A personal boundary is a limit that defines where you end and others begin. It states, “This is what I think, believe, feel.”, “This is what I will and won’t do for you.”, “This is what I will and won’t tolerate.”, as well as many other things. Boundaries acknowledge that you have the right to act for yourself and to choose your own thoughts and feelings, regardless of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of those around you. Having healthy boundaries also means knowing that you are not responsible for the actions,thoughts, and feelings, of others.
When a person doesn’t have healthy boundaries, they may engage in some of the following behaviors: Telling strangers their problems, going against personal values to please others, allowing others to hug or touch them when it feels uncomfortable, answering inappropriate questions rather then declining to answer, letting others control their life or tell them how to feel, expecting others to know what they need without being told, taking on too much and feeling resentful, and/or solving other’s problems without being asked. The results of poor boundaries are often hurt feelings and resentment.
For example, if I agree to loan my sister my car, even though she hasn’t taken good care of it when she has borrowed it in the past, I will most likely feel anxious about it and then feel angry when I’m having to clean out her mess yet again. This can lead to me being rude to her and my own family, because of my bad mood. I may even believe that my sister caused me to feel this way due to her lack of consideration. In reality, I made the choice to loan the car despite my past experiences and I haven’t made my expectations clear.
One key to defining boundaries is to understand what you control, or “whose business you are in.” Byron Katie, describes three kinds of business: mine, yours, and the world’s. Whose business is it if my sister doesn’t take care of things? My sister’s. Do I control this? No. Whose business is it whether or not I loan her my car? Mine. Do I control this? Yes. While my sister may get angry with me for not loaning her my car, we actually have a better chance at being close and building our relationship by having an honest discussion about the issue, rather than me resorting to rude comments or the silent treatment. In reality,boundaries create safety and predictability. People know what we think and feel and how we will respond and they are free to choose their own feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
Boundaries are all the more important, and difficult, if you are in a relationship with someone with an addiction. You may have started out the relationship with boundaries, but they gradually erode as the addiction encroaches. You may even start to become convinced that you don’t deserve your own thoughts and feelings or that you can’t choose your own actions. But you can start to define and enforce your boundaries. You may need to see help and support from books, friends, family, or professionals, but you can make changes that will increase your self-respect and take you closer to living a healthier and happier life.
Jacci Jones, LMFT, LifeSTAR of Portland, OR