In the recovery language we continue to hear about shifting the focus from the addict to ourselves. We learn that to help another, we have to first help ourselves. The concept irritates most of us and discourages us from continuing to access help weather is by attending a group or individual counseling. When the counselor insist we practice self-care, set healthy boundaries, learn to let go of control, stop trying to fix things and discontinue our attempts to find the right cure for the addict, we feel disappointed. We feel that our needs are not being met and the helper does not understand the seriousness and urgency of the situation. We are preoccupied with helping another, just as he/she is preoccupied with her drug of choice. Most of their activities evolve around obtaining, using and recovering from the substance use, and most of our activities evolve around finding the right intervention, applying the intervention, and once again feeling defeated and discouraged when the intervention fails. No matter what we do, there is no change. At least not until we start having a healthier relationship with ourselves. When we start to set boundaries with others; speak our mind in a respectful and honest way, and expect to be treated with respect and dignity, then and only then, things slowly begin to change.
What are Boundaries?
Boundaries define limits and dividing lines. The purpose of a boundary is to make clear separation between different territory, between what is mine and what is yours, what I need to worry about and what is yours to worry about, what is my responsibility and what’s yours…
There are two primary types of boundaries. Natural boundaries and personal boundaries.
A natural boundary is a boundary that is set by the world we live in; it is a natural part of how life works, and what is acceptable or not an acceptable in our society.
Personal Boundaries are limits we set for what we deem an acceptable behavior from those around us, determining whether they feel able to put us down, make fun, or take advantage of us. Healthy self-esteem and a healthy self-respect will produce boundaries which indicate to others that we deserve to be treated well; they will also protect us from exploitative relationships.
Personal boundaries are physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated. They allow us to separate who we are, how we think and feel; They give us permission to have difference of opinions and feelings from the thoughts and feelings of others.. They also allow us to tell other people when they are acting in ways that are not OK. Healthy boundaries begin with the recognition that we have not only the right, but the duty, to take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us. And just to be clear: we do teach other people how to treat us.
We need to start becoming aware of what healthy behavior and acceptable interactions look like. We need to start learning how to be honest with ourselves, how to own our feelings, and how to communicate in a direct and assertive manner.
For example, when we own our feelings, we communicate to others by saying: “I felt hurt when you did that”; When we blame others, and make them responsible for the way we feel, we say: “you make me mad” “you drive me crazy”
When we blame others for the way we feel, we choose to believe that we are NOT responsible, for our own feelings. “You MAKE ME mad” indicates that someone else has power and control over how I feel. This means that even when I feel good, another person has the power to “MAKE ME” feel bad.
We hold other people responsible for our feelings – and vice versa. This is what some experts call ‘emotional defense system’. If I blame you, I do not have to “own my feelings”, or take responsibility for them. Blame is a way to discharge pain and discomfort.
Judging is another example of emotional defense system, and something that gets in a way of healthy boundaries.
- Judgment is saying: “He is a jerk.”
- Observation is saying, “He is yelling and screaming and it would be better for me to not get involved.”
This last statement illustrates a healthy boundary between the person and behavior. It also conveys respect for the person in spite of what their learned behavior may be. All beings deserve to be valued and respected, even thought, their behavior may not be appropriate or acceptable. Many of our behaviors and attitudes are nothing more but adopted defenses that helped some of us survive in the hostile or dysfunctional environments into which we were born. When we understand this phenomena, we can begin to view the world and other people in more kind and forgiving way.
Other examples of emotional defenses that interfere with healthy boundaries are:
- Rationalization: “Creating false but plausible excuses to justify unacceptable behavior.”
- Identification:“Bolstering self-esteem by forming an imaginary or real alliance with some person or group.”
- Displacement:“Diverting emotional feelings (usually anger) from their original source to a substitute target.”
- Projection: “Attributing one’s own thoughts, feelings, or motives to another.”
- Regression:“A reversion to immature patterns of behavior.”
- Reaction formation “behaving completely contrary to how one truly feels.”
- Repression: “Keeping distressing thoughts and feelings buried in the unconscious.”
By setting boundaries, we are communicating with another person, without using blame or the other emotional defense mechanisms We are telling them who we are and what we need. We are learning to love and protect ourselves, and to relay to other’s that we have worth.
Some boundaries are rigid – and they need to be:: “It is not OK to hit me” “It is not acceptable to cheat.” “It is not acceptable to call me names.” “It is not OK to slam doors”. However, in some situations, it may be possible to negotiate boundaries: “Here is what I am willing to do, and here is what I need from you.” “Let’s negotiate a few agreements about our expectations and behavior”. If negotiating is possible, then it definitely is a number one, and the best option we have. After all, we want to be able to openly discuss our needs, wishes and wants with the people who are closest to us. We want to be able to treat each other with love and respect and do all that we can to have a strong and solid relationship. It is, after all, impossible to have a healthy relationship with someone who has no boundaries, cannot communicate directly and honestly.
Formula for healthy communication
So how do we communicate with others without making judgmental or blaming statements?
A good start is to avoid statements that begin with “you”:
- “You are so predictable”
- “You are crazy”
- “You make me feel lousy”
- “You make me furious”
- “You suck!”
- “You are unpredictable”
Follow this simple formula for expressing self:
“I feel………… when you………..”
Here are some examples of “I statements”:
“I feel alarmed when you raise your voice. Please stop.
“I feel lonely when you go out to the bar most Saturdays. I would like you to spent some Saturdays at home”
“I feel hurt and disrespected when you call me names. I want you to stop.”
“I feel scared when you slam the cupboards and bang the pots and pans. Please don’t”
The formula in reverse:
“When you slam the cupboards, I feel scared. I want you to stop.”
“When you call me names, I feel hurt and disrespected. I want you to stop calling me names”
“When you make a promise and not keep it, I feel hurt. I want you to not make promises you cannot keep.”
All of these statements are called: “I statements” They acknowledge that we are two separate beings with our own feelings and reactions. “I statements” allow us to communicate with another person about how their actions affect us, and what it is that we feel when they choose to behave a certain way. Moreover, “I statements” allow us to protect ourselves. By sharing our observation we teach others what behaviors we find hurtful, disrespectful, inappropriate, and which of these we are not willing to tolerate. “I statements” can be used not only to communicate about what we don’t like, but also to relay what we want and what we need: “I feel lonely when you go out to the bar most Saturdays. I would like you to spent some Saturdays at home”
When using “I statements” it is very important accurately describe the behavior without making judgments:
Avoid these statements
Use these statements
When you freak out
When you slam the cupboards, and throw things
When you get angry
When your face gets red and your voice gets louder
When you behave like a jerk
When you raise your voice and call me names
When we first confront someone’s misbehavior in a healthy way, the other person may not initially respond to it as we hoped. However, by describing the behavior to the person, we will be planting seeds that may eventually assist them in becoming more mindful of the sound of their own voice, tone of their voice, choice of words they use, or their actions in a given situation. Describing behavior is an important step towards making it possible for the other people to gain awareness of how their action affects those around them. It is also important to continue doing this, even if we feel that our new method of communication is not making a huge difference. Change is a process. It takes time and effort. The person we are in relationship with will need to hear our messages more than once. They will need to hear the same feedback consistently over a period of time before accepting the new reality and the fact that we have truly changed, and we won’t put up with their unacceptable behavior any longer.
“I feel” statement is the part of the formula where we express our emotions in a healthy and honest way. It is best to use simple feeling words: hurt, scared, afraid, intimidated: “When your voice gets loud and your face gets red, I feel scared and intimidated; I want you to talk to me in your regular tone of voice.”
“I want” is the part where we describe the exact behavior we desire. It is important to be specific:
- I want you to stop yelling
- I want you to speak in a normal tone of voice
- I want you to be home when you say you’d be
If you – (describe unacceptable behavior being as graphic as possible.)
I will – (describe action you will take to protect yourself if the other person violates the boundary.)
If you continue this behavior – a description of what steps you will take to protect this boundary
You may or may not choose to share this last part of the formula with the other person when setting a boundary – the first two steps are the actual setting of the boundary. The third part is something we need to know for ourselves, so that we know what to do if the other person violates the boundary: “if you continue this behavior, I will have to consider leaving”; “if you continue to yell, I will leave the room”, “if you call me names, I will break up with you”, “if you continue to come home late, I will not be here waiting for you”, “if you keep putting my friends down, I will not invite you to our gatherings..”
It is not enough to set boundaries – it is necessary to be willing to do whatever it takes to enforce them, and go to any length necessary to protect ourselves.
It is very important to set consequences that we are willing to enforce: don’t say that you will leave, if this is not something you are ready to follow through on. The consequences we set for behaviors we find unacceptable should be realistic: something that is within the other person’s power, enforceable, and something that we are willing to follow through on. It is also important to set consequences that impact the other person more than us.
Boundary should not be a threat, or an attempt to control the other person It is not a way to manipulate: “When we set a boundary we let go of the outcome. We hope the other person decides to change their behavior (because we are not willing to tolerate their current way of behaving) and, because they respect us and want a relationship with us; however, it is up to the person to choose if they want to change or not.
We make our own choices, such as: do I stay in this relationship/situation or do I leave? If we do not own that we have a choice to leave an abusive relationship – then we are not making a choice to stay in the relationship. It is vital that we take responsibility for our decisions, and see ourselves as being an active participant, a co- creator of our life. Otherwise, we end up feeling stuck, hopeless, angry and resentful. We begin to feel like a victim or a martyr.
In order to become empowered, have self-love and self-respect, it is vital to perceive ourselves as active participants in our lives, to stop giving power to the belief that we are the victim, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge that we have choices. We always have a choice. We do not “have to” do anything. If we are blaming and being the victim we will never be happy.
The choices may seem to be awful; the consequences of our choices may seem dreadful – but allowing ourselves to buy into the illusion that we are trapped will have much worse consequences.
Example: I allow my adult son addicted to Meth, take advantage of me, because I am afraid that if I don’t let him live in my home he will die a horrible death somewhere in the back alley of a street. versus: I am choosing to allow my son to take advantage of me, because I am not willing/ready to accept the consequence of what might happen when I set a boundary. This is a choice that I am making. I am an active participant in this relationship. I choose this situation. At any time, I can choose to say that I am no longer willing to tolerate it.