Setting Strong Boundaries When You’re Codependent

Setting Strong Boundaries When You’re Codependent

When you’re codependent, setting – and sticking – to your boundaries can be a challenge. Heck, even if you don’t consider yourself codependent, boundaries are tricky and ever-changing. This week we’re going to dive into how to set and stick with your boundaries with a couple of stories and a favorite book of mine.

Listen to the podcast episode here:

Read the transcript and find more details here:

I’ve been reading a new book lately, and so today, I’m going to share a few of my favorite excerpts. And I know reading something out of a text can be boring, but I’ve practiced. 

So I am going to go slow and hopefully make this interesting because I’m going to read to you and share some stories to illustrate the points. Today my helpful tip is going to be about boundaries. I know. I know. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries, Michelle, why are you always talking about boundaries? I’m talking about boundaries because we need to master them. I’m especially talking about boundaries for codependents. We must master boundaries. We must become a nine out of ten with our boundaries. And that’s why I kind of beat this to death. 

While there are many more, today we’re gonna talk about two different types of people. And I want you to try and identify which type you fall into. 

In this next part, I’m quoting from the book I’m reading. I did not come up with this myself. This is from Pia Mellody, who I’m in love with. She wrote the book Facing Codependence, and it’s a great book. 

So the first type: there are the people that have non-existent boundaries.

This might be you where you have zero self-protection. So here it goes.

“People with non-existent boundaries have no sense of being abused or of being abusive. Some people may have trouble saying no or protecting themselves. They allow others to take advantage of them physically, sexually, emotionally, or intellectually, without clear knowledge that they have the right to say, stop that, I don’t want to be touched. Or, I am not responsible for your feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. A codependent with no boundaries, not only lacks protection but has no ability to recognize another person’s right to have boundaries with the codependent.

Therefore, a codependent with non-existent boundaries moves through other people’s boundaries, unaware that he or she is doing something inappropriate.” 

Basically, what this means is that you have been in, or maybe you grew up in an abusive family, verbally, emotionally, physically. Or you’ve just been in a relationship or a series of relationships with somebody who is verbally or financially or emotionally abusing you. And you’re so used to being abused that the idea of exercising a boundary around the abuse is foreign. 

It’s like a foreign concept to you. You’re like, wait, what? I can say no? Or sometimes it’s, that’s not okay? Doesn’t everybody do that? I remember so clearly when I was married to a good man who struggles with addiction; I was with him for ten years. And by year number five, I quickly adjusted to the new normal of abuse in my daily life. 

And it became so common that it was casual. 

It wasn’t even a big deal anymore to be emotionally abused. And so when I finally decided to leave for the sake of my children, I almost became unbrainwashed. I don’t know if that’s a word, but I just made it up if it isn’t. 

The fog began to clear. I started to see clearly. Like, what I thought was normal was actually incredibly unhealthy. Most women aren’t suffering the way that I’m suffering. They don’t get yelled at by their husband. They don’t get left by their husband. Their husbands don’t have affairs. Their husbands don’t lie to them or take money out of their bank account. They don’t open credit cards in their names only to rack up debt. They don’t miss days of work or go around lying to people to cover up their addiction. 

All that just became so second nature to me; it became my new normal. So I didn’t have boundaries around that first marriage because I became conditioned, as my therapist would say, to this new normal.

My codependent tendencies overrode any boundaries I had for myself. 

And the funny thing is that I would have called myself a very strong woman when I met my first husband. In fact, I think that’s actually why he wanted to marry me. He thought my strength would help him get his life together. I think that’s what made him attracted to me in the first place. 

It’s funny how we start off as such strong, independent, helpful women. And slowly this disease conditions us to become weaker. The values and morals that we entered the relationship with become so compromised over time that they’re lost. We justify and make excuses for why the values that we cherished going into this relationship are no longer recognized. And we do this because we let go of our boundaries and become more codependent. 

We let go of being strong. We let go of our independence, values, and morals because we are in love with a person suffering from addiction. And how can you possibly have those standards and boundaries in place and stay with somebody who’s constantly challenging that? 

So you say to yourself, well maybe those values aren’t so important anymore.

Maybe it’s not so important. For example, if it was important for you to go to church every Sunday and your husband said, no, because he was hungover. Over time you start to say, well maybe I didn’t like that church so much anyways. 

Or let’s say maybe you have a child in sports, and your partner doesn’t show up for games. But when you were young, you always imagined you and your future partner going and cheering on your kids in all sports. 

But now they don’t because they’re hungover, they’re partying or whatever. And you compromise that value. You justify and say, well, they’re tired, and they’ve been working hard anyway, and they’d just be grumpy. So it’s really not that important to our child that they have both parents there, right? 

You start making excuses, and that’s a dangerous place to be at. 

And that’s why, when we say your work is your work, whether they get sober or not, this is part of your work: reinstating your boundaries, especially if you’re codependent, and reinstating your morals and your values and not settling for less. 

So that’s number one. You can fall into that category where you’ve just lost your boundaries, and you don’t even recognize you. You have the right to exercise them. 

Or, you can fall into this other category where you have a damaged boundary system, and your boundary system has holes in it. 

Pia writes in the book, “So people with damaged boundary systems can at times, or with certain individuals, say no, set limits, and take care of themselves. But at other times, or with other people, they are powerless to set boundaries. And for such men and women, there is protection only part of the time. For example, a person may be able to set boundaries with everyone, but authority figures or his or her spouse or his or her child, or the person can usually set boundaries, except when he or she is tired or sick or scared.” 

Does that sound like you? Maybe you’ve taken the boundary program, and you’ve said, Michelle, I got it. I know my boundaries. I’ve done it. I did all the worksheets.

And I may be codependent, but I’ve identified my boundaries.

I am very clear about what they mean and what they are. A lot of people are confused about what boundaries are, and I know what they are. I’ve identified them. 

And when I am feeling strong and secure, and when I’ve taken care of myself, I can stand strong in my boundary. But when I am challenged or with certain people that I’m intimidated by, or maybe if you’re just sick and tired or scared, you have holes in your boundaries like Pia stated. 

This is why it is so important every day to exercise self-care. I know self-care is such a buzz word right now. And I hate using buzzwords. I hate being trendy like that, but it does do an excellent job of summarizing very quickly all the ingredients one needs to care for oneself. 

So are you getting enough sleep? Are you doing a good enough job putting down your phone at night and turning off the lights, making a really dark room? Maybe you need to invest in some blackout curtains. I don’t have curtains in my room yet, so I bought a $5 eye mask to put over my eyes so I can sleep in on weekends. I have a really hard time sleeping in if there’s light in the room. 

Are you making sure that your bedtime routine is nice and relaxing? Are you making sure the room is cold enough? 

Sleep is so important to your mental health. 

Are you trying the idea of meditation? I’m trying; I’m not great at it. I gotta be honest. I have a bit of a mind that wanders, but I’m trying meditation. 

Are you getting exercise? I am trying to exercise six days a week. I’m really trying to make a concerted effort for self-care, and even though I find exercise tedious, I’m trying a bunch of different stuff to see if there’s anything that I like. And if not, I just forced myself to do it anyway because I know it settles me down and calms my anxiety or concerns for the day. It helps me feel better. 

I know we’re all busy; I work, I have kids, and I get it. But we can be so much happier and healthier all around as human beings if we prioritize this type of self-care. Eating right also plays an important role. And not all the time because I had a cookie for breakfast this morning. I mean, are we going to be perfect about it? No. But I’m eating a veggie burger for lunch. So self-care and moderation, right? 

When we practice self-care, I think it’s easier for us to implement our boundaries. Even if you’re not codependent, it makes sticking to boundaries easier. We are more courageous. We are healthier and more dependable. You know this. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. You get it. When you are mentally present, it just makes life easier. 

It’s less stressful, particularly when you love someone suffering from addiction. So are you practicing those things? I promise if you do, the holes in your boundaries are going to be less. There’ll be fewer holes in your boundaries. 

So as you’re listening to this, think is there anyone in your life that you struggle to set boundaries with?

Is there anyone in particular that brings out your codependent tendencies and makes it hard to stick to your boundaries?

It can even be parents. She doesn’t mention that, but it can also be parents that you’re struggling with. 

So here’s a story I promised you about a woman I know who exercises great boundaries. And I was so impressed. I asked her if I could use it for the podcast, and she said yes. Her husband doesn’t suffer from addiction, and she’s not codependent, but I still think we can learn from her boundaries. She and her husband this past weekend got into a bit of an argument. Actually, it wasn’t even an argument. He just hurt her feelings. And she is very mature and very wise and has grown significantly over the years. 

So she can communicate her feelings without nagging or crying or screaming or having a temper tantrum or passive-aggressiveness and walking away and storming off for rolling her eyes with contempt. She’s a very wise, mature woman. So she communicated to her husband and said, look, I love you, but what you just did hurt my feelings. And you know, I need you to help me figure this out. 

And then she got distracted. One of her kids called her away. She had to make breakfast. So she walked downstairs and started the day. And the whole day she went about cleaning the kitchen. She did some vacuuming and folded some laundry. She exercised, went for a walk, and talked to a couple of friends. But the whole time she was going about her day, she was waiting for her husband to actually think about this and come up to her. 

Because he was in the wrong, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend. He really was in the wrong. And she was waiting for him to approach her and say, Hey, I’ve given this some thought, why don’t we talk about it? 

And she was kind of watching him out of the corner of her eye.

You know, how you do that? Like you keep tabs on someone. He was doing all of his weekend chores, but he wasn’t approaching her. And she’s like, okay, that’s interesting. Maybe it’s just taking longer for him to find some solutions. And she even said he was on the computer for a little while. Like she walked upstairs, and he was sitting on the computer, and she thought, Oh, maybe he’s Googling what to do. 

Maybe he’s really researching an answer. And later on, she found out he wasn’t looking at anything that had to do with this argument or this instance. 

So four o’clock rolls around and she’s not getting upset, but she’s like, huh, I know he likes to play softball. Usually, the kids all pile into the car, and they cheer him on. And they love going to his games and really like clapping for him and giving him a thumbs up in the stands when he looks over. And it’s this really nice thing to do. 

So he had a game at four, and she’s like, I wonder if he’s expecting us to all go cheer him on again. At 3:55, he walks into the room that she’s at, and stands at the doorway saying, look, I know you’re upset with me, but I have this game. I have to leave in five minutes. Are you planning on coming now? 

She had been thinking about this because she’s wise and calm, and she’s mature. And she loves this man. And she trusts this man. She had been thinking about, okay, instead of me saying yes or no, I’m going to go to this game, I’m not going to think about how it would make him feel. She asked herself, how would it make me feel? Let me picture myself getting into this car and doing the big, encouraging cheerleader type of mentality for him at this game.

Would that feel okay for her? And then how would it feel if she said no and stayed at home? There is a long list of things she could actually do while he’s playing his game to prepare for Monday, and she thought long and hard about it. 

And she said to him, you know, I love you.

And I promise I’m not saying this because I’m mad. But if I were to go in the car and cheer you on for the next two hours, I would feel really resentful because the reason you’re deciding to talk to me at 3:55 is because you want me to cheer you on. You want something from me. 

Normally, I love supporting you, but I needed your support today. And I waited for that, and I was really hoping that you would make our relationship a priority. It hurt my feelings that not only are you neglecting to have a talk with me that could help us move forward, but you’re now expecting me and asking me to show up for you. And so not out of anger and not out of spite, but out of self-respect for myself, I’m going to say no. You can go have a good time. And I’ll be here at home. I’m going to skip this one out. 

And he looked at her and got really quiet. He thought long and hard, and he’s a good man. And he thought long and hard about what she said. And he said, okay, I understand I made a mistake. I’m so sorry. You’re right. I should have talked to you. I was hiding away because I felt embarrassed because I knew I was wrong, and I didn’t want to face up and own up to my mistake. And I’m really sorry about that because I’m a grown man and I should have had the courage to talk to you about it. I respect your opinion. 

And she said, okay, that’s great. Thank you for explaining that to me. 

I completely understand why it isn’t easy to talk about. No one likes making mistakes or admitting they did wrong. Feel free to go have a good game. 

So even with his apology, she still, with love in her heart and self-respect, said, I’m a solid no thank you on this. He says, okay, I respect that. He goes downstairs, and she hears the backdoor close. And she’s like, gosh, I feel really good about that conversation. That went really well. We still haven’t talked about it, but I feel so proud of myself that I was mature and clung to my self-respect. 

There was no yelling and no resentfulness.

There was no blaming. It just felt really, really healthy. Right? 

All of a sudden, she hears footsteps coming back up the stairs. And she’s like, that sounds like his footsteps. (You know how you can recognize your household’s footsteps.) And she’s sitting at her desk, and he pulls up the chair and sits next to her. She looks at him and asks, what are you doing here? And he starts crying. He starts getting tears in his eyes. And he’s like, it’s just not the same without you. I love playing because I love looking up and seeing you in the stands, cheering me on. I don’t want to play it without you. And I feel like I should be here with my family. And the right thing to do is to talk this out with you. So I’m going to not go to the game, and I’m going to sit here, and I choose you. 

I choose to stay. I choose to be here with you. She was floored and looked him right in the eye and said, oh my gosh, I’m so happy that you said that. And that makes me feel so important. Are you sure? Because I’m not mad. 

And he said, no, I’m a thousand percent sure. Then he grabbed his phone to let the group chat know that he wasn’t going to show up. And apparently, there were a few players that weren’t going to show. And so they might not have been able to play the game. 

He looked up at her, and he said, okay, I’m going to ask you, what should I do? Because I’m now looking at the roster. And I’m realizing that they’re short many players. And if I don’t show up, they won’t be able to play. I just don’t want to be viewed as being rude. So can you help me? Should I go? Can you help me make the right decision here with this information? 

And she looked at him, and she thought, you know what feels right for me right now?

Again, checking in. And she said, okay, let’s go. I’ll go with you. Let’s get in the car. 

And she got in the car and drove to the game, and it was a wonderful time. It was a moment where she ended up going, but she knew what he was doing with the roster situation was not manipulation because she could tell he was coming from an honest place. 

And you can tell when someone is. They’re not trying to sneak anything by you. They’re saying something to you, and it’s raw. That’s how she knew he was not being manipulative. So she got in the car and went, and the whole time she felt so good about honoring her own choices, her own decisions, her own feelings. 

And that is what it means.

When you have healthy boundaries, codependent or not, it doesn’t mean your boundaries can’t change from moment to moment.

It doesn’t mean that you can go from a no to a yes in the span of three hours. You can change your no to a yes, but it has to be because you’re honoring your feelings. It can’t be you making decisions based on how you think other people are going to react to your no or yes. You’re checking in with yourself. And you’re saying, and you’re imagining the future. You’re projecting into the future. And you’re saying, okay, I’m going to imagine a situation. I’m going to think about how I’m going to feel. I’m going to make the decision that best honors my feelings, and you know yourself well enough to be able to do that. 

Because more than likely, you’ve been with the person you love suffering from addiction for a while now. And more than likely, the decisions or mistakes that they’re making are repetitive. You can look back on your history with this person and pretty much predict your future. You have that ability because there are a lot of themes, common, consistent denominators that have been in your past, that will continue to go on in your future. That will help you make great decisions and great calls of judgment, which is why I always say, you must trust your gut. Your gut is right. It is true. It is your instinct. Listen to it. Do not let the voice of addiction, that nasty negative voice, sway and manipulate you to go left or right. Your voice is the center; stay in the center, and listen to your gut. 

You will continue to make very wise, wonderful choices using the past to predict your future. And you will continue to make choices that honor your boundaries even as a codependent. And you can change those boundaries from moment to moment. 

I hope that story gave you some examples of somebody who, in real-time, adjusted their boundaries and took self-inventory. 

If you stumble, it’s okay. If you fall, as we went over a couple of weeks ago, you just dust yourself off and keep trying. I love you.

Michelle Anderson

Michelle Anderson

Michelle Anderson has over 10 years of personal experience with loving someone who suffers from addiction. She was married to a good man who suffered from addiction to alcohol, illegal drugs, and pornography. She's used her experience to create powerful resources for women in the same circumstance. Using her own personal experience, combined with years of research and studying, she presents ideas, tips, and tools on how to handle this disease, and take care of yourself, and your family.

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