How Do Boundaries and Self-Esteem Affect Your Relationships?

Do you find that your relationships are affected by poor boundaries and self-esteem? Or do you perhaps have too many boundaries and too much self-esteem? Dr. Monica Johnson, the Savvy Psychologist, dives into these common issues so that you can be on the lookout for these relationship patterns.

Dr. Monica Johnson
6-minute read
Episode #362
The Quick And Dirty

Thinking about our relationship patterns in terms of self-esteem and shame can help us understand our behaviors and where relationships go wrong. No matter where you fall on The Relationship Grid, we want to strive for the middle path between extremes.

Do you find that your relationships are affected by poor boundaries and self-esteem? Or do you perhaps have too many boundaries and too much self-esteem? No matter where you land, we want to avoid these extremes, as they cause problems when we try to form mutually beneficial relationships.

To help us understand relationship patterns and behaviors, we'll outline The Relationship Grid, developed by therapist Terry Real, which is a useful way to conceptualize where your primary maladaptive relationship style trends.

In this model, the horizontal axis represents boundaries and the vertical axis represents self-esteem.

Grandiosity vs Shame

Let’s start with the vertical axis, which measures self-esteem.

The top of the axis is grandiosity, or “one up,” and the bottom is toxic shame, or “one down.” Shame and grandiosity are not opposite emotions. Instead, they are the same emotion pointed in opposite directions.

When the focus is outward, we will show contempt towards others. The grandiose person feels superior, better than, godlike, and sees themself as worth more than another person or group of people. You are being grandiose whenever you look down your nose at someone.

Grandiosity means regarding someone judgmentally, not by their actions, but by character-based judgements (e.g. calling someone a moron, disgusting). You may also see grandiose people use cuss words to describe people or engage in offensive slurs for various groups of people. Grandiosity can also give a person a sense of entitlement or the feeling that they are above the law.

Toxic shame is when this contempt is pointed inward. As opposed to appropriate shame, which is when it makes sense to feel bad about something based on your actions, toxic shame is how we make ourselves feel less than.

In many ways, we can treat ourselves like we are disgusting or unfit to be around other humans. Many of the things that a grandiose person would say to others, a person filled with toxic shame will say to themselves. When we are filled with toxic shame, we see ourselves as inherently flawed and defective. We believe that we are worthless and that our needs are always secondary to everything else.

In essence, you have too much shame if you land on the toxic shame side of things and too little shame if you land on the grandiose area.

Boundaryless vs Walled Off

On the horizontal axis or the boundary line, we have "walled off" and" boundaryless."

As Terry Real writes, “When you are boundaryless, you are connected but not protected. When you are behind a wall, you are protected but not connected. Neither condition is intimate.”

Those that are boundaryless have never developed healthy boundaries. If you are boundaryless, you end up being too susceptible to emotional contagion. You soak up everything everyone else is feeling and can easily become overwhelmed. You may depend on external validation to an inappropriate degree, which can lead to impulsive behaviors to avoid abandonment or relationship impairments. You may also be prone to taking things personally.

When you are walled off, your boundaries are impenetrable. No one gets in and no one gets out. You’re so afraid of getting hurt or being engulfed by others' experiences that you put up a labyrinth of walls that make it impossible for anyone to get close to you.

Essentially, on this axis you either have too little boundaries or too many.

Don't Use Secret Tests in Your Relationships

The four quadrants

Now that we understand the two axis of The Relationship Grid, let's take a look at the four quadrants they create. Knowing which quadrant you exist in can help explain how you approach relationships.

Bottom Left: Walled Off and Shameful

In its most extreme form, this quadrant is represented by resignation and depression. People in this quadrant typically feel so terrible about who they are that they often don’t feel as though they're worthy of connection with other people. They put a wall between themselves and others because they're ashamed about what others might discover if they really got to know who they are. They assume that others would despise them, so they’ve resigned themselves to this fact.

They might engage in pessimistic thinking about their ability to connect to others. For example, “this relationship isn’t going to work anyway, why should I put myself out there, and even if I did, I don’t really deserve love.”

People in this quadrant might present as withdrawn, disengaged, or depressed. Essentially, they end up being a bench warmer, sitting on the sidelines of life, and never really getting on the field.

Upper Left: Walled Off and Grandiose

In its most extreme form, this quadrant is represented by meanness and entitlement. This person feels like they are above others. This type might believe that they are always right and seek the last word. They tend to be defensive, indifferent, and critical of others. They may also be snobbish, elitist, racist, and passive aggressive.

In general, they think their poo smells like roses, and are mean-spirited and cruel. Unfortunately, people who primarily land in this quadrant will not see themselves as the problem, despite the fact that living in this way leads to a very lonely existence.

Upper Right: Boundaryless and Gradiose

In its most extreme form, this quadrant is represented by control and violence.

This is a maladaptive style that can lead to abuse in relationships. This type of person will push it to the line and often cross it, not only to keep the relationship, but also to get their needs met.

Signature features may include being controlling, retaliation, verbal attacks, lashing out in anger, impulsiveness, and being reactionary, all of which could be taken to the extreme with violence and abuse. They are determined to keep the relationship at all costs and often feel justified in using these behaviors because they feel victimized by their partner.

What they often don't realize is these extreme behaviors are what cause others to want to run for the hills, don't bring any actual intimacy into the relationship.

Lower Right: Boundaryless and Shameful

In its most extreme form, this quadrant is represented by desperation and neediness.

This is the classic codependent, the people pleaser, the enabler. People in this quadrant might present as needy, clingy, and as though they would do anything to get someone to love them.

They are desperate for others to affirm them and are constantly in pursuit of this validation from others. They could be manipulative and attention seeking in their attempts to keep the relationship at all costs.

This is half of the pursuer-distancer dynamic. People can become overwhelmed by the pursuer's constant needs and will attempt to create distance which only leads to the pursuer trying harder to get their needs met. The problem is that no one can truly satisfy these needs in a healthy manner.

The Investment Model of Relationships

What do healthy boundaries and self-esteem look like?

After hearing all of this and understanding The Relationship Grid, you may be wondering what healthy boundaries and self-esteem look like.

As in most things in life, you are seeking the middle path between all of these extremes.

If you find that you are in a shameful state, look for opportunities to build yourself up and be vulnerable when it’s safe to do so. This can take many forms, but you could use positive affirmations or engage in activities that make you feel like a capable perosn. You may also reveal something about yourself to a close friend or partner that you assume might invoke them to reject you—most likely, they will not do so if its a healthy relationship.

If you are in a grandiose state, attempt to take the viewpoints of others into consideration, practice being nonjudgmental, and practice nonviolent communication.

If you are walled off, try getting uncomfortable. Look for opportunities to be authentic with those around you.

If you are boundaryless, take a step back and consider what your boundaries are in a situation. If you can’t think of any, ask yourself what common boundaries someone might have in this situation.

Remember, we want to avoid the extremes in all of these quadrants, as they lead to problems in our ability to connect with others in mutually satisfying ways.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.