5 Unexpected Ways Setting (and Keeping) Boundaries Sets You Free
“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote the poet Robert Frost—meaning that there’s less room for conflict when everyone knows where the boundaries are. That’s especially true for those of us who love an addict.
Boundaries are those physical and emotional limits we set to let other people know how to treat us. They’re lines we won’t allow others to cross, designed to protect our own well-being.
But boundaries go even deeper than that. They also limit the behaviors we’ll accept from ourselves. When our boundaries reflect our innermost needs, beliefs, and values, we become clear about what we will and won’t do.
In a very real sense, boundaries help us define and express who we really are.
Paradoxically, although boundaries involve setting limits, they’re one of the surest paths to personal freedom. To see why, consider these five unexpected ways that setting (and keeping) boundaries can set you free.
1. When you set boundaries, you’re free to live your own life. Codependence is often the result when someone you love becomes addicted. You can get so wrapped up in trying to “fix” or “rescue” your loved ones that you end up trying to live their life for them. Yet as a friend once reminded me, it’s hard enough trying to live one life without trying to live two.
Boundaries free us from the impossible task of trying to manage someone else’s life. They allow us to focus on the only life we can actually do something about—our own.
2. Boundaries free you to nurture your own well-being. Addiction makes it hard to take care of life’s basics. Things like paying bills, preparing meals, and honoring commitments tend to fall by the wayside. If your personal boundaries aren’t securely in place, you can end up picking up the slack for your addicted loved one, taking on responsibilities that aren’t yours and neglecting yourself in the process.
Boundaries give us the clarity to see where our responsibilities begin and end. Yes, we can offer our loved ones love and support. But we’re not obliged to solve their problems for them (nor are we able to). By drawing a line between their obligations and ours, we’re free to take care of our own physical, mental, and spiritual health.
3. Boundaries free you to live in harmony with your moral values. It’s easy to get drawn into the moral “squishiness” that comes with addiction. “Little” lies about why your spouse missed work can mushroom into bigger lies about why you need a prescription refill, what happened to the rent check, or who was at the wheel of a car after an accident. But the more lines we cross, the foggier we get about our own moral principles.
Boundaries help us hold on to our moral moorings. When we’re asked to do something that makes us uncomfortable, we can honor the limits set by our moral boundaries. We don’t have to decide what’s right or wrong for anybody else. We need only know what’s right for us.
4. Boundaries free you from the perpetual conflict that comes with addiction. Addicted people live in a world of extreme highs and lows, of shifting realities and moral ambiguities. Since you don’t know what to expect from one day (or moment!) to the next, opportunities for misunderstandings abound.
Knowing our own boundaries can shine a light of clarity through the chaos. When we’re clear about what is and what isn’t open to negotiation, we can maintain our serenity, refuse to be drawn into conflict, and walk away from problematic situations before they escalate.
5. Boundaries free you to extend genuine love.
Loving an addict is draining. Emotional volatility, dishonesty, unreliability, self-absorbedness—all are characteristic of addiction. If our emotional boundaries aren’t clear—if we’re unable to detach or to refuse to accept abusive behavior—we can find ourselves playing the martyr and getting mired in feelings of resentment, self-pity, and anger. Protecting our own emotional well-being is the first step in healing the relationship—even if our addicted loved one is not yet ready.
Some may fear that setting emotional boundaries is “selfish.” In reality, taking care of ourselves is the exact opposite of selfishness. For it is only by caring for ourselves that we can extend to others the kindness, generosity, and compassion that are the foundation of genuine love. As the author Leo Buscaglia noted, “To love others, you must first love yourself.”
Loving an addict can present seemingly endless challenges. But as with all challenges, there are also opportunities for personal growth. When we use the challenges of addiction to clarify our boundaries, we’re free to live a wiser, happier, healthier life.
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Boundaries are one of the surest paths to personal freedom.