Loving an addict, loving yourself: The importance of setting boundaries
As anyone who cares about an addict knows, these relationships can be very difficult. The basic challenge for loved ones of addicts of any kind is to continue to care without losing themselves in the process. One of the most important ways to do this is to be setting consistent, self-respecting boundaries with those you love.
AN ADDICT’S LEAST FAVORITE WORD
It’s been said that the word an addicted person least likes to hear is “No.” Even though it may seem to be that way because of an addict’s stubbornness and sense of entitlement, the reality is that most people who are struggling with addiction are very scared to let go of the substances and/or behaviors they are entrenched in—and will go to just about any lengths to hold on to them. Their unspoken question to themselves is “Who am I without this?”
If you have an addict in your life, the most loving thing you can do for them is to challenge that way of thinking and behaving—and the best way to do that is to set healthy and appropriate boundaries with them, even if they don’t like them.
Addiction is a childish way of coping with life. Every time we reach for an addictive behavior, we are basically saying that we don’t want to deal with reality on its own terms, whether it’s a situation we don’t want to face or an emotion we don’t want to feel. Ultimately, we will either have to use more and more of the addiction or we will have to bite that bullet and deal with the discomfort of the reality we’ve been trying so hard to avoid.
SETTING BOUNDARIES: A LOVING ACT FOR YOURSELF AND OTHERS
As the loved one of an addict, you may be trying hard to avoid the anxiety you expect you’ll feel if you actually say “No” to your addicted friend, partner, parent, sibling, or child. If you’re used to being the peacekeeper in your relationships—never creating any waves because of your own fear of conflict—then doing something like setting boundaries with the addict in your life may feel very scary indeed. It’s important at times like these to ask yourself two questions:
1. What is the most loving thing I can do for the addicted person I care about?
2. What is the most self-respecting thing I can do for myself?
The way you respond to the above questions will tell you a lot about yourself, if you choose to take the time to explore this.
For example, do you understand that when you allow an addicted person to get away with unhealthy and inappropriate behaviors—toward you or anyone else—without holding them accountable in any way, that this is essentially not a loving act?
Also, how do you feel about yourself when you allow others to treat you in disrespectful ways? The reality is that no one can disrespect you without your permission. Do you see that each time you allow that kind of behavior from another person, your all-important self-respect takes a hit?
TO ENABLE OR TO HELP: WHICH DO YOU CHOOSE?
If you are the loved one of an addict, you’ll need to remember that nothing positive can come from allowing inappropriate behavior to continue. Not setting boundaries will enable your loved one’s addiction to continue. When we truly love an addict, we need to change our own behavior, so that we are helping the addiction—theirs and our own—to stop. A first step toward this vitally important goal is to recognize, establish, and maintain boundaries that hold everyone involved accountable for their own actions.
Perhaps you already know you’d like to give up your enabling ways, but you’re not sure how to start. If you would like some assistance about how to set healthy, clear boundaries, there are several options available to you. There are a number of 12-Step support groups you can attend, such as Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous (CODA). As well, a skilled counselor who is knowledgeable in working with addiction can also help you explore the types of boundaries you’re ready and willing to set.
My book, Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction, can also be a great resource for you as you navigate the tricky waters of being in relationship with an addicted person—including the how’s and why’s of boundary setting. If you are in this kind of relationship, you will see yourself reflected on many of the pages of this book.
TWO NOTES OF CAUTION
One—It’s imperative that you are willing and able to follow through on the boundaries you set. Addicts who are still fearful of giving up their favored ways of coping with life will very likely try to test your resolve when you first begin to draw your lines in the sand. You may have tried before to set a boundary, only to feel manipulated in some way to go back on it—in fact, you may have already taught the addict you love that all s/he needs to do is cry or threaten and you will back down. If this is the case, you’ll need to start over again. Set another boundary—one that you believe is truly important—and stick to it! Each time you do this, you’ll find your own self-respect increasing and you’ll be acting in the most loving way toward your addicted loved one.
Two—Make sure that you are physically safe when setting boundaries. If you do fear for you own safety—or for the safety of others around you—you’ll need to take care of that situation before setting any lasting boundaries. If this is the case for you, instead of taking any unnecessary risks, find safety first—with a friend or relative, or perhaps in a temporary shelter. Only when that is done should you continue with the boundary setting that will need to happen at a later time. Seek out professional assistance if you need it—physical safety for yourself and others has to be your most important initial concern.
I am also the loved one of an addict, and I know how frustrating it can be to maintain these relationships. But most addicts are really good people once the addiction is arrested, and many of these relationships are worth trying to salvage and improve. I wish you the best on your journey, as you learn how to assert yourself and speak your truth.