Healthy Boundaries: The Why and How Of Setting Them
What Is Meant By Healthy Boundaries?
According to the IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program, “a boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends … [t]he purpose of setting a healthy boundary is, of course, to protect and take good care of you”.
In general, “[h]ealthy boundaries are those boundaries that are set to make sure mentally and emotionally you are stable” (Prism Health North Texas). Another way to think about it is that “[o]ur boundaries might be rigid, loose, somewhere in between, or even non-existent. A complete lack of boundaries may indicate that we don’t have a strong identity or are enmeshed with someone else” (Cleantis, 2017).
This last quote shows that healthy boundaries can also serve to establish one’s identity, as well as what one is responsible for. Specifically, healthy boundaries can help someone define themselves as a person (rather than simply as part of a group or partnership) and can help someone decide what they will and will not hold themselves responsible for.
While healthy boundaries are often psychological or emotional, boundaries can also, of course, be physical. For example, declining physical contact from a coworker can be as important (or more important) a boundary as asking that same coworker not to make too many demands on your time or emotions.
One of the goals of a drug intervention or alcohol intervention is to create change on behalf of the addict. The most fundamental change occurs when the addict makes the decision to accept drug treatment and begin the path to recovery. As important as it is to create a change in the addict’s behavior, equally important are the changes that must occur in the lifestyle of the family and friends of the addict.
One of the changes that must occur in the family is the creation of healthy boundaries. The formulation of a boundary occurs when the family and friends of the addict stop behavior which has facilitated, encouraged, or in any way supported th addiction. It is necessary for boundaries to develop so that if the addict chooses to maintain his addiction, he, and he alone, suffers the consequences that inevitably result from the addiction.
For instance, if an addict finds himself in a pattern of missing work, school, or social obligations, the family and friends have to stop making excuses, or flat out lying, to defend the addict’s absences. In these situations where boundaries are not set up, the family and friends are left to suffer the anguish and consequences while the addict continues his behavior without repercussion.
Why Is It Important For Self-Care
Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care in all aspects of our lives. For example, “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout” (Nelson, 2016). Some teachers even say that setting boundaries helps them avoid burnout and stay in the profession longer (Bernstein-Yamashiro & Noam, 2013). This is important, because it indicates that properly-set boundaries can help someone find more fulfillment and less stress in their work life, which accounts for a large part of a working person’s day-to-day responsibilities and stress.
More generally, the consequences of not setting healthy boundaries “can include stress; financial burdens; wasted time; and relationship issues, which can cause mental distress” (Prism Health North Texas). In other words, a lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect all aspects of someone’s life. On the other hand, setting healthy boundaries can help someone make decisions based on what is best for them. This autonomy is an important part of self-care.
In the context of recovering from substance abuse, self-care can include “meaningful connection with recovery support and children, taking care of physical health, maintaining spirituality, healthy eating, exercise, journaling, continuing education, staying busy, sponsorship, establishing boundaries, self-monitoring, abstinence, and dealing with destructive emotions” (Raynor et al., 2017). Self-care like this “may serve to support the general health and well-being of individuals”. Since self-care is an important part of leading a mentally healthy life and setting boundaries is an important part of self-care, learning how to establish healthy boundaries is an important step on the path to well-being.
Another example, albeit extreme, is the “trust fund” addict. In this case the addict has a built-in source of income and is free to live a life of addiction without the typical worry of where money will come from to support his habit. With room, board, and all other expenses paid for, including money for drugs, he has no worries other than where and when he will get his next dose of drugs or alcohol. I’ve worked with many families in this situation. One of the questions I’ve posed to the parents or trustor of the addict (where boundaries are not set and a stream of money is flowing in the direction of the addict) is why don’t you really make life easy for the addict and just buy the drugs and alcohol for him and deliver it to him personally. After all, I explain, what do they think he is using the money for?
The problem is that oftentimes families tend to love the addict to death. They feel some responsibility or obligation to do whatever they can to make things easier for the addict in the hope that the addict will miraculously change their addictive behavior. Typically, that does not occur and the addict sinks deeper and deeper into the disease of addiction.
It is up to the family to draw the line in the sand. Make a pledge to do everything they can in their power to help the addict in his recovery, but do absolutely nothing to support him in his addiction. Clearly, creating these types of boundaries has the potential of being difficult and gut-wrenching in application. After all, the addict has lived months or perhaps years with the comfort of the family either boldly supporting his addiction or hiding their collective heads in the sand and pretending that it does not exist. Change at this point in the relationship seems extreme, but it has to occur. Think of it this way; if the family does nothing and continues their enabling relationship with the addict, the only change destined to occur is the condition of the addict going from bad to worse.
When families and friends do decide to make healthy boundaries it is important that guidance is sought prior to implementation. Families should consult with drug and alcohol treatment centers, therapists, physicians, and/or drug counselors. Consultations will necessarily help with issues relative to the family as they contemplate change in their behavior, as well as concerns for the addict including, but not limited to, self-harm and violence.