Mental Health Blog

Defining Boundaries

Posted by Alan Godfrey on

Most of the following is for work with couples in recovery, but the boundary examples, message, and implementation are applicable for every person who has ever had someone cross their boundaries or had trouble in this area.

What are boundaries? Boundaries are like fences between neighbors. They define the limits of the relationship. They provide safety and structure, define appropriate and inappropriate engagement in the relationship, and delineate responses to inappropriate or unhealthy engagement.
 First, let’s define what boundaries are and are not.  

Boundaries are…
∙ used to define limits of relationships
∙ healthy responses to violations of self
∙ in place as trust is rebuilt in relationships
∙ protection against repeated harm
Boundaries are not…

∙ punishments
∙ methods of coercing and forcing behaviors
∙ ways to avoid dealing with pain
∙ used to emotionally disconnect
Because boundaries are the opposite of becoming responsible for his behaviors or recovery, it is wise to self-assess occasionally and determine whether you are crossing the line into becoming responsible.
Some warning signs that you may be crossing into becoming responsible for another person's recovery are:
∙ Providing constant reminders of recovery behaviors he/she is “supposed to be doing”
∙ Experiencing consistent, intense emotional reactions to his/her lack of recovery behaviors
∙ Punishing or shaming him into doing things he/she has committed to do
∙ Basing your own commitment to your recovery on whether he/she is doing his work
∙ Numbing out or disconnecting from your own emotions based on his/her behaviors
∙ Controlling or manipulating
Good boundaries will help you avoid these types of responses. If you are the spouse or friend of someone with poor boundaries or have poor boundaries yourself, you will need to know these two types of boundaries:

Personal boundaries are about how you respond to yourself. Your own triggers in recovery and emotional responses may sometimes lead you to unhealthy coping. This might include emotionally disconnecting (zoning out), punishing, controlling, or micro-managing others’ behaviors. Personal boundaries allow you to make healthy choices in the face of powerful emotional triggers.
Examples of personal boundary statements are:
“I can choose my responses to his slips or relapses. I do not have to allow my trauma to control how I respond.”
“Instead of punishing him/her for hurting me, I will take care of myself in a healthy way. When he/she has earned my trust, I will share with him/her my feelings and needs.”
“I can decide when and how I begin to trust him/her again.”
“I will work on my own recovery, regardless of his/her commitment to his recovery.”
“Instead of zoning out and emotionally disconnecting when I am in pain, I will reach out and share with others in my life who are safe.”
“I choose not to be responsible for his/her choices.”
“I can choose to love and accept myself even when his/her actions affects the way I perceive myself.”
Relational boundaries are most often set with parents, family, or friends. Your relational boundaries define how much physical and emotional space you need between you and others. These boundaries define how you will respond when others act (or refuse to act). They keep you safe when others are not ready to keep you safe.
Examples of relational boundary statements you might share with your spouse/friend are:
“Even if you decide not to stay engaged in (X), I will continue to do my own work.”
“If you act out in your (X-behavior) and hide it from me, I will ask you not to sleep in my bed until I feel safe again with you.”
“I will feel much safer and more able to trust you if you are attending weekly counseling/12-step meetings. If you choose not to go, I will be limited in my ability to emotionally connect with you.”
“If you try to blame me for your choices in addiction, I will let you know that in our next therapy session together we will discuss my concerns with our therapist. I will not argue with you about it or defend myself.”
“If you cannot work toward understanding how your addiction has hurt me, and if you continue to excuse your behavior, I will move toward separation from you.”
Implementing and Enforcing Boundaries
You may not verbally share every single boundary you set with others. Some may be just for you. However, if they involve responding to the other person, it is important that he be aware of them. Here are some simple steps to implement and enforce your boundaries.
IMPLEMENT
1. Decide on your boundaries — write them down.
2. Share your boundaries with him: “In order to maintain my own safety while you are working on your
recovery, when you __________, I will __________ ."

3. If necessary, remind him of your boundaries to provide clarity.

ENFORCE
 1. Slow down, breathe, and quietly decide how you will respond.
 2. Remind him/her of your boundary and that your response is about your own emotional and relational safety. 
3. Follow through with the boundary.
4. Help him/her understand that your boundary is in place until you feel safe again, and not for a set period of time.

The best way I have heard boundaries described is this, “My boundaries are how I protect myself when you choose not to protect me.”

 

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