In our Family Recovery Coaching work, the topic of boundaries gets the most airtime by a long shot. Merriam-Webster defines the word boundary as: something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent. Sounds straightforward enough unless you or someone in your family suffers from the illness of addiction where “one is too many and a thousand is not enough.” From this very dichotomy, crazy-making escalates until there is breaking point which typically involves crossing a hard and fast boundary such as the law, health emergencies, employers, educational institutions, or the like. Ironically, families can endure and tolerate tremendous, interpersonal insanity, but it is typically an outside boundary that creates the opportunity for an intervention. One they won’t feel guilty participating in.
The number one reason why families tell us they are afraid to intervene on their loved one is that “they’ll be angry at me/us.” When families call us for help, the illness has dominated the family for a very long time if not for generations. This is important to note because if mental health and/or addiction challenges run in one’s lineage then it’s very unlikely that thoughtful, conscientious boundaries around health and wellness are a core part of a family’s vernacular. Yelling, the silent treatment, rescuing, eye-rolling, violence, hyper-vigilance, criticism, sarcasm, excuse-making, and enmeshment are some prevalent ways the illness feels most comfortable communicating boundaries before families start recovering.
While the above behaviors can be effective, they hardly invite transparency, build trust and create emotional and physical security within relationships. Instead, they produce shame, blame and guilt which are the oxygen that allow addictions to thrive. To break through the initial resistance to recovery, we encourage family members to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. To make big and small changes in human behavior takes courage, and the payoff for doing the work is more rewarding than the quick fix of instant relief (and therefore homeostasis).
As family members begin to explore what their own emotional, physical and spiritual boundaries are, they can risk communicating them to others, knowing that they can always shift as circumstances change. The creation of clear parameters within relationships is a catalyst for sustainable recovery.
Here is a little game to play with family and close friends for setting healthy boundaries:
- List your top 3 boundaries. Then ask your family members to guess what they are.
- Share your top 3 boundaries and see how well they are respected over the next week.
- See if you can guess your family member’s top 3 boundaries. Ask if you’re correct.
- Practice respecting boundaries.
- Practice using kind, clear and direct language if your boundaries are crossed.