We hear the word boundaries all over the place, especially when we have an active addict in our midst. We all think we know what boundaries are and how to set and maintain them. Unfortunately, we seem to lose that skill as we deal with the active addict. Lines blur and we give in even though we know we “shouldn’t.” Our boundaries become flexible and bendable. We stop sticking to our word and we forget that we had limits.
So what are boundaries? Boundaries are the physical, emotional, personal and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are and what we think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of others. Boundaries help us express ourselves as unique individuals, while acknowledging the same in others.
When we lack healthy boundaries, we open ourselves up to abuse, being taken advantage of and manipulated by others. How often have you done something for someone you said you were not going to do? When do you feel taken advantage of? How does it feel when you know you are doing something you don’t want to do, but you don’t speak up or else you got talked into it? Not speaking up and establishing our own personal boundaries will erode our self-esteem and feed our anger and resentments toward the active addict in our lives. We end up over functioning and becoming angry with others when we don’t feel they are “pulling their weight.”
Learning to set healthy personal boundaries is necessary for maintaining a positive self-concept. It is our way of communicating to others that we have self-respect, self-worth and will not allow others to define us. Setting boundaries means preserving our integrity.
Types of Boundaries and Examples of Violations
Physical – the right to have space around your body in order to feel comfortable
Example of violations – someone invading your physical space, touching someone when/how they don’t want to be touched including tickling, spitting on, slapping, kicking, hitting, pushing or otherwise attacking the body of another.
Emotional – the right to feel how you feel; the right for others to feel how they feel.
Example of violations – “Don’t be sad.” “You don’t have the right to be angry with me after what you did.” “You’re not depressed, you’re just tired.”
Intellectual – the right to your own thoughts, ideas, beliefs and values, the right to learn.
Examples of violations – imposing beliefs on another; “How could you vote for the Liberals? You know nothing about politics.” “Don’t be stupid.”
Psychological – the right to psychological wellbeing (a combination of emotional and cognitive health)
Examples of violations – “gaslighting” – making you think you’re crazy, cutting remarks followed by “Can’t you take a joke?” purposefully depriving someone of sleep, psychological torture.
Sexual – the right to experience sexual activities in a positive, safe manner
Examples of violations – unwanted sexual touch, saying “yes” or giving in when you really mean “no,” not accepting “no” for an answer, inappropriate sexual comments, “forgetting” to use birth control when pregnancy is not wanted.
Spiritual – the right to believe in any form of spirituality or religion or to not believe at all.
Examples of violations – forcing a religion on another, “How can you not believe in God?”
Financial – the right to information, decision-making, and access to financial health.
Examples of violations – withholding information about and/or access to finances as a way to maintain control, lending money you can’t afford to lend, blocking a spouse from access to money, spending money you don’t have, misusing shared funds.
Professional – maintaining a professional separation between parties when there is a clear power differential; eg. teacher/student, doctor/patient.
Example of violations: abuse of power, exploitation of vulnerability.
What Affects the Development of our Boundaries?
How Do We Establish Healthy Boundaries?
Know that you and others have a right to boundaries. You not only have the right, but you must take responsibility for how you allow others to treat you. Your boundaries act as filters permitting what is acceptable in your life and what is not. If you don’t have boundaries that protect and define you, as in a strong sense of identity, you tend to derive your sense of worth from others. To avoid this situation, set clear and decisive limits so that others will respect them, and then be willing to do whatever it takes to enforce them. Interestingly, it’s been shown that those who have weak boundaries tend to violate the boundaries of others.
Recognize that other people’s needs and feelings are not more important than your own. Many women have traditionally thought that the needs of their husbands and children are more important than their own. This is not only untrue, but it can undermine the healthy functioning of the family dynamic. If a woman is worn out mentally and physically from putting everyone else first, she not only destroys her own health, she in turn deprives her family of being fully engaged in their lives. Instead, she should encourage every family member to contribute to the whole as well as take care of himself or herself. Putting themselves last is not something only women do, but many men do as well.
Learn to say no. Many of us are people pleasers and often put ourselves at a disadvantage by trying to accommodate everyone. We don’t want to be selfish so we put our personal needs on the back burner and agree to do things that may not be beneficial to our wellbeing. The fact is, a certain amount of “selfishness” is necessary for having healthy personal boundaries. You don’t do anyone any favors, least of all yourself, by trying to please others at your own expense.
Identify the actions and behaviours that you find unacceptable. Let others know when they’ve crossed the line, acted inappropriately or disrespected you in any way. Likewise, don’t be afraid to tell others when you need emotional and physical space in order to be who you really are without any pressure to be anything else. Know for yourself what actions you need to take if your wishes aren’t respected.
Trust and believe in yourself. You are the highest authority on you. You know yourself best. You know what you need, want and value. Don’t let anyone else make the decisions for you. Healthy boundaries allow you to respect your strengths, abilities and individuality as well as those of others. Unhealthy imbalance can occur when you encourage neediness or are needy, want to be rescued or are the rescuer, or choose to play the victim.
Having healthy boundaries is difficult especially when you are enmeshed with someone. For example it is hard to say no. When your child asks you to bail her out again. One trick that is often used when you are unsure of whether to set a boundary or not is to ask yourself if what she is doing is going to result in something negative for you, or if helping her is going to result in something negative for you. To take care of yourself, setting boundaries and sticking to them is a skill you will need to learn and practice.
If this is an area you struggle with or would like to learn more about, please visit Families Do Recover and register for our course on Boundaries where you will learn to set and maintain boundaries with your addicted loved one.
In the meantime, you can receive more information that will help you and your addicted child by signing up for free information and blog posts.
is a Vancouver-based Addictions Specialist and Family Therapist with training and experience in numerous areas related to healing and recovery from the devastation of addiction & alcoholism.