Recovery Workshop: Lesson Thirty-Six

The Role of Boundaries

Boundaries…you likely already possess a general understanding of what they are and how they can be used to manage your life. But how much time have you taken to implement even a small percentage of their functionality into your day-to-day activities? How adept are you in recognizing their importance in decision-making, urge control and self-awareness? If you are actively struggling with compulsive behavior, then the answer is most likely "not much". That's okay, as the role of boundaries is often one of the most significantly deteriorated aspects of addiction. But, in order for that addiction to end...this needs to change as the development of boundaries can very well be the single most important tool you can develop in recovery.

Without a clear set of boundaries in place, a person's values become unstable or meaningless. When this occurs, values lose their ability to provide ongoing stability and control. This then leads to emotional chaos, which leads to irrational actions being taken to help balance that chaos...which then leads to the end of the world. OK, well...perhaps the last consequence is a bit much, smile, but the point remains: boundaries protect the foundation of your values, which provide the foundation for your life.

Defining Your Boundaries

Boundaries, in a general sense, are what allow you to manage your environment. The places you go, the people you see, the events that occur…they all have the potential for impacting your life with varying degrees of significance. It is your boundaries that allow you to manage the degree of this significance. Much like a fence protects the property that you own, boundaries protect the values that define who you are. They provide the world with the means of identifying the rules that you have set up for your life. Of course, unlike a fence, this barrier cannot be seen—and so it becomes your responsibility to define these boundaries. To define the limits of the life that you choose to live. But how?

There is one word to remember in defining your boundaries to others: consistency. You must develop a consistent and well-defined set of boundaries that are not susceptible to the influence of others. That does not mean that they are inflexible; only that, when changes to your boundaries occur, they occur because you have allowed them to. You have opened the gate, moved the fence, expanded/restricted what you will allow in your life, etc. By maintaining a well-defined, consistent set of boundaries, you will have created an environment where you no longer need to question yourself in the great majority of situations where values conflict.

Why is this so important? Because as we have learned in previous lessons, it is behavior which involves a conflict in your own value system that triggers emotional instability. That triggers you to question your own sanity. Question your gut instincts. It is behavior that involves a conflict in your values that upsets the foundation of what would otherwise be a fulfilling and productive life. Take a look at any argument that you have ever had. Take a look at the most significant emotional consequences that you have been subjected to in your life. In all cases, at the root of this will be a conflict in your value system. Either a struggle with your own management of that system, or another's intrusion upon that system. Every time.

Of course, because life is fluid, your values and the boundaries that protect them will continuously change. Your role then is to remain focused on identifying ongoing intrusions and dealing with them in such a way as to protect the foundation of your life: your values. Luckily, with a clear set of boundaries, identifying intrusions becomes easy. And because all such violations will be intentional (with properly defined boundaries), the consequences of such intrusions become that much easier to assign. This goes hand in hand with developing effective contracts and assigning responsibility in partnerships.

Strong vs Weak Boundaries

Those who have mastered their boundaries often feel a sense of control over their lives. Not complete control, as they recognize the unpredictability of others, but they counter this instability with the recognition that they control their responses to all behavior that affects them. Additionally, they tend to master the ability to regulate the personal consequences of such behavior. For example, and this is an extreme example, let's take a look at someone who is date raped. With a strong set of boundaries in place, the person who is date raped has a clear fence established that protects her sexual values (along with other relevant values). When this fence is crossed, it is easy for her to identify the trespasser. And just as important, the personal consequences of such an act — while no less severe — are more accurately perceived and thus capable of a more thorough and healthy healing process. Why this is will be explained shortly.

Those who have not yet mastered the use of boundaries, or those who have been forced into a helpless role in managing their lives tend to be more susceptible to the influences and control of others. This extends not only to the primary controlling relationship, but to secondary relationships as well. Their lives are often considerably more intense—either through extreme emotional outbursts or stifling emotional repression. Most often, the poorer the mastery of boundary skills, the lower the self-esteem and the higher the likelihood for co dependency, victimization and behavioral obsession of their partner.

Without a strong set of boundaries, that same date rape victim will have no way to accurately (and consistently) identify the behavior of the violator. Because of this, she will then turn to herself in an attempt to identify the event.

"Was it rape? Did I encourage it somehow? Did I give off the wrong signals? Did I misinterpret what happened? Would other people think it is rape? I mean, I did invite him up to my apartment...and I was seen kissing him earlier in the evening by my friends. We were getting pretty hot and heavy, maybe he just got too turned on...etc."

On occasion, such rationalizations will allow a person to accept the event and move on. Most often, such rationalizations provide only a temporary solution, with years of mental conflict ahead. And what's worse, without a clear identification of what happened, there can be no clear consequences for the action. And so, again...the event is internalized — with the victim assuming the majority of the consequences. It will be the victim who lives the rest of her life with uncertainty...with shame...with confusion...with anger...with self-loathing. It will be the victim who holds on to the battle inside her head over what really happened. These are often the consequences of a poorly developed set of boundaries.

Please don't misinterpret here, the issue at hand is not who is at fault for the rape, or that, because the person had a poorly defined set of boundaries, they are somehow responsible for others violating them...the issue involves the need for each of us to work at clearly defining our boundaries so that we may reap the benefits that come with such an effort. These same boundary issues can be seen in many different life events...from a partner's use of porn to infidelity to dishonesty. A solid foundation of boundaries allows you to more accurately identify the violations and respond in a way that forever keeps your values protected.

Continuing on with the date rape scenario, those with a solid set of boundaries will clearly identify any person who infringes upon their value system. Because they recognize such events as external — e.g. something beyond their control — they are able to guide the consequences of a violator's behavior by keeping the event itself in perspective. They recognize that this is not something that they have chosen for their life, but have, indeed, had their value system violated. Once this perception is made, their actions take on a much more healthy role by reinforcing their existing values — rather than destabilizing them. Rather than questioning their own actions, their own values, their own perceptions...they rely on their boundaries to identify what has occurred, and focus solely on strengthening those boundaries as a means of protecting their values. In later lessons, this concept will be expanded to include the use of effective contracts in dealing with such value violations — an extremely effective tool for relationships where the potential for value infringement is high (e.g. relationships involving sex, love, porn addiction). They are comforted with the knowledge that they are in control of guiding such consequences in a way that best represents who they are.

Summarizing, people who have mastered the use of boundaries tend not to fear the unpredictability of their environment; and in fact, most come to see it as an exciting, refreshing element. They find strength in knowing that no matter what life may happen to throw at them, they remain in control of not only their values, but the boundaries that protect those values. This combination of life management skills provides them with the very foundation for emotional stability.

Lesson 36 Exercise:

I. Describe a scenario from your past where not having a well-defined set of boundaries has prolonged and/or intensified the personal consequences that you have experienced.

Example: Knowing that my coworker was sexually flirting with me, I allowed myself to establish a relationship that eventually led to an affair.

II. Describe a situation in your life where having solid boundaries will assist you in managing the event in such a way as to protect your value system.

Example: My husband expects to have sex with me as a sleeping pill for him. Though I don't want to hurt his feelings, being treated in this way is degrading. I am establishing a boundary that I will only have sex with my husband when I am in the mood.

III. Share these in your recovery thread.

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