At the most basic level, boundaries describe an individual’s “close comfort” zone. Where “I” end and “you” begin. Personal space, skin, energy field, mind your own business. A healthy person’s boundaries are flexible and vary from intimate friend to casual acquaintance to total stranger. Boundaries are for protection and esteem and individuation. Healthy boundaries are empowering and encourage self-reliance and responsibility. Healthy parenting looks a lot like a good Al Anon – supportive but not enabling, close but not interfering, available but not snooping.
The typical dysfunctional family is full of boundary violations of all types; covert and overt, harmful and “helpful”, sexual and emotional. Individuals raised in enmeshed and boundary-less family systems are missing critical parts of themselves and don’t even know it. They do not have the experience of owning their choices, behaviors and corresponding emotions. They blame others, punish others and dodge accountability. This leaves the newly recovering person completely baffled and inadequately prepared to avoid past mistakes. Instead they are prone to repeat the dysfunction they learned growing up. This gives the therapist the chance to “see” the new patients’ boundary issues at work in the moment and opens the conversation about healthy boundaries and doing it differently in recovery. These two photos from art therapy groups are great examples of what happens in the relationships of addicts – alcoholics, cutters, bullies, abusers, sex offenders, ragers etc – and codependents – coaddicts, spouses, counselors, mothers, teachers, nurses etc – with poor boundaries.
THE ADDICTS’ BOUNDARIES
Above is a picture of an overt boundary violation. At the end of an art therapy group about feelings, the participants taped their finished paintings to the wall. M. taped hers right ON TOP OF another painting. I watched her do it! and could tell she had no idea she had put her work on top of someone else’s. She would be surprised to hear that this felt like a violation to the other person! This is the refrain of the addict; “it’s all about me”. She even covered up part of the title; the painting was called “Food and Feelings” and she covered up the word “Food”. This individual was in treatment with an eating disorder she didn’t want to own and a long history of alcoholism, drug abuse, and inappropriate relationships with men. M. did with her painting what she does with everything in her life. Because she is used to enmeshed relationships and boundary-less in her life she is intrusive and will invade your space, man. She is unaware that she does this. It makes sense then that she knows no limits with alcohol or drugs, gets completely lost in men and hangs her art on top of someone else’s. She also uses this behavior to deny her eating disorder (and some of her feelings!)!
THE CODEPENDENTS’ BOUNDARIES
The photo above is a picture from another group several years later. In this instance the person unconsciously slid her drawing UNDERNEATH someone else’s. In fact under two other drawings. She did it quietly and gently and “without meaning to.” When I pointed it out she blushed. Then she stuck up for herself, saying that at least she was being “supportive”. The thinking is that it wasn’t a boundary violation but an unconscious effort to help, to be there for someone else. This is the refrain of the co-dependent – “just trying to help.” But she too invaded another’s space! I think of the old Al-Anon rule of thumb – we only help when other ASKS for help; if not it “undercuts” them and their efforts to be independent and whole. It is also important to see that the co-dependent is willing to give up a part of herself/her drawing in the process. She too loses some independence and ownership. Both people in this relationship are dis-empowered. Red flags! This kind of covert boundary violation is harder to see. But it is a fallacy that unwanted support doesn’t hurt the other person just because it is done out of love, selflessness and a desire for closeness. It is still “not helping”. In fact it sends a message that the other is incapable of helping him/herself. This illustration makes it clear…this undercut style of support takes a chip out of the others’ foundation making it difficult for the other to fully claim their own life/territory/power. The payoff for the codependent is self-righteousness and this idea that he/she is necessary and even irreplaceable in the other’s process. This person needs to focus on her self as separate from others. This is a tricky process because to these individuals enmeshment feels good. They need to learn new ways to be intimate, usually starting with knowing, claiming, loving and helping themselves.
Both of these styles of boundary invasions happen on a sliding scale. Mothers “butter up” teachers, dominant leaders interrupt others’ speech. Bullies sit in other peoples chairs, nurses wake people up every two hours to take vitals. Fathers build science projects for their third graders and addicts steal from their families. Codependents secretly fill vodka bottles with water, ragers stomp on people’s feelings. Therapists work harder than their clients, “lost” individuals slide into any clique they can. The list goes on and on.
The important things for the recovering person to know are 1) covert and overt boundary violations hurt both people in the relationship and 2) there are tools and skills and mentors available. Some of the skills are included here.
THIS MAY BE WHERE IT ENDS!
Some possible interventions:
Boundary failure this epic suggests that these people come from a sick family system; one where secrets and addiction and abuse are the norm. Family of origin therapy and trauma therapy can help them release their age-old childhood story, grieve it and lay it down.
There are many art therapy directives to both “diagnose” and repair out-of-balance boundaries with both groups and individuals.
Working the 12 Steps of AA or Al-Anon with a sponsor is a coming of age experience for those stunted developmentally and socially by addictions and by living with enablers.
Very often these individuals did not finish the individuation process and can acquire these skills. (DBT, CBT and Mindfulness for example)
Old School recovering alcoholics will recommend that they stay out of relationships for at least a year. A lot of what they is looking for will not come from men (or drugs or food.)
Address the physical needs of the body through detox, hydration, rest, nutrition and body centered modalities such as yoga, massage and dance.
Develop a daily spiritual practice. That’s where all healing ultimately comes from.