Q&A Part 3: Boundaries and Codependency

Editor’s Note: Welcome to part three of our series, Questions & Answers. This series will attempt to cover topics and/or questions which have been raised by readers. Feel free to submit your own questions, and we’ll see what we can do about addressing them.

What are milestones or steps that should be in place to maintain boundaries and curtail codependency?

There are a couple of things I’d like to put on the table as a preface to the ensuing conversation. First of all, yes, this is intended to be a conversation. Please feel free to chime in at any time. For the most part, each of these posts consist of the thoughts and feelings of one individual and are not necessarily the beliefs and opinions of our ministry at large. We are not some behemoth whose words should be accepted as gospel truth; rather, we are fallible people with limited knowledge and information.

Second, if you or someone you love does currently or has ever struggled with an addiction issue, he or she is a bona fide codependent. No questions asked. Every alcoholic or addict of any kind also struggles with codependency. Not only that, but we pretty much lack healthy boundaries across the board. So, while this post may be primarily directed to friends and family members of those who struggle with addiction and compulsive behaviors, it is also applicable to all the addicts out there – active or otherwise.

Third, please realize that entire books have been dedicated to these topics. Tomes have been written just about codependency and just about boundaries, let alone the number of materials dedicated to both. This is not going to be a novel, a novella, or even a self-help book. Please allow me some grace and latitude as I paint with broad brush strokes. Also, do yourself a favor by picking up some of those texts for further reading.*

First things first:
Self-Care ≠ Selfish
Self-Care = Selfless

Everything else is going to stem from understanding that concept. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking care of yourself. There is nothing wrong with occasionally neglecting the needs of others or putting off their wants/desires to do what you need to do. If we don’t figure out how to take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to take care of others. No matter how well you’ve tended to the needs, wants and desires of others in the past, even your stellar service could’ve been improved upon had you been working from a full tank of gas rather than running on empty all the time.

People call my office all the time seeking help for a friend or family member. One of the first things out of my mouth is always an inquiry regarding what that individual is doing for him/herself. Are you part of a group? Are you going to meetings? Do you have a system of support? Even when the person in your life who is struggling can’t seem to get it through their thick skull that they need help, you know they need help. But are you aware that you also need help?

There are things you could be doing differently. There are people out there who’ve been where you are. People who are dying to share their experiences with you and have you share your story with them. Perhaps this looks like an Al-Anon meeting or a similar meeting attached to a different ‘anonymous’ group. It might be CoDa, Co-Dependents Anonymous, if you have one in your local area. Churches with recovery programs offer groups for codependency or for family members. Many of us have chosen to enter relationships in adulthood which mirror relationships we witnessed as children, so a number of us might benefit from attending ACoA meetings for adult children of alcoholics. There are therapy groups and individual counseling sessions and non-12-step based meetings and religious meetings and meditative retreats and…Taking care of yourself is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for others.

So what does that look like on a practical level?

As is heard in the rooms on a regular basis, we have to keep our side of the street clean. At its most basic level, this simply means that we responsible and accountable for our own actions – and only our own actions. What that also, inherently, means is that we cannot and should not waste our time sweeping the other side of the street because we are not, cannot, and should not be responsible or accountable for the actions of others. That may seem like (and actually be) a vast oversimplification of things, but we must learn that we aren’t responsible for others, we’re responsible for ourselves. And as such, we can no longer blame others (or caring for, enabling, mending, fixing, cleaning up after others) for the way our lives are lived.

There’s a reason why they instruct us on an airplane to put our own oxygen mask on first in case of an emergency. But, hell, I bet most of us don’t even like that idea.

If you’re a doter – that is to say, if you are historically quite good at taking care of others – flip the script. No, I’m not saying that you should suddenly expect the person you’ve been caring for to suddenly drop everything to meet your every whim; rather, take a look in the mirror. Reflect on all of the things you’ve done for your daughter, your husband, your mother, your best friend. Think about all the ways you’ve lovingly nurtured the other, and do those things for yourself. It will feel awkward and uncomfortable, but you deserve it. And I think you’ll find that you appreciate it, as well.

In learning to take care of yourself, you are more or less conquering a new concept or revitalizing one long dead. Remember that human beings are whole people, so it’s important to express the significance of holistic health. We need to be of firm body, mind, and soul, so we ought to address our physical health, mental and emotional health, and spiritual well-being.

Physical Health
This is going to sound extremely basic, but for those of us who’ve neglected our own needs on behalf of others, we need basic. These are the questions to ask yourself:
Are you sleeping? Frequently? Well? What other ways am I experiencing rest?
Do you exercise? There is no firm definition on what this means. Are you moving? Regularly?
Are you eating? How often? What? No, coffee is not a food group. Try to ensure well-balanced, nutritious diet. That doesn’t mean don’t splurge; it really means don’t neglect your needs for the needs of others.
When’s the last time you saw a doctor? Had a physical?

Mental & Emotional Health
Recovery is bound to open the door to a plethora of emotions, both positive and negative. We must remember that feelings (emotions) are just feelings, they are not facts. They are a reaction to reality, not reality itself.
What outlets do you have, creative and otherwise? Do you like to read or write?
When’s the last time you learned something new just for fun?
How do I feel? Do I know how I feel? What do I do with that?
Am I most comfortable working through that alone, with a sponsor, or with a professional?

Spiritual Health
Conscious contact with God is not some lofty idea of intellectualism only to be grasped and explored in some far away ivory tower of higher learning. Conscious contact with God simply means aware communication – something we should attempt to enter into daily.
Are you familiar with spiritual disciplines? Which do you practice? Which have you tried? Meditation? Prayer? Fasting? Study? Simplicity? Solitude? Submission? Service? Confession? Worship? Guidance? Celebration?
I like taking long walks in the woods. Some people like writing searching letters to their innermost self or to them from a different stage/phase of life. Others use daily devotions or reflections from others with similar struggles. Some paint or express their relationship with a higher power through other artistic endeavors. What begins as a practice which takes up a portion of our day may soon overtake our day and work its way into everything we do.

With regard to boundaries, we must begin by simply setting priorities and limits. While I feel this has already been somewhat addressed in the holistic health piece, it never hurts to be reminded that we should stop what we’re ding and address the issue if we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (H.A.L.T.). Any one of those four things can throw everything out of whack if we don’t tend to it when we should.

Setting limits for ourselves means that we must decide what we will or will not do or accept.
How late is too late to pick up the phone? When am I going to bed? When and why might I consider breaking or bending that rule?
What am I willing to do for this person? How far will I go? What will I allow them to do in my house? Around my children?
These are personal limits. They’ll be different for everyone because different people are willing to tolerate different things, but setting these limits gives us a firm framework to operate out of. That way, when a situation does arise in which we might not be thinking clearly, we’ve already established sensible parameters.

Unlike our feelings, however, these limits are facts. They are not a code of behavior by which we are to govern the actions of others. They are not threats. They are not a means of manipulating others into conforming to our wants and desires. They are facts. A limit says (to me, in my head), “I will take the children and leave for good if I catch you smoking crack in my house again.” A limit does not say, “I’d better not catch you smoking crack here” or “Promise me you won’t smack crack again.” The point is, the limit is for me, not for you. So don’t voice your limits unless you’re ready to follow through with them, and check your motives before sharing your limits with others. Limits are not meant to force others to change, rather they are a means of setting boundaries for ourselves.

And so long as we’re working on self, it’s time to reestablish (or perhaps simply establish) and build up our self-esteem. When you’ve lost yourself somewhere in the fray, chances are good that you, like I, have struggled with issues of low self-esteem. While many of us are driven there by outside sources, some of as have diligently driven our own self-esteem into the ground. So how do we go from feelings of inadequacy, self-hatred and unlovability to a place of at least marginal self-esteem? Recovery has the perfect, cliched answer for that. Fake it ’til you make it.

Do things to take care of yourself. Make the decision or choose the thing or take the action which has the best odds of building up your self-esteem. Just show up in places and scenarios that are supposed to make you feel better about yourself – that are supposed to be pampering and induce feelings of worthiness. Go to the dentist. Get your haircut. Have a bubble path or a mani/pedi or a massage/spa day. Go see that movie you’ve been wanting to see all by yourself at the matinee. It’s gonna feel downright awkward because your mind is going to be nagging you about where you should be or what you should be doing or who should be captivating your mental faculties, but that time is for you. And as those things become more comfortable, you’ll become more comfortable with who you are.

But wait, there’s more. There are people who accept and love you for who you are. Haven’t found them? Well get out there and meet them. As I mentioned previously, there are entire groups of people who already meet together who are just like you. They continue to meet together on a regular basis because sharing their experience with others give them hope. It gives them something to live for. It validates them as individuals. Find people to lean on who love you, and you’ll learn what it means to love yourself.

This is such a brief and incomplete survey of all things codependent. The basic outline and many of the main ideas of this post were borrowed from the “Taking Care of Ourselves” chapter in How Al-Anon Works. It is my prayer that this missive be the truth one person needs today.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

Psalm 139:23-24

*How Al-Anon Works for Families and Friends of Alcoholics by Al-Anon Family Groups
Codependent No More and Beyond Codependency both by Melody Beattie
Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend
Conquering Codependency workbook by Springle (to be completed with a sponsor or group)

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