How I Learned to Set Boundaries

How I Learned to Set Boundaries

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This post was originally published on December 30, 2014.

Hi there, everyone. Please stop asking me for things. No, I can’t write you a recommendation by tomorrow. I won’t read your memoir (for free) and tell you if it’s any good. I won’t look over your revision and tell you who might like to publish it. And no, you can’t crash on my couch. It’s the holiday…and Wednesday’s my birthday! Yeah, I know you’re on break. Me, too, working on my own stuff. Let me have that. Thanks.

When it comes to boundaries, we alcoholics are the worst. We’re bad at respecting other people’s boundaries, and we’re bad at setting boundaries for ourselves. This time of year, I’m especially bad at this. I feel guilty saying no even when your requests are ridiculous. But I shouldn’t feel guilty. And neither should you.

It may seem obvious but it took getting sober for me to really understand that everybody has the right to say no. Even me. Defining and protecting boundaries efficiently has been a vital part of my regaining mental health.

Until recovery, I really didn’t learn how to set boundaries. Sure, prior to getting sober, I had some vague idea of what boundaries were. I understood boundaries as the things that separated me from you, and this definition is partially true. But when I was still drinking, nothing separated me from you. Desperate for intimacy, I was all up in your personal space. We all know how fast friendships can be forged after you’ve had four or five drinks. Me, I had no patience for allowing relationships to develop organically. Within minutes of meeting you, I was trying to get you to have sex with me and/or tell me something personal so we’d be best friends forever. Moving on from there, my relationships were transactional: what can I get from you, and what do I need to give? Get me drunk, and I’d promise you anything. I’d do or let you do whatever you wanted, just so you’d like me. The morning after, I’d do whatever I felt I had to in order to overcompensate for behaving so shiftless when I was drunk.

Just not drinking put a stop to the worst of these boundary-pushing behaviors. Being sober gave me just enough of an ability to pause between an impulse and an action, so that I could begin to exercise some self-control. Physical boundaries are one thing, and the topic of boundaries and sex is an essay all of its own (one of which I’ve sort of written here). Let’s just say that in sobriety, my sex life has gotten a whole lot better. I discovered pretty right away that when I stayed sober, I could read people’s body language better and make decisions based on that. Being sober meant not allowing the absolutely wrong person into my physical space, and not pushing people past their own comfort zones. The more I remain sober and practice healthy boundaries, the more I’m getting in touch with and aware of people’s comfort levels, including my own. I couldn’t even begin do this so long as I drank.

Physical boundaries are one thing. But the more sober I get, the more I’m learning to pay close attention to people’s mental, emotional and spiritual needs—as well as to my own.

A big step towards setting limits was addressing my codependency. Though most of us are familiar with the word co-dependency, it wasn’t until recently that I learned it’s nowhere near as mystifying as it always seemed. Basically, being a co-dependent means relying on others for approval and identity, and enabling that person’s bad behavior as a result. I’m not going to pretend I’m not still co-dependent—otherwise, why would it still be so difficult to say no? But I’ve gotten a lot better in the past seven or so years.

My dating life is evidence of that. Never mind that whole “don’t date for a year” thing; by my sixth day of sobriety, I found myself in a romantic relationship that was definitely co-dependent, a relationship that would last six long and difficult years. He was a chronic relapser who dipped in and out of the program. I didn’t know how to get him to stop doing all these things that were hurting us. I tried to protect us from the hurt. When he lost jobs as a result of his drinking, I supported us financially. When he refused to attend meetings, I tried to reason with him. I yelled, cried, shamed, bribed and manipulated. I threatened—but I didn’t follow through with my threats. I didn’t leave him, until I finally did. I had poor boundaries, I realize today—and we both suffered as a result.

I’ve now learned that boundaries aren’t about changing another person’s behavior; they’re about changing our own. For a long time, this was still confusing. Over the years I’ve learned that boundaries are more complicated—and in turn, more simple—than the Serenity Prayer. Back when I was still with my ex, for example, I thought controlling what I could control meant getting a second job to compensate for his not bringing in any income, or in managing to control my anger when he came home drunk. How we react to the consequences of somebody’s behavior is not what boundaries are about.

I listened to this dharma talk recently that defined boundaries quite simply as expressions of what we’re willing or not willing to allow into our lives.

If it bothers you that you’re dating a heavy drinker, for example, setting a boundary is not telling your partner to quit. Nor is it reacting in a right or wrong way to the consequences of your partner’s heavy drinking. Setting a boundary is saying to yourself and your loved one, “I’m not willing or able to date someone who drinks a lot” and then following through with that statement. Having boundaries means quitting the job that makes you work on Saturdays, if you’ve let them know that working on Saturdays bothers you, and they’re still putting you on the schedule. Or not going home for the holidays, if going home hurts. It means deciding what you can and cannot tolerate, and— most importantly—following through on that.

These days, my boundary pushers are a lot more benign than potential rapists or abusive boyfriends. At over seven years of sobriety, I struggle with setting boundaries while also being generous with my energy and time.

In defense of my students, I realize that part of the reason I get so many requests around the holidays is that people are triggered. When feelings come up at this time of year, people might have an instinct to turn to an intellectual or creative endeavor and try to “work” it out. My students want help with this, and I’m typically the right person to ask for such help. But part of my own spiritual growth, not to mention part of my becoming a professional, has meant learning to not do exactly what I just described—to not intellectualize pain, or work through the holidays as a strategy of avoiding feelings. I need to take time off to be with my family and slow down. I use this time to reflect and practice self-care. Of course it’s my students don’t know all that. When it comes to boundaries, it’s our job to know our own limits, just as it’s our job to say no.

Interestingly, one thing I learned in the writing of this essay is that the most healthy boundaries are not rigid, but flexible. That makes sense. I feel most healthy and sure about a decision I’ve made when it’s based on a recent and thorough check-in between the heart and the head. For example: that student who asked me to read her revision? In her case only, I made an exception. Having healthy boundaries means having the right to do that, too.

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Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.