"Boundaries empower us to determine how we'll be treated by others."

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Episode 130 -- July 12, 2021

Maintenance and Management: Boundaries in Recovery

Have you ever had uncomfortable feelings around a certain someone or when a specific subject was being discussed? This may indicate that your boundaries were being violated. Boundaries are a tool we can wield to protect ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. Recognizing others' boundaries allows us to let them live as they need to protect and respect themselves.

The topic of boundaries is one that challenges everybody—whether or not we're in recovery. Some of us grew up with boundaries that were violated, while some of us depended on having blurry boundaries while we used substances.

In her book Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin, author and therapist Anne Katherine shows us what healthy boundaries can look like. Katherine describes physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, and relational boundaries—all of which can bring more order in our lives. In this excerpt, we learn about how our boundaries came to be and that, like anything worth having, they need maintenance. For those of us in recovery, boundary violations can act as triggers. We may even need stronger boundaries to ensure our progress. Developing this important skill of recognizing and setting boundaries can be one way we stay on track in our recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Our skin marks the limit of our physical selves, but we have another boundary that extends beyond our skin. We become aware of this when someone stands too close. It's as if we are surrounded by an invisible circle, a comfort zone. This zone is fluid. A lover, say, can stand closer than most friends, and a friend can stand closer than a stranger. With someone who is hostile we might need a great deal of distance.

We have other boundaries as well—emotional, spiritual, sexual, and relational. You have a limit to what is safe and appropriate. You have a border that separates you from others. Within this border is your youness, that which makes you an individual different and separate from others.

What is an emotional boundary? We have a set of feelings and reactions that are distinctly ours. We respond to the world uniquely based on our individual perceptions, our special histories, our values, goals, and concerns. We can find people who react similarly, but no one reacts precisely as we do.

When it comes to how others treat us emotionally, we have limits on what is safe and appropriate. Once I came out of a store in downtown Seattle and a stranger started screaming at me about a religious matter. I turned and walked away. I do not have to accept screaming from anyone. I will accept appropriate anger from my friends and loved ones, but even then, I determine how close I'm willing to be to an angry person.

When I was younger, my landlady routinely commented about my weight. "You're getting bigger, ain't cha?"

I let her say those things to me because I didn't know any better. Now I know that no one has a right to comment on my body. If that happened today, I'd tell her, "My size is none of your business, and I want you to keep those thoughts to yourself." If she persisted, I'd also persist. I might never again deal with her in person. I might even move—whatever it would take to protect my emotional boundaries.

I used to let my clients say anything they wanted to me. If their need to be angry is that urgent, I thought, let them learn anger with me. Now I sacrifice myself for no one. If a client says something that hurts, I set a limit. Clients can be angry with me, and they can tell me so, but meanness and hostility advance neither the relationship nor the individual. If I let someone abuse me verbally, I have done neither one of us a favor.

The same is true for you. When you let someone abuse you or hurt you verbally, the other person is not advanced. Protecting yourself sets a necessary limit for both of you. That limit advances the relationship.

We have spiritual boundaries. You are the only one who knows the right spiritual path for yourself. If someone tries to tell you he or she knows the only way you can believe, that person is out of line. To quote the Bible, Philippians 2:12, you must "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." We can be assisted but not forced. Our spiritual development comes from our inner selves.

We have sexual boundaries, limits on what is safe and appropriate sexual behavior from others. We have a choice about the people with whom we interact sexually and the extent of that interaction.

We have relational boundaries. The roles we play define the limits of appropriate interaction with others. In later chapters, we'll explore and further define these kinds of boundaries. But why so much talk about boundaries? Why are they so important?

Boundaries bring order to our lives. As we learn to strengthen our boundaries, we gain a clearer sense of ourselves and our relationship to others. Boundaries empower us to determine how we'll be treated by others. With good boundaries, we can have the wonderful assurance that comes from knowing we can and will protect ourselves from the ignorance, meanness, or thoughtlessness of others.

Your skin is an obvious example of your physical boundary. Your emotional and relational boundaries may be less obvious, but they are just as important.

If the barrier of your skin is breached by a scratch, you become vulnerable to infection. If your emotional or relational boundaries are breached, you also become vulnerable to harm. When these invisible boundaries are trespassed by the thoughtless or intrusive actions of others, it is called a boundary violation.

Like any fence, boundaries require maintenance. Some people are like ivy. They keep trying to crawl over or through our boundaries. It's tiresome, but if we let these people stay in our lives, we must keep pruning them and throwing the behavior weeds out of our yards.

What are boundaries like? Are they rigid or stiff? If I have a boundary that limits hostile comments from others, am I also walling out compliments?

Boundaries come in assorted shapes and sizes. They can be rigid like a brick wall or as flexible as a plastic bag, as impenetrable as a lead shield or as permeable as a chain-link fence. Some boundaries are transparent; others are opaque. Boundaries can be so far out that people can hardly get within yelling distance. Or they can be so close that, in the words of comedian Groucho Marx, "If I were any closer, I'd be in back of you."

What is seen as a healthy boundary in one country or culture may be misunderstood or feared in another culture. Actions interpreted as boundary violations by one group of people may be common customs in other circles. People from the U.S., with their easy familiarity, may unwittingly violate boundaries in other more formal countries with practices that are common within our own borders. Even different families in the same neighborhood may have very different values and priorities depending on their cultures and upbringing.

Such basic differences can create a clash of boundaries. Boundaries, to some extent then, are influenced by the values of the culture in which we live. When we interact with people from different cultures, it's important to be sensitive to these differences and to remember that each side may unwittingly cross a boundary, not from malice but from ignorance.

Our emotional health is related to the health of our boundaries. When we grow up in a dysfunctional family, learning how to use boundaries is one of the most uncomfortable set of clothes to try on. It threatens our former understanding of survival itself and in that way goes against our very grain. But with time the wardrobe changes. We come to see ourselves as clearly separate from others, yet not too distant, and if our boundaries are intact we have a sense of well-being. Intact, clear boundaries feel good. Healthy boundaries are flexible enough that we can choose what to let in and what to keep out. We can determine to exclude meanness and hostility and let in affection, kindness, and positive regard.

Where are your boundaries? Do you know? Do you have a sense of your edges, your uniqueness? Are you comfortable within your limits?

About the Author:
Anne Katherine, MA, is a best-selling author and a respected therapist, now retired. She leads popular workshops and retreats, speaks at conferences, and is the author of When Misery Is Company, Where to Draw the Line, and Anatomy of a Food Addiction.

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