Boundaries: the Achilles heel of the recovering codependent.
Since I qualify as one of those recovering, it is a topic I revisit from time to time. A friend’s dilemma when her little sister’s feelings were hurt caused me to think about it again. I think it’s important that we realize that boundaries work both ways.
The Gift of Boundaries
I think we often have a tendency to think that boundaries only protect the person trying to enforce them. Boundaries are meant to give us mental and emotional space to work out life on our own terms. Protecting our own boundaries provides us that space.
What I don’t think we realize is how much enforcing our personal boundaries can help the person who seems to have trouble respecting them. Sure, they won’t appreciate it in the moment, and some people will never appreciate being kept out of our personal business. Even so, without the ability to respect the boundaries of others, individuals have crippled relationships. They find themselves being abused, being the abuser, involved in other codependent-style relationships, or similar things. The ability to respect boundaries is the ability to create trust with others.
But what if I know someone who is doing something really wrong or hurtful?
I don’t think we have to turn a blind eye, look away, or shrug our shoulders because it’s not “our circus.” The trick is to identify our own motives and to make sure that our approach is one of offering and not coercing.
Traditional parenting often takes the coercive approach: “I have decided this is bad, I am now telling you why this is bad, and I expect you to toe the line.” I suppose that this approach is occasionally necessary with children, but just typing it out makes me shudder when I think about it being used between friends, spouses, colleagues, etc.!
Depending on the nature of the relationship, we may have the ability to go to someone and seek understanding. In this case, we start with questions that encourage the other person to share their thoughts, and keep asking reflective questions that keep the lines of communication open. We do this with the knowledge that we are not trying to “trick” the other person into changing, but because we care and we want to understand — and let the other person know that we are there for them.
Of course, sometimes, we really have no relationship at all. In that case, we probably have no right to do anything.
What about people who are always telling me what to do?
For me, I have, over time, learned to simply say “thank you” and not encourage any more conversation on the topic, politely explain that this is something I’m not willing to discuss, or deflect the conversation by asking a question that appears related to what is being said but can steer the conversation in another direction.
The problem is that a codependent has been taught to believe that the opinions of others are more valuable than his or her own opinions. Once the “constructive criticism” has been voiced, the damage has been done.
I have found these steps to be helpful:
- Recognize that there may be some truth in what the other person was saying, but also remind myself that they do not have all of the information that I have.
- Try to think clearly about what was actually said to take away the pieces that are true and use those things to help myself.
- Remind myself that I am a capable adult, and that I can make good, solid decisions for myself.
Sometimes, people are so critical that we have to limit their time with us. I posted about that a few weeks ago.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve probably figured out that I pretty much reject the idea of finding “cut and dried” answers to life. Even so, I believe that we can trust our judgment, and we can even trust most people to accept that we have good intentions. We can also trust that a sincere apology can heal emotional wounds. We don’t have to be perfect at keeping and respecting boundaries, we just need to try.