I am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for that, Paul. 🙂


      March 18, 2012 at 11:01 am

  2. As a woman, I also have some of the same issues with a mother who did not protect me or give me the skills to set boundaries or to experience trusting relationships. I have been working on healing my self for 20 years or so, but have not been able to develop real emotional connections even with my family. Should I be working on my self, or on relating to others?


    March 16, 2012 at 9:27 am

    • Working on one’s “self” always allows one to better relate to others. To focus on others without the work on the self does not lead to healthy relationships, in my opinion. It is important that you realise that this is my opinion. Ask yourself the same question and listen to what that still, quiet voice within you tells you. Thank you for taking the time to read and to comment here, Leslie. I hope to hear from you again. 🙂


      March 18, 2012 at 11:04 am

  3. Whenever relationship is based on and continued because of projection there is no boundary. Men who have not withdrawn the anima projection are doomed to an illusory life.

    “The ‘choice’ of a love partner is always an attempt (however amiss the results may be) to fulfill a deep emotional as well as spiritual need. Whether we are homosexual or heterosexual in our orientation, this choice is far more determined by unconscious factors than by conscious ones; we are rarely sure why we choose the partners we do. A propensity that seem innate for both sexes and that exerts a powerful influence, even on our unconscious choices, is the urge toward individual wholeness or completeness. The search for an outer partner is always an attempt to gain a closer connection to what is missing within. And when the outer relationship fails, or seems to, we must be careful not to place too much blame on the outer person, since part of what we have experienced is the workings of our inner woman. As John Beebe points out, ‘initiation by the anima means submitting to painful experiences of betrayal and disappointment when the projections she creates with her capacity for illusion fail to produce happiness. Accepting the pain of one’s affects toward those experiences is a critical part of integrating the anima.’(f.n. omitted)

    A love relationship, with all its hope, pleasure, and pain represents a striving at the deepest psychic level for a vital emotional constituent that is far beyond an individual’s biological or even ‘sexual’ needs. On the spiritual level, the experience of love ideally leads to coniunctio, that is, not only of the individuals themselves, but also of the masculine and feminine opposites within each of their personalities. In this way, the love relationship can act as a channel and container of potential psychological and spiritual transformation. It is this aspect of the relationship that needs to be kept in the foreground of the awareness of both society and the individual. It is as Marie-Louise von Franz points out in the myth of Eros and Psyche: ‘Love with its passion and pain becomes the urge toward individuation, which is why there is no real process of individuation without the experience of love, for love tortures and purifies the soul.’ (f.n. omitted)”

    Loren E. Pedersen, “Dark Heart, The Unconscious Forces That Shape Men’s Lives(pp. 203-204)

    John Ferric

    March 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    • Withdrawing projections is vital for any relationship to “grow”. But for a relationship to begin, a relationship with “Eros” connotations, there must be projections to activate and hooks to receive the projections. The rest becomes a life-long process of discovery of both self and other. Thanks as always, John, especially for the Pedersen quootation.


      March 18, 2012 at 11:08 am

  4. Robert, how does one go about withdrawing projections in therapy? Next, for those who do not have access to therapy, is there a guide for withdrawing projections?

    John Ferric

    March 18, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    • First, one has to realise that one has made a projection. One recognizes projections by looking at one’s “heat” reaction to someone (or something). Then it becomes a task of looking at what it is within oneself that is responding to this person (or thing). Life has a way of stripping away projections – getting to know someone better be it friend or enemy in a fuller sense (boss becomes human for example when seen in a different context/environment). One only needs a therapist when one becomes frozen, lost, dysfunctional in one’s normal life. I hope this is somewhat helpful. It’s a good place for others to offer what they have on this topic. 🙂


      March 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm

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