Why Boundaries Are Important
As a loved one of someone grappling with addiction, interpersonal boundaries are important because one of the key features of addiction is that the person’s number one relationship shifts from their loved ones to the substance or behaviour. When this shift in focus occurs, naturally things begin to happen that are prone to violate boundaries. Like, if your loved one loses their job and begins borrowing money from you without paying it back. Situations like this can leave you feeling hurt because it seems like they have intentionally used you, or do not have respect for you. It can sting less if you acknowledge that they are probably not doing things with the intent of hurting you, that this is an unfortunate by-product of their behaviour in addiction.
Fortunately, you have some control over your own circumstances, you can set boundaries that help to protect you from some of the fall-out of their addiction. This is important to protect you and try to minimize the effects of their addiction on you and create some safety in this chaotic situation. Setting clear boundaries, communicating them, and consistently following through with them is good for clear communication, as well as your integrity and self-respect. Being that your loved one in active addiction may have lost track of their true selves, setting and keeping good boundaries may also avert a situation in which they do something they later regret doing.
One of the big take-home messages we have here at SCHC is that each person is the author of their own life. We work with the guys here on personal responsibility, really shifting the onus of their recovery back onto them. During our Family Program, this is one of the main points we focus on as well. You can not take away your loved one’s addiction, or fix it for them, just as you can not do their recovery for them.
Given this, boundaries are important for you to protect yourself from potential harm and also to reign yourself in when you might overstep your own domain. This is very common in relationships affected by addiction because the family member is trying to help, they do not trust the addicted person to take care of themselves, and they feel compelled to do it for them. This dynamic often translates into the same kinds of boundary violations when the person is in recovery, which of course is very understandable as trust has not been regained yet. But, we can not live someone else’s life for them, it is impossible! I encourage each person to focus on their own life and what they are personally responsible for, what they can do about it, and what their limits are.
What You Need to Have Effective Boundaries
One of the most important things you need to be able to have effective boundaries is a well-developed sense of self. You need to know what is important to you, or how can you possibly let others know?! Exploring your values and deciding which are the highest priority for you is one way to begin to answer “Who am I?” for yourself. Think about what you like, what you do not like, what are your strengths, what are your limitations, what are your hopes and dreams, and your fears and anxieties. All of these speak to your personhood and can inform your boundaries.
Something that can really help us in our ability to establish boundaries is stable self-worth and good self-esteem. When you trust in yourself, you do not easily second-guess your decisions. When you believe in yourself you have the faith that you are worth it. When you accept yourself you can value yourself, even your least favourite parts. In valuing yourself fully you are better able to demand a level of respect from yourself and others.
On a more practical level, you need to know what your responsibility is and where it ends. For example, if you have children, you are responsible for them if you are the most responsible guardian in their life. This can get quite complicated in a relationship with someone struggling with addiction. It is also hard to navigate as the child gets older and the situation is instead that they are struggling with addiction. If you have an adult child, they are not included in your boundaries because they are the author of their own life. What is the age at which one becomes the author of one’s own life? This is the developmental milestone that is worked through adolescence and in some aspects starts quite young according to the law (for example, a 14-year-old can be tried as an adult). The age of majority in BC is 19.
An effective boundary between adults is made with the understanding that it is for you, not to try and control the other person. To be able to see more clearly, it is important to get perspective on the situation before setting a boundary. Getting perspective takes a bit of space, which could require time in some cases. This can help you to take the whole picture into account, rather than reacting to a small piece of it. Unless it is a matter of immediate safety, most things can wait. This has the added benefit of giving you time to calm down as well, make sure to take advantage of this opportunity!
How do you know when you need to set a boundary? It is usually a feeling that tips you off. Feeling resentful is a sure sign that you need to clarify your position and follow through with your consequence. Let’s use the borrowing money example again; imagine your loved one borrowed money from you, did not pay it back, and you find out that they spent the money on drugs. Imagine you needed that money to pay your own bills. Likely this situation would leave you feeling resentful. Other common feelings of boundary violations are feeling pushed, pulled, squashed, pressured, etc. And while these all describe physical actions, they are often how we describe our feelings when our boundaries are being tested. Feeling pressured or hurt or uneasy can be good indicators that you need to set a boundary to protect yourself.
There are three steps to setting boundaries. First, you need to define the boundary. You need to figure out how much of the issue is within your control, and what is not. For example, if you are feeling hurt because someone you care for borrowed money and never paid it back, you have some control. While you can not necessarily force them to repay you, you can make a decision to not lend them money again. Make sure that you are realistic and avoid ultimatums because they are more difficult to follow through with.
After you define the boundary you need to clearly communicate it to the other person. Establishing boundaries can be uncomfortable when you are new at it, or this is a new thing in your relationship. That is why it is so important that you are realistic and that the intention is always one of reducing the impact of the other person’s behaviour on you rather than trying to control them. For example, if you do not want your loved one to be intoxicated around you then ask them to leave or not use around you or even leave yourself. This all depends on what your relationship is and who is involved; are there children?
Being assertive, and offering explanations can help to get your message across. Timing is also important, make sure the person is in the right frame to approach them. Calming yourself before approaching, and remaining calm through the conversation is integral (see last month’s series on emotional Self-Regulation).
The key to good boundaries is being consistent. For others to take you seriously you need to do what you say, so make sure to set yourself up for success! An important point here is that a boundary needs to be consistent with your values, which means that the actual boundary is flexible to different situations. To be true to yourself you need to be open to changing your mind. For example, imagine the same loved one had been working on building back your trust and asked for help with a security deposit on an apartment. Depending on many factors unique to your situation, you might change your original boundary, or not, but either way, it needs to be consistent with your values. These are not easy decisions to make.
Week 4: Overcoming Challenges to Setting Boundaries
One of the underlying reasons why setting boundaries and sticking to them can be so challenging is because as humans we are constantly wrestling with the opposing need for both connection and independence. We need others for our very survival, and we can become overly careful not to rupture our relationships. This struggle can vary widely from one person to another. Some people readily identify themselves as a “people pleaser” and admit this makes setting boundaries harder for them. At the core of this is the fear of losing the relationship. This again is why self-confidence can help you set boundaries.
Sometimes people in addiction will intentionally threaten the relationship in an effort to avoid or push through a boundary that has been set that impedes their relationship to the addiction, which as I mentioned before has become primary for them. In times like this I encourage you to use Logic, and let the Natural Consequences happen if possible. Some people use the term ‘tough love’, I am not such a fan of this term because it can to extend to some fairly mean behaviour. I prefer Logic because it is just dealing with reality without trying to control or rescue the other. Logic recognizes the fact that each person is the author of their own life. Any good parenting book will also agree that Natural Consequences are the best because no one needs to impose them, they just happen. Of course there are times when you must intervene, like when a child is going to run out into traffic, or a drunk person is going to drive their car.
If you are new to setting boundaries, it can be uncomfortable at first, particularly if you are getting some push back from the other person who is also not used to having boundaries set. Make sure to take care of yourself and embrace imperfection, both in yourself and the other. Remember also that you are allowed to change your mind, and that it helps to give a clear explanation as to why. Try to remain open and curious of the others perspective even when you are setting boundaries. This can be hard, but it is best to remain flexible. Remember, a boundary is for protection of yourself and those in your care, not as a punishment of the other.
Thanks for joining us for this four-part series about Interpersonal Boundaries coming to you from the Sunshine Coast Health Center. Please do send or call with any further questions and suggestions as to what topics you would like me to do a series on. I am here for your support, and if you haven’t already joined us for one of the family program weekends, please consider doing so.