When Setting Boundaries Feels Scary

BoundariesA woman came to see me (Dr. Cloud) once for help in her marriage. She described her husband as so “powerful” and “intimidating” she just could not find it in herself to talk to him about things bothering her.

“Why don’t you just talk to him about these things?” I asked.

“Oh, I just couldn’t do that,” she would reply. “He’s too strong. He’s so intimidating. I just don’t know what to do.”

After seeing I wasn’t getting anywhere by suggesting she talk to her husband, I asked her if her husband would come in to see me. She said she would tell him I would like to talk to him. I had no idea what I was in for.

On the day of her next appointment, I went into the waiting room to find the woman sitting there with a small, frail-looking man. He stood and said, in one of the least intimidating, squirrelly little voices I had ever heard, “Hi, Dr. Cloud. It is so nice to meet you!” I remember describing him later as “mousy.” He came across as just a whisper of a person.

I could see immediately that his wife and I had some work to do. I had to help her see where her distorted view of her husband as powerful and intimidating came from. After much work in counseling, we discovered that as a result of growing up with a powerful, intimidating, “unconfrontable” father, this woman saw all men she needed in the same way. She had never worked through her tendency to distort.

We all have such “transferences,” or tendencies to see people in light of past experiences. We distort authority figures, men, women, romantic ties, people’s neediness, and their imperfections.

In dating relationships, a woman will sometimes so idealize her boyfriend that she cannot even see the problems that need confronting. She idealizes him to the extent that she does not confront ongoing problems, and then there is a big blowup later. Or the “idealized” one loses interest because he has so much power in the relationship. Whenever someone is too idealized, the power imbalance is destructive to the connection; it will ultimately break down.

In some organizations, followers sometimes so idealize their leaders that they do not deal with ongoing issues and problems with them, then later they hate the leaders when they fail. The proverbial “other shoe” drops, and we find that the idealization covered up much anger and many problems. In the same way, we see others as “all bad” at times, and far from idealizing them, we have difficulty seeing their good points. In this situation, a confrontation becomes a lynching. The distortion arouses destructive rage, which is directed at the person who is “all bad” in the confronter’s eyes. (This happens in many romantic breakups, too.)

Another very common scenario is one in which someone who has been enabling another person is afraid to set limits because she fears it will destroy the person who is so “weak.” Obviously, when someone is in a vulnerable position, confrontation is not a good idea. If it could put the person “over the edge,” or if he truly would not be able to take care of himself, to cut him off would be cruel. But in many situations, a family is enabling someone to stay sick and dependent because they see him as too weak and unable. It is often time to clear up that distortion and see him as a fat little bird who needs to be pushed out of the nest so that he can learn to fly.

The point is this: Obtain a realistic view of the person you are talking to, and be aware of your tendencies to do the following:

  • Idealize and romanticize
  • See as “all good” or “all bad”
  • See as overly powerful
  • See as overly needy or fragile
  • See as a parental authority figure

As you become aware of your distortions, look also at the behaviors and choices these distortions lead you to make, and use that awareness to make the changes you need to make.


Don’t let fear prevent you from being yourself and building the best relationships possible. You can set limits with other people and still be a loving person. Read The New York Times bestseller, Boundaries, and learn when to say yes and how to say no in any situation. Learn More

👉 Get The 10 Laws of Boundaries eBook when you subscribe to the Boundaries Weekly email newsletter. Learn More


  1. Esther Travis says

    I am still suffering emotional pain from abuse as a child. At 62 years old I find it depressing. I have great difficulty in relationships and am anxious all the time. Boundaries were crushed, my own identity vague. Every thought is a message from the past saying negative things that keep me torn apart. I just ordered boundaries and it’s workbook. I feel it is more than just a hope, it is concrete information to change. I hope to learn to nourish myself while setting boundaries. The excerpts I have read are keeping me positive. However working to change self perception my mother instilled in me will be my greatest challenge. I am bi polar and in Christian therapy. Your site is welcome in my life.

    • Julie Metler says

      One of the Glories of being 62 years old is that YOU get to chose what you BELIEVE. You can “think” things about yourself and you can “feel” things about yourself but, the bottom line is…What do you BELIEVE? Do you believe that you are a daughter of the Most High God? Do you believe that He sent his only Son to die a criminals death on a cross to REVEAL YOUR VALUE? Do you believe that when Jesus said,”IT IS FINISHED” on the Cross, that He paid that price for everyone…except you??? Your Mother is not more powerful Jesus… WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE FRIEND? Your “life Lived” will reveal what you truly believe. …Truth sets us FREE

    • Marissa Richards says

      I can definitely relate to your story… I read this book a couple years back and I was challenged greatly. I appreciate the fact that it’s available and I I have it as a resource to go to when I need to follow through with my lack boundary towards my self and others. Great experience ! Still learning…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *