Tackling Boundaries Head on: health and self-care

Part 2 of a 2 part series

"We can say what we need to say. We can gently, but assertively, speak our mind. We do not need to be jugemental, tackless, blaming or cruel when we speak our truths." ~ Melody Beattie

As I wrote previously, I am not a professional and I would never presume to understand each individual or family situation. All I can do is share with my readers what I have learned in the long complex journey I have traveled.

The disease of Substance Use Disorder was the chaos and despair that exposed how flawed I was at setting boundaries but it was also what forced me to examine and improve on those flaws.

Through this learning process I have found an inner strength and calmness. My newly found skill of setting boundaries with a quiet conviction have also spread into all aspects of interactions and relationships with others, not just my Loved One with SUD. I have seen improved communications and relationships with everyone I am connected to.


Here is what I have learned about setting effective boundaries in my own life:

  • Paying attention to what the motivation is behind a boundary is especially important.

The goal of a limit should be based on your needs and not, with the expectation of a particular behavior of the individual receiving the limit. Early on I found this concept daunting and difficult to adhere to. I still struggle with it but, one I understood it, I found a lot more success in setting appropriate boundaries.

I learned to question my motivation for a limit: am I trying to get someone to do something (manipulating)? Or simply, am I keeping my own values and morals in place? Is the boundary solely for me?

An example of setting a boundary based on personal ethics is refusing to give a Loved One cash because of not wanting the money to be used for drugs. Not to prevent my Loved One from use. The result may be that my Loved One has less access to drugs, but that is not the motivation behind the boundary. By doing this, the boundary setter takes ownership of the limit. It defines the boundary setter’s actions not the Loved One’s.

There is always hope that the person receiving the limit will behave in a particular manner but, the boundary is still effective even if the person does not. In the example above, of course you may hope your Loved One has less access to drugs, but if they do, the boundary is still intact because it was not the boundary setter’s money used.

  • When setting boundaries make sure they are realistic

Again, another guideline that took a lot of work on my part to get better at. So many times, in the heat of a moment, I would declare extreme rules that with careful thought, I might not have. Examples like, “You can never come back here ever!” or “If you take off again, I won’t pay for your phone.” Because these rushed emotional rules were not reasonable, I was less than likely to enforce them.

The limits became very destructive and had the opposite effect I was hoping for. These empty threats basically said to my Loved One, “I am angry, I’m frustrated, but don’t worry, I will settle down and you will be able to do what you want without recourse.” What incentive does my Loved One have to change? Really, I am teaching my Loved One to manipulate me!

Implementing well thought out limits that I am more capable of sticking to, inspires change in the response to my boundaries with better results.

Alternatives to the above threats could be: “I feel sad and it hurts me when you are using, so you cannot be here when you are high. We can talk again when you sober up.” In the second example I would leave the phone completely out of it. I might let them leave so we could both calm down. Honestly, in the past I wanted to keep the lines of communication open so taking away the phone was an empty threat.

When we do not follow through with our boundaries there is a second underlying negative message sent to the receiver. We are implying our Loved One is not capable of following the boundary. We are basically saying, “I don’t think you can do it.”

If they are incapable then they have to depend on us to take care of them and their problems. This could result in the lowering of their self-view. Instead of empowering our Loved Ones and letting them know we believe in them, we are a barrier to their progress.

  • Boundaries are fluid and They are YOUR boundaries!

What keeps me safe and helps me hold to my ethics, beliefs and morals change overtime. So, my boundaries are also going to change overtime. I had to learn to give myself permission to change my boundaries.

Many families I have talked to, have laid out a boundary for their Loved One but it was not working. Yet, families feel there is some type of contractual obligation to the original limit and adjusting it would be a breach. I suspect there are two reasons for this: 1) They don’t believe they have the right to change it and 2) they are afraid of conflict with their Loved One.

WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO CHANGE A BOUNDARY! They are our boundaries, we can do whatever we want with them. If they are not working, change them, get rid of them, or firm them up. If I had a business and needed to change policies to make my business more productive, I would change it, wouldn’t you?

Avoiding the change of an ineffective limit because there may be conflict and push-back (it is going to happen with SUD), is not allowing for natural consequences to occur.

Dodging the chaos is a momentary protective mechanism for us but, in the long run, we actually are just prolonging the inevitable. I am guilty of this offense and had to work hard to change this about myself. I still struggle with my feelings and need to avert friction. I find it helpful when this happens to start practicing other skills outside of boundary setting I have been working on.

  • Boundaries should not be created out of FEAR.

I am going to be open and raw about boundaries and FEAR, because it is only through facing FEAR, that I was able to improve on boundary setting. Anytime I created a boundary out of fear, and with SUD we are talking the Ultimate Fear, I was manipulating and trying to get my Loved One to behave in a particular way.

When I created rules out of despair and angst, I was placing the responsibility of relieving my feelings on to my Loved One. Their actions determined my feelings. Then I learned that taking care of my feelings is actually my responsibility. Depending on others to sooth my feelings leaves me out of control and helpless.

This is where facing the fear became an important part of my process to becoming a healthier person. A pivotal understanding for me, was that awful consequences including death are possible, both if I set boundaries or if I don’t.

This new awareness combined with realizing my boundaries were weak and inadequate, prompted a need for change. Nothing changes if nothing changes.

I might as well try to create a safer environment for myself. If I want to feel better I am going to have to go and do the work. By creating self-protective boundaries, I was also creating an environment for my Loved One that sent the message that I believe in the them (even when I waiver in those thoughts). Both me and my Loved One reap the benefits of my healthy boundaries.

  • The best boundaries are those unspoken.

I found that if I could set a boundary down without stating it to my Loved One, then usually I was following all of the guidelines written about previously.

For example, I observe an argument between my Loved One and another person. I may want to jump in to lessen the chaos. Maybe intervene to “help” or teach them a better way to communicate. After all, I have experience and know what is best, right?

However, I choose to stay out of it. By not interfering, the action of the boundary is mine. I own the limit. I do not expect any particular behavior from my Loved One at the same time I send the message that without me, they can find a solution to the problem. I am handing off the baton and letting my Loved One know they are capable of handling it. I move out of the way of their learning. I allow them to take ownership of not only the problem but, the solution.

Many boundaries cannot be unspoken but, I use the least amount of words as possible and still be clear in what I require. For some strange reason I have found, the less words I use, the more my Loved One knows, I mean what I say. I am sure you have heard, “No” is a complete sentence.