Dave grew up in an alcoholic home, so he never learned the concept of boundaries in relationships. In fact, when I first met Dave, he told me he’d never heard of the idea of boundaries applied to anything other than map making. Now, as an adult, he was trying to set limits with his alcoholic mother, and it wasn’t going well.
His mother often showed up at his house without calling – sometimes when he and his wife were trying to put the kids to bed, sometimes during dinner. She seemed oblivious to how disruptive this was for Dave and his family. On a couple of occasions, she showed up drunk. He called and paid for a cab to take her home. Dave found it hard to set limits with his mother, in part because growing up in an alcoholic home, he had no practice. As time went by, his mother’s behavior started taking a toll on his marriage. When the late-night phone calls started, he decided that he’d had enough. Dave was having his boundaries crossed, and he was angry.
Eventually, Dave got to a boiling point. And when he did finally set boundaries with his mother, it turned into an angry confrontation.
It would have been better for everyone involved if both Dave had set and enforced boundaries early in the process, before he became frustrated and angry. Dave could have asked his mother not to come by without calling first and please don’t call after 8:00.
I do a lot of work with people from homes where there is an alcoholic or addict, or they grew up with alcoholism or addiction. As a result, I spend a lot of time talking about boundaries in counseling sessions. Many adult children of alcoholics struggle with issues related to boundaries in relationships.
Dave is not a real person. He’s a composite of people I have known and issues I have seem.
Boundaries are important. They are a vital component of healthy relationships.
When a boundary is crossed, it’s important to provide feedback, saying it’s not okay. You also must be willing to enforce your boundaries in relationships – whether it’s in relationships with family members, neighbors or friends. Boundaries are worthless if you don’t enforce them by giving feedback and consequences. Some people will easily accept a boundary. Others may continue to challenge your boundaries, or may even get upset. Sometimes boundaries need to be addressed again. Sometimes there needs to be consequences. Dave could end up telling his mother that she can’t come over unless he calls her first and invites her. The specific consequences depend on the nature and history of the relationship.
Boundaries are necessary for several reasons Here are a few:
Being true to yourself: Boundaries allow you to decide what’s good for you and what you won’t put up with. They allow you to express your feelings and say what you want.
Self-care: Setting healthy boundaries indicates that you value your own well-being, needs and feelings. They are an indication that you are not available to neglect your own needs for the benefit of other people. Healthy boundaries keep you from over-extending yourself – from saying yes when you want to say no, and then developing a resentment later.
Realistic expectations: Healthy boundaries help you set realistic expectations of yourself, and of what other people can expect from you. When you get in the habit of clearly expressing your boundaries, people will know what they can expect from you, and what you consider reasonable.
Nonetheless, setting boundaries can be hard, especially if you’re not used to it. This may be for several reasons
Fear: Fear of making other people angry, or hurting their feelings. What will happen if I set this boundary, or say no? But you might want to ask yourself what will happen if you don’t set a boundary. And how likely is it, really, that something bad will happen when you do? Is this a legitimate fear, or is it just keeping you stuck?
You don’t know how: If you grew up in a family without boundaries, especially around alcoholism or addiction, you may never have learned how to set healthy boundaries. You can learn to set boundaries. I’ll have more on that in my next blog.
People pleasing: People sometimes get hung up in the need to please others. This is particularly true of people who struggle with self-worth, and feel they have to prove their self-worth by putting other people’s needs ahead of their own. This is a fast road to resentment. Also, this is often the case for people who grew up in alcoholic, or abusive homes, where "rocking the boat" could have had negative consequences.
Yes, it’s true that setting boundaries can disrupt relationships. Saying no can be hard if you’re not used to it. Indeed, some people may resist. You may have to set the same boundary over and over again. But it’s important to stick with it. I’ll have more on how to set boundaries in my next blog.
If you need help setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries, I’m here to help. I offer therapy and counseling for families of addicts and alcoholics, and for addicts in early sobriety. If you're interested in learning more or scheduling an appointment, I can be reached at (812) 371-6330 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t forget to take good care of yourself.