Boundaries: Tools of Respect

By Phillip S. Mitchell , M.A., MFT (CA), MAC

One of the commonalities of codependent behaviors is the tack of healthy personal boundaries. With various types of dysfunction within our families of origin, there was often a lack of respect shown in personal interactions, including various forms of abuse: physical, sexual, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Implicit in any form of abuse is the message to the victims that they are abusable, worthless, and certainly unworthy of having personal boundaries. This scenario is equally at the roots of shame.

Examples of a lack of boundaries include but are not limited to:

  • A poor sense or disregard of personal space—not sensing or knowing how physically close you should be in relation to another.
  • Sharing too much personal information with someone you don’t know well.
  • Falling in love with a new acquaintance.
  • Obsessive thinking about another person.
  • Actions on the first sexual impulse.
  • Being sexual for your partner and not yourself.
  • Disregarding you personal values in order to please others.
  • Ignoring another persons display of poor boundaries or invasion of your boundaries.
  • Accepting food, gifts, touch or sex that you don’t want.
  • Excessive giving or taking.
  • Letting others describe you or your reality.
  • Expecting others to anticipate and fulfill your needs.
  • Manipulative behaviors, abusive behaviors etc.

One of the effects of a lack of boundaries is the impaired ability to discern the difference in identity between self and another. This may express as enmeshment with another, where you may adopt thoughts and feelings of another person and any semblance of boundaries is blurred, if not altogether lost. In extreme forms, this may be referred to as symbiosis, to borrow a term from biology. It is difficult to develop a healthy relationship with enmeshment present.

Codependent people, for example, perhaps in the roles of Caretaker, Fixer, or People-Pleaser, may appear to be highly focused on another person and very sensitive to that person’s needs, yet they are in many ways unaware of the other’s truer needs or essence. This is because codependents are involved in projecting their imagined beliefs about that person onto him or her, based upon their own unresolved fear from past experiences. This is usually a fear of non-acceptance, rejection, or abandonment.

Restoring Boundaries

Addicts especially under the influence of their drug of choice, also tend to demonstrate a lack of boundaries. Many of their sensibilities become increasingly blunted or impaired, and they are likely to become incapable of knowing the true needs and desires of another. Many of us in recovery find that certain therapeutic tools, recovery activities, and spiritual pursuits aid us in establishing or restoring healthy boundaries. As important as this is, it’s equally important to learn and practice healthy styles of communication.

Even the closest or healthiest relationships require that clear, verbal boundaries be expressed from time to time. Leaving boundaries simply to assumption in a relationship is not always sufficient. Sometimes a boundary can be as simple as saying “No” which is a complete communication of its own. At other times some elaboration is needed.

It is important to note that a boundary is not a threat. Threats are antiquated, fear-motivated behaviors directed toward changing or “fixing “another person—another myth of codependence. Such behaviors can only backfire in unpleasant or hurtful ways for both parties. A clean, healthy boundary is a way to inform others as to how you wish to be treated, respected, and loved.

In treatment, the following verbal boundary format is taught and practiced: “If you (behavior), I’ll share my feelings with you. If you continue, I’ll (action) to take care of myself.”

The first sentence in this format is the assertion of your right or healthy decision to confront unacceptable behaviors in another. Failure to confront such behaviors may be seen as “enabling,” or giving another person tacit approval to disrespect or abuse you. Enabling behaviors are driven by the fear of rejection, in some form.

A clean confrontation to address unacceptable behavior would be: “When you (behavior), like the time (example), I felt (core feelings).” Notice that this is based simply upon reporting your perception of another’s behavior, and your core feelings associated with it. Then, a big PERIOD follows, keeping the communication free of judgment, opinion, shoulds, over-explaining, or lecturing. (It is important to note that the feelings are preceded by “I felt…,” not, “You made me feel…,” the latter having highly codependent implications.)

As with boundaries, the spirit of such a confrontation is to “let the chips fall where they may” versus being invested in a certain outcome pertaining to the other’s behavior. The expectation of a certain, outcome is. likely to be a form of manipulation—another mutually destructive, codependent behavior.

The second sentence of the boundary format is intended to inform (not to punish or threaten) the other of your intended response to their unacceptable behavior if it continues. Whichever action you choose, be sure that it will be sufficient in taking care of yourself in such a situation and that it’s an action you are willing to commit to, so that your words have meaning. It is also important to select a “minimum muscle” approach to the action statement of a boundary, as, once again, it is not intended as a threat.

The phrase “to take care of myself’ is included to make the entire communication very explicit as to its purpose.

Example: “If you raise your voice angrily on the telephone with me, I’ll share my feelings with you. If you continue, I’ll hang up and not wish to speak with you for two days, to take care of myself.”

Notice that a timeframe is included in the second sentence—two days in this case. Two days might be adequate for taking care of yourself in such an instance, and the other person is unlikely to get the message that the relationship has ended. If the person repeats the behavior, you may wish to repeat the boundary once or twice, raising the ante of the action each time to help them understand, not to punish.

If the person continues to disrespect your boundary, a word for that , would be “abuse,” and that’s when it’s important to remember that no one is served when you allow that part of Spirit that you are to be abused or victimized. That’s why your Higher Power gave you those appendages at the end of your legs that make you portable! So, within the scope of boundaries, one may allow for deeper and safer intimacy in a relationship or clarify when it may be time to end a relationship, or something between these polarities.

Leads To Greater Compassion

Frequent questions that arise in the practice of boundaries are:

“Boundaries seem cold and uncaring. Are we supposed to become uncaring people in using this tool?” No. Boundaries can actually pave the way for greater intimacy. When we take better care of ourselves with such tools, we actually allow our own cups to become more full, and it is from that position that we have the most to offer in any relationship—not by “caretakmg” another person, but by being more authentic in who we really are and what we wish to express and share with others. Boundaries can be seen as “the bottom of our cups,” allowing various forms of love or goodness to remain in our cups from which we share.

“What is the difference between having healthy boundaries or having— walls built around you?” A person who has constructed “walls” or barriers around herself or himself is in some degree of isolation from others. Such a person is not available for sharing love in relationship with others. Healthy boundaries, on the other hand, can be flexible, permeable or adaptable for experiencing various degrees of relationship with those you choose, in ways that you choose.

“Many spiritual teachings, including the Twelve Steps, teach us that we are interdependent (not having to be codependent) beings, and we are ultimately connected with all life forms. How does this understanding compute with the setting of boundaries in our relationships?”

Yes, we are all connected in a very real way. However, if we don’t responsibly tend to protecting and stewarding the life form that we represent with such tools as needed, we’re no longer in a position to offer the best of ourselves, our spirit, in any relationship. Taking care of ourselves as best we can will support each of us in best serving the Whole, of which we are a part. Conversely, when the Whole is served, we are all served.