A Word or Two on Setting Boundaries

As I have worked my way through my recovery, I have had to learn a few things about setting boundaries. Learning to set boundaries has become a very important part of getting myself a few steps closer to being healthier and happier.

I was absolutely clueless when the concept of setting boundaries first came up in therapy. It was probably group therapy in either inpatient or intense partial outpatient. I started hearing about how important it was to set boundaries. The idea that I needed to do such a thing absolutely horrified me. I could not imagine standing up to someone and saying: “This is what I need.”

The thought of insisting on what I needed gave me an uneasy churning feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was a very familiar feeling – I had experienced this all of my life whenever I needed to stand up and assert myself. Up until four years ago I would drink, drug, or slide into another unhealthy behavior until the need to assert myself had passed. Consequently, I never learned any healthy ways to set boundaries.

I gradually started to learn to set boundaries. I had gone through all my savings and maxed out all my credit cards. I was coming out of my impatient stay and had to go to the local social services office to apply for benefits. I needed to assert myself to continue to live. So I did.

I did not recognize it at the time, but I was starting to learn to set boundaries in a healthy way. I was very nice, but insistent. I quickly learned that I needed to quietly but firmly keep asking “What other benefits do I qualify for?” And always with a smile on my face. It was about the fifth time I asked the case worker this question that they finally volunteered that they could help with my rent. What a relief that was – until then I had no idea where I was going to live the next month.

So, I could set boundaries and assert myself when I needed to do so. But I did not yet believe that I could. Nor could I do it on a regular basis. The thought of asserting myself still churned my stomach.

I tend to think about things and solve them logically in my head. Then it takes some time for me to understand them emotionally. I started to understand the logical need to set boundaries as I worked my way through therapy. I gradually started to set more and more boundaries, but that did not stop the churning of the stomach. But at least I was pushing myself to occasionally be assertive.

A quick aside on the difference between assertive and aggressive. For me, being assertive comes from a calm internal self-confidence. Aggression comes from fear.

One day I had an insight into my emotional issues regarding setting boundaries. I had never learned to set boundaries as a child. I came from a family with authoritarian parents who did not understand how to encourage a child to set healthy boundaries. I had learned that setting certain boundaries would get my parents angry at me. So, I did not set those and other boundaries – this made life in my family of origin much easier.

During my insight I realized that the idea of asserting myself had caused the lifelong churning of my stomach when I needed to set a boundary. Setting boundaries had caused such unpleasantness for me as a child that I continued to avoid doing so as an adult. The churning in my stomach was my emotional reaction to the frustration of not setting a boundary.

I started to realize that I fled the scene whenever the need to set a boundary came up. Then, I would get upset about not setting the boundary and lapse into unhealthy behaviors to cope with the unpleasant emotions.

The next step in my realization was that at times I would need to stand up and set a boundary. Since I did not know how to set boundaries in a healthy manner, I would tend to be very unpleasant as I tried to set a boundary. As a child I would throw a tantrum or become physically violent in an attempt to set a boundary.

There are many unpleasant words to describe an adult who attempts to set a boundary and does not know how to do so in a healthy manner without “acting out.” I was aggressive when I had to set boundaries. I was afraid that I would not be able to set the boundary, so I felt I had to be aggressive so that everyone knew I “meant business” on this one. My mentor used to tell me that I pulled out a buzz saw and ran everyone over. I guess I did.

Gradually I connected emotionally to the need to set boundaries. I started to learn to set boundaries without my stomach churning. I also learned how to set them without throwing the adult version of a tantrum.

Eventually I started to see that many other people did not know how to set boundaries in a healthy manner. Like me, they either did not set the boundary and became emotionally frustrated, or they set the boundary using their buzz saw as their aggressive force.

From this insight I started to see that many times when people are upset and in my face; it is because they are attempting to set a boundary. Rather than react to their upset, I attempt to understand the boundary they are trying to set. Usually this boundary is inconsequential to me and I am able to diffuse the situation by acceding to their boundary. I am not always able to get myself to that point, nor does the other person always calm down. But it is a start – these understandings do tend to help most of the situations I encounter.

At one point I started to look at my personal relationships through this lens of my inability to set boundaries in a healthy manner:

Suppose that Ignatz and Minerva wind up in a relationship and neither of them have ever learned to set healthy boundaries in a healthy manner. Suppose that Ignatz is always giving in when he feels the need to set a boundary. Ignatz is going to have pent up frustration from not setting boundaries when necessary.

One day Ignatz sets a boundary with Minerva, but in an aggressive manner – remember, he knows no other way. This probably comes as a total surprise to Minerva. Minerva has probably never realized Ignatz’s need to set boundaries because Ignatz never stood up for himself before. Now Ignatz has stood up – but with a very aggressive stance.

Minerva has never understood how to set boundaries either. So, she does not understand that Ignatz is just attempting to set a boundary. All Minerva sees is the aggressiveness of the boundary and she feels the need to set a boundary in self-defense and with equal aggressiveness.

This little example helped me to understand how deeply this inability to set boundaries affects our relationships. I use Ignatz and Minerva for convenience. This example can be extended to any relationship between individuals – relationships at work, parents and their adult children, even siblings. It helped me to understand why so many relationships devolve into constant arguing and, unfortunately, physical violence. Most of the time, all people are trying to do is set boundaries. This inability to set healthy boundaries in a healthy manner on both sides causes a perpetual turmoil in many relationships.

I hope that these insights into setting healthy boundaries in a healthy manner helps you as much as they have helped me. Are all my boundary issues solved? Of course not. However, I have learned to take responsibility for my side. Other than to protect myself, I cannot do anything about another person who insists on aggressively setting boundaries.

At last my emotional understanding of setting boundaries is catching up to my intellectual understanding of the need to do so. With continual work I know that I will get them more closely aligned. Will I ever get “there”? I doubt it. After all, It’s a journey, not a destination.

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