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Family, Addiction, and Setting Boundaries

For some people family is a safe haven where all worries and doubts are put to rest; a metaphorical home built on foundations of love and respect. For others, family is a four letter word. It breathes as an epicenter of dysfunction, regressions, and poor boundaries. But for most of us, family cannot be solely categorized as one or the other because we have a myriad of experiences within our family system.  Sometimes we are severely triggered, while at other times we feel extremely supported.

There is a saying by spiritual teacher Ram Dass that reads, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”  What he is conveying is that it can be easy for us to think we have solved the riddle of healing until we are placed back into a situation that stirs up our reactivity. And while the spiritual teachings often offer us principles based in forgiveness and love, that does not mean we forsake ourselves in the name of being “spiritual.”  I truly believe that spiritual principles must always include our own self in the equation as well.  The unconditional love it asks us to offer others must also be given freely to ourselves.

At the end of the day, from a soul’s perspective, we are invited to rise above any role we think is ours to play within our family. We are not here to save anyone or exclude our needs because someone else is drowning but refuses to take care of themselves. And we are not here to be the one drowning who holds no personal responsibility for our own choices. What we are here for is to be the example of what is possible when each person takes personal ownership for their thoughts, words, and actions.  People learn though example far more than they learn through words, so choose wisely.

Choosing Wisely

Within all of our relationships we can choose ourselves and still be kind. We can choose ourselves and say good-bye if we must.  What we cannot do is choose others at the expense of our health and happiness.  All this does is provide space for people to play victim, be a martyr, guilt-trip us, or become successfully manipulative when they are in fact responsible for themselves and how they see the world. They are responsible for their pain, just as we are responsible for our own.

The most critical step is to finding our own power is to be able to determine what is ours and what is someone else’s. Each puzzle piece must fit together for the puzzle to become one. Relationships are no different. If one person has the puzzle piece of dominance and the other that of the servant, they will continue to play this dynamic out until one of them realizes they are done.  Despite what it looks like on the outside, it always takes two. In the relationship between the addict and the enabler, the enabler is usually seen as innocent.  While this is true in many senses of the word, the enabler has their own traits and characteristics that feed into this dysfunctional combination.

I whole-heartedly understand that it is just as painful for the enabler to assert boundaries as it is for the addict to maintain them.  No one wants to feel responsible for someone else’s demise. It takes time to work through this and find the light that reminds us that we can never be in charge of another person’s fate or choices. An addict, bless them, will often find a way to manipulate people into believing it is the other person’s fault that they are acting the way they are. This is a smoke screen designed to keep them from having to look honestly at themselves. On the other hand, it’s also common for the enabler to believe that everything they say or do has to be sent through a screening system to make sure not to set off an addict. This behavior also has to go.

I believe that if every person on this planet took responsibility for their own internal state, assuming they are given the tools to do so, the world would be vibrating at a higher frequency and happiness would be on the rise. We cannot simply positively think our way into healing. We do not pretend our way into change. Instead we take an honest assessment of our own contribution to the problem, state our boundaries, and have a support in place so we don’t fall into old patterns.

Four Archetypal Family Roles

In service to offering some ways to start reflecting on family dynamics I am going to share about a few key archetypes that often put people into unconscious roles within their family.

The Hero:

The hero is the person who rushes in to save the day. On a subconscious level they believe they have to do this or people will not be okay. They also believe that their self-worth is tied up in being the savior. On a conscious level they may feel resentment for all they give.

The Victim:

The victim is the person who blames others or their circumstances for their life. There is a huge sense of disempowerment, along with an inability to look at how they may have contributed to their situation. Of course this does not include any sort of violence or abuse of any kind. There are times when people are victims of crimes and abuse, which is different than someone who feels sorry for themselves all the time. But for the victim archetype however, there is a strong sense of “life or others are more in control of my reality than I am.”

The Martyr:

The martyr is the person who has a hard time saying no in almost all circumstances. They see themselves as kind and helpful, which they are, but to the point in which they do not tend to their own needs. They then become resentful to others for “taking advantage” of them, when in fact it is their job to learn how to say “no.”

The Peacekeeper:

The peacekeeper is the person who cannot stand confrontation. They tend to disown parts of how they feel so they can keep the peace. Rather than telling someone else that they are not okay with their behavior, the peacekeeper will be quiet so as to not escalate things.

These are only some of the more prominent archetypes I see in my line of work.  By starting to identify what role we are playing we have a chance to reflect on how that is impacting us. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • What do I believe would happen if I did not play this role?
  • What would others think or say to me if I stopped catering to them?
  • How will I feel if they are upset with me?
  • How will I feel if I keep living as I am living?
  • At the end of the day, am I willing to let someone else control my life or am I going to learn how to find better ways of handling the stressors of life?
  • What resources are within my reach that can help me learn more about myself and how I operate within the family?

The primary step is awareness of the roles you are playing and the belief systems that keep you stuck in those roles. The second step is to consider being dedicated to your healing through therapy, support groups, or whatever more unconventional way might resonate with you. Awareness is the start. The work is to see it through to changing the patterns.

What to Expect After You Commit to Change

It is not uncommon for people to get angry with you when you no longer will “play the game” with them. When one person starts making self-honoring the choices, the other person usually feels rejected and it can get messy for a while. This is very normal and to be expected. Having a plan in place is helpful. What I invite people to do is the following:

Step 1: Get very clear inside your own self. Know your patterns and what hooks you.

Step 2: Learn about boundaries. Define your boundaries.

Step 3: Learn how to communicate your boundaries.

Step 4: Make sure you follow your boundaries at all times if humanly possible.

Step 5: Have rules around what happens when boundaries are broken.

Boundaries 101:

Boundaries are what we are willing to participate in life and our awareness around what is our responsibility and what is someone else’s. They can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Healthy: Healthy boundaries are when we are able to listen to others while also maintain our sense of self. We do not lose our opinions and allow both our reality and another’s to exist, even if they are not in agreement.
  2. Rigid: Rigid boundaries are when someone triggers something inside of us, we put up a wall or retreat. People with rigid boundaries are very protective and can have a hard time letting love in when it gets too intimate, or they push someone away because they feel threatened. This usually happens through an act of pulling away and creating distance.
  3. Porous: Porous boundaries are when someone let’s other people’s thoughts and feelings impact their own. Rather than having a clearly defined self, someone who is exhibiting porous boundaries might become externally focused on what is going on with someone else rather than tending to their own emotions. They also have a tendency to be the person that others dump on, because they are not able to decipher what is a healthy amount of compassion and what is being taken advantage of.

Notice when you are engaging in either rigid or porous boundaries. Ask yourself what you can do to come back to your healthy boundaries again. See a therapist around this if you need more help. Read a book. A beginner’s mind is a successful mind. How could you ever expect yourself to know how to do something you were not actually taught through example? For many of us, boundaries are something we learn about as adults after floundering through some rough patches. They are so vitally important to our well-being.

If people in our lives have a hard time with our boundaries it can be really helpful to remember that it is not the empowered part of them that is becoming angry, but rather a hurt place within.  The most powerful thing we can do is see them as an empowered adult and let them experience us holding them to that standard. Whether or not they join in is not up to us. Our only job is to see and treat them as if they are the highest version of who they can become while we lovingly take care of ourselves.


Photos Courtesy of Shutterstock

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