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On Setting Boundaries

“No” is a complete sentence.”
Anne Lamott

When I was working at an in-patient recovery center as a therapist, we would discuss boundaries in group. Many of the men in my group were between the ages of 18-30 and had issues relative to their addictive behaviors such as dual diagnoses like depression and/or anxiety.

Many in the groups I chaired shared how they felt like failures and that they were behind in what society deemed appropriate behaviors such as: doing a good job; supporting a family; and having a house with a white picket fence.

They deemed themselves failures which precipitated relapses once they went back to old environment.

 

The men shared they had kept going to AA meetings and kept vigilant about triggers, cues for potential relapse but put themselves again and again in compromising positions not understanding the concept of proper boundaries for their sobriety.

Why are Boundaries Important?

Each of us experiences reality in terms of:

  • The body – what we look like
  • Thinking – how we give meaning to incoming data
  • Feelings – our emotional response
  • Behavior – what we do or don’t do

Setting boundaries enhances a person’s ability to have a sense of self and to control the impact of reality on the self and others.

Our boundaries allow us to take in what is deemed necessary emotionally, but if the created boundaries  are negative, our perception of ourselves will be enhanced in a negative light.

Individuals experience self-esteem by directing to the self their perception of appearance, their thoughts and responses and what they should or should not do with their lives. Boundaries act as filters to the soul, what we perceive that we are, we become.

How do Boundaries Work?

We learn to set boundaries on two levels:

  • The external system that protects the body and controls distance and touch.
  •  The internal system that acts as a filter or block to protect one’s thinking, feeling and behavior.

External boundaries are violated by actions such as:

  • Touching or standing too close without permission
  • Intruding on a person’s privacy; for instance, walking into a bathroom or bedroom without knocking or getting into another person’s possessions without permission.

Examples of internal boundaries being violated include yelling, screaming, name calling, ridiculing, lying, patronizing, sarcasm, negative control, unrealistic expectations and demanding one’s own way or point of view as the only choice.

In the end, the ability to set boundaries may take several forms: The person who, because of low self-esteem, childhood training or painful experiences of the past, is unable to unwilling set limits and thus has no protection.

Example of Creating Boundaries – Enabling

It may be easier to find a list of don’ts in dealing with chemical dependency boundaries creation, for it is easier to understand why you fail than to know how to succeed. The following list is not inclusive but it makes a good beginning:

  • Don’t allow the dependent person to lie to you and accept it for truth, for in so doing, you encourage this process (enabling). The truth is often painful, but get it.
  • Don’t let the chemically person exploit you or take advantage of you, for in so doing, you become an accomplice (enabler) in the evasion of responsibility.
  • Don’t let the chemically dependent person outsmart you, for this teaches him/her to avoid responsibility and lose respect for you at the same time–enabling.
  • Don’t lose your temper and thereby destroy yourself and any possibility of help.
  • Don’t lecture, moralize, scold, praise, blame, threaten or argue. You may feel better, but the situation will be worse.
  • Don’t accept promises, for this is just a method of postponing pain. In the same way, don’t keep switching agreements. If an agreement is made, stick to it.
  • Don’t allow your anxiety to compel you to do what the chemically dependent person must do for him/herself.
  • Don’t cover up or abort the consequences of the chemical use. This reduces the crisis but perpetuates the illness.
  • If at all possible, seek professional help.
  • Don’t put off facing the reality that chemical dependency is a progressive illness that gets increasingly worse as use of mood altering chemicals continue.

Why Are Good Boundaries Important?

When you have weak boundaries, you compromise who you are. You lose yourself, your freedom, your control and your “territory.”

Because you are the only thing in which you have complete control, healthy boundaries are an essential part of proper self-maintenance.

You may ask, especially if the addict or alcoholic in your life is your child, how can I be a good partner, friend or relative to this person if I have such limits? IYou may feel like it’s putting a wall up and feel guilty or as if you are betraying this person in his/her hour of need.

Yes, it is excruciating to see someone you love struggle with addiction, but, like they say on the airplane, you need to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. Good boundaries are critical. You’ll find that you are actually of little or no help to others without them.

Conclusions

As we learned in group, a basic coping skill in interpersonal relationships is the ability to set and maintain boundaries for our interaction with others and with the world as we experience it.

Many allow themselves to be imposed upon and even mistreated because of poor self-image, fear of conflict and uncertainty about their right to exercise control over their lives. Boundaries can be walls of protection or they can become barriers to fulfillment.

“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate, it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall. Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Hearts and fence photo available from Shutterstock

On Setting Boundaries

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in northern Michigan who has a passion for reading, writing, music and helping others. He specializes in counseling complex family situations, substance abuse, and parenting. Steve’s counseling philosophy is holistic, approaching each issue on its own merit and evaluating influences to help overcome life’s dilemmas.

 

APA Reference
Greenman, S. (2015). On Setting Boundaries. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 11, 2018, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/on-setting-boundaries/

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Jul 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Jul 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.