Setting boundaries is hard for you and annoying (or downright infuriating) for others. It’s often said: the only people who get upset about your boundaries are those who benefited from you not having any. That means they can walk all over you, and manipulate you from here to Sunday. Boundaries are invisible fences that keep you safe.
My experience of no boundaries
Before I got sober, and for the first few years of my recovery, I let my family, bosses, and friends walk all over the limited boundaries I had. Because there was no line between their life and mine, they wouldn’t think twice about running my life. I’d say that I don’t want to talk about a particular subject. They’d continue to talk about that topic, justifying their actions by telling me that my boundary is abnormal. I’ve been mocked for the boundaries I’ve set, and I’ve had phone calls from people to tell me their opinion on a conversation I’d had, even though they weren’t involved in that situation. And when I’ve raised the inappropriateness of those actions, it is me who has been called crazy! This of course, is narcissistic behavior, right out of the narcissists playbook.
My romantic relationships weren’t much better. My self-respect and self-esteem was so low that I’d pretty much let that person do whatever or say whatever they liked, in fear of them dumping me. No became yes, and I forever let the feelings and state of mind of others determine my happiness. I’d let them show up at 11.30 pm and wake me up because I was desperate for attention—but I’d never get their Saturday night spot. I’ve had partners show up having been drinking and driving despite my asking them not to.
Both in my familial and romantic relationships I would rarely speak up about their violating my boundaries in fear of being punished in some way, like:
- Being mocked about it for years to come
- Being ignored and cut-off, or, even worse
- Experiencing someone’s dislike for me in their moody and child-like behavior toward me
After a few years in recovery, I realized that my approval-seeking validated me, and it also invited these kinds of boundary violations. I also began to see that my upbringing in a dysfunctional family explained why I lacked the ability to set boundaries—or even comprehend what they were—and form healthy bonds with others. If I wanted to develop a sense of self, I had to start setting healthy boundaries and enforcing them.
A boundary is simply the space where you end and the other person begins. Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits that a person creates. They identify safe, reasonable, and permissible ways for others to behave. When setting boundaries, you can also say how you will respond when someone breaches those limits.
Setting boundaries can be a challenging process, especially if you place such value on the feelings and validation of others. But if you want to continue to recover, and have happy, fulfilling relationships, you will inevitably have to face this challenge.
Setting boundaries has been the most freeing experience in my recovery. Learning that I could choose who I wanted to spend time with, that I could decide what I did and didn’t want to talk about, allowed me to be free from unhealthy relationships and to stand on my own two feet.
Once I realized that my happiness was not defined by the mood or approval of another person, I only truly developed a sense of self. I no longer needed to take on the responsibility of making someone happy. Nor did I need to feel like their state of mind was my fault. Initially setting a boundary was very uncomfortable, I soon began to feel empowered.
Setting boundaries can have consequences
Often, I’ve been met with confusion or upset—especially with people who have had the benefit of my having no boundaries—but I try to compassionately tell them that these are my wishes. If they choose not to respect them, I can choose to no longer participate in that relationship, or limit my time with them. Most importantly though, I remind myself that these are my wishes that I am respecting that my happiness and my well-being comes first. Al-anon can help if you’re dealing with someone’s addiction.