As a recovering codependent (a “conscious codependent,” if you will), I have classic boundary issues. By boundaries, I mean imaginary borders dividing other people from my sense of self — firm limits around my health, my heart, and my happiness. My boundaries are more like wispy blades of grass that bend and wilt at the slightest breeze. Traditionally I’ve let people trample and trespass where a healthy person wouldn’t. I don’t exactly mean with my body or money or possessions (although, to some extent, that might be true), but with my thoughts, feelings, and general happiness. I’ve ignored my gut instincts, I’ve said “yes” when I really should have said “no,” I’ve chronically put other people’s needs and wants before my own. I’ve taken responsibility for other people’s feelings, and blamed others for my own feelings.
Wait a minute — I’m supposed to have boundaries there?
There’s a flip-side to the codependent coin. Some people have such thick, rigid, fortress-like boundaries that people can’t possibly get close to them. And some lucky people have weak AND rigid boundaries because life is unfair and we’re all swimming in dysfunction.
Or, more accurately, because our parents modeled their own dysfunctional boundary issues and trampled all over the places where we, as children, should have been afforded some division. I don’t mean to blame our parents, because they were just doing the best with the programming set by their dysfunctional parents. It’s a legacy we all pass down, and I say enough is enough. (Oh, look! A boundary!)
Of course these issues can be quite subtle and well-meaning, cloaked in justifications like “love” or “selflessness.” But having weak boundaries makes it hard to take care of ourselves in the way that every parent wants their child to take care of themselves. We don’t want our children’s lack of boundaries to contribute (or cause) uncomfortable, chronic control issues and a heartbreaking lack of self-esteem. We want them to have healthy relationships and a strong sense of self, right? We want them to protect themselves when we aren’t around to do the protecting.
In order to do that, they need to have boundaries in place.
But how can I help my child set boundaries when I’m just starting to practice setting my own?
Being conscious of the issue is definitely Step One. Rather than mindlessly passing on the same damaging patterns to my son, I can at least try raising a better adjusted human. (I’m sure I’ll screw him up in dozens of unconscious ways, but at least it’ll be original.) In working with a therapist, researching codependency, and chatting with other mothers with similar issues, I’m focusing on three main points:
1. Setting my own boundaries
I need to consciously understand my own boundaries and model them to my son, without a doubt. Where are my boundaries weakest, and why? What makes me happy? What do I need to be my best self? How do I really feel, apart from how other people want or expect me to feel?
According to Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, here are three clues as to where we need to set boundaries: Things we can’t stand, we’re sick of, or make threats about.
And then when my son — or anyone, for that matters — pushes against those boundaries (as they will), I need to be firm and consistent about taking care of what I know is best for me. Being my healthiest self is the best thing I can do for my family.
2. Setting boundaries for him
It’s well known that kids need limits to feel safe and confident. That means being able to say “no,” without worrying about how our kids will feel about it. (It also means calmly dealing with the anger and tears that inevitably come, without taking it personally.) Most importantly, it means saying what we mean and following through — without empty threats or power plays. If we’re too loosey-goosey, kids quickly learn how to push and prod past their limits with manipulation. Part of having healthy boundaries is respecting other people’s boundaries, too. Virtually every therapist and expert I’ve talked to has emphasized the need to set boundaries with empathy and love, and to calmly stick by our reasons.
When boundary-setting isn’t intuitive, this is all easier said than done. Here are some beginner tips I’ve implemented:
- Be aware of our non-negotiable boundaries ahead of time, and be clear about our expectations. Because I know my boundaries are susceptible to trespassers, I wrote a chart of our family rules and my son’s daily responsibilities. That way I can just point to the chart when he tries to finagle his way across my borders.
- Start simple: Bedtime, mealtime, basic safety rules.
- Streamline. I learned that the more “rules” I have, the less consistent I am about following through. Families will have different priorities, so figure out what’s most important.
3. Respecting his personal boundaries
In order for him to know where his boundaries are, he has to have a healthy amount of self-awareness of how he’s feeling. He has to build a relationship with himself, and to recognize his comfort zones, his wishes and feelings, and his personal space — and I have to respect those boundaries.
Here are some basic things I’m hoping to teach:
- What he’s responsible for (his body, his feelings), and what he isn’t responsible for (other people’s feelings).
- He doesn’t have to kiss or hug someone if he doesn’t want to (even Grandma). He’s in control of his body.
- He’s entitled to his space, his feelings, and his privacy.
- To say what he means, not what he thinks we want to hear. To be honest to himself and others.
- To say NO if something feels bad. NO NO NO.
Above all else, I hope to teach and practice these non-negotiable boundaries in Beattie’s The New Codependence: Don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt anyone else, and don’t let anyone hurt you.
Those are boundaries we could all use.More On