The Hard Art of Boundaries

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I don’t think I’m alone when I say I struggle with boundaries. I didn’t grow up having strong boundaries modeled for me, and in my active addiction, I managed to be both codependent and manipulative in my attempts to get my needs met. Even in recovery, I’ve blown boundaries because if I could get close to people—connected to them—I could get special treatment. By “special treatment,” I mean I ducking being held accountable for my actions the way others are. It’s hard to admit, but I see this pattern in my behavior with old bosses, previous agents, friends, hairdressers … you name it. Boundaries never interested or served me, so not having them was fine.

Discovering that I need boundaries

But now that I have over a decade of sobriety, I need boundaries, and to be frank, it is a hard art to learn. I used to jokingly ask where you could purchase good boundaries? eBay? Amazon? Unfortunately, you can’t buy boundaries. Not even on Prime. You have to build and assert them yourself. Ewww. I know.

Right now, some people are not respecting my boundaries. I know that’s completely my doing because I never expressed them. I’ve never trusted myself. I made a lot of terrible decisions that seemed terrific at the time. I can be impulsive and short-sighted, looking at life through the warped lenses of mental illness and SUD. Knowing that, I’ve constantly gone advice-shopping. What do you think? And what do you think? I believed the general consensus. Or sometimes I believed whatever the last person said. Or what I wanted to hear.

But with the death of both my parents in the last year and a half, the thing I’ve been avoiding my whole life couldn’t be more in my face: GROW UP. And growing up means taking responsibility for my own choices—bad or good. There is no safety net anymore. The consequences of my actions are mine and mine alone to bear.

Deciding whose opinions matter

I’ve decided that the only people I want unsolicited advice from now are my therapist and my sponsor. That is a big change from before. And guess what? People don’t like it.

I was complaining to my sponsor (who’s also a grief recovery specialist), Jay Westbrook about somebody dissing a new relationship. And he asked me asked me a great but frankly mind-blowing question: “Did you ask for their opinion?”

“No,” I answered.

He suggested that the next time someone disses my relationship—or any other personal choices I didn’t invite them to comment on—I might politely say, “Oh I don’t recall asking for your opinion yet, sweetheart.”

Just the thought of that makes my stomach lurch. I’m afraid they will get mad. But, if they do, so what? Their decision to roll over my boundaries and give me negative unsolicited advice makes ME mad!

If you boil it down, boundaries are about self-care, self-love, and self-trust. Not my strongest points. They’re also about keeping the relationship clean and the channel of communication open. The alternative is to keep quiet about aspects of your life that you don’t want unsolicited advice about. But when people are used to giving you feedback because your life has been a porous, boundary-free zone, all subjects are open for discussion.

Boundary-setting for newbies

So here’s a crash course from Jay regarding boundaries. First, you set them (internally). Then you communicate them to the other person. Finally, you enforce them. If you only do steps one and two, you waste everybody’s time. If you only do one and three, it’s unfair because the person was never told what the boundary was. Finally, it’s okay to periodically go back and reflect on whether a particular boundary needs to reset or whether it’s good as it is.

If you’re feeling uneasy just reading this, you’re right on track. Amy Alkon, author of the “science-help” book, Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence, says, “If you’ve had, say, 30 years of acting a certain way, there’s a tendency to keep acting that way, and you need to account for that both by recognizing it and by having a new way of acting in your back pocket. You just act that new way, no matter how uncomfortable it feels at first. And it will feel uncomfortable and maybe even terrifying.

“As I explain in Unf*ckology, Your feelings are not the boss of you. Tell your fears to stick it and then just do what you’re afraid of. Simply force yourself to do the physical actions: Open your mouth. Speak the words of a person with healthy assertiveness. (Your boss? Your cousin?) Act as that person in the moment and you’ll probably see something surprising: Your co-workers will not keel over in horror and the deli manager will not chase you out of the place with a broom. After you get in a little practice, toss your boss’s or cousin’s persona, and do it as you. The beauty is, the more you do it, the more natural (and even rewarding!) it’ll feel—till your default position becomes standing up for yourself instead of rolling over for everybody else.”

Know that when you change the status quo of a relationship, some people might not like it. It might take them a bit to adjust to the new “assertive” you or they might not stick around long enough to adjust. But that’s the price of growth. And nope, Amazon doesn’t sell that, either.

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Amy Dresner is a journalist, author, and former comedian as well as a recovering addict and alcoholic. She has been a columnist for the addiction/recovery magazine since 2012 and has freelanced for, Psychology Today, and many other publications. Her first book, “My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean,” was published by Hachette in 2017 to rave reviews from critics and readers alike, and is currently in development for a TV series.

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