After working with a lot of people in addiction recovery, as well as a lot of family members of people in addiction recovery, a very common (but unpopular) theme constantly comes up:
“Sometimes you need to disappoint people.”
Sounds like horrible advice, right?
But what if we rewrote it like this:
“Sometimes you need to build boundaries.”
A common theme in addiction recovery is the idea of boundaries, and this article is an analysis of boundaries, how boundaries can be complex, and how boundaries are absolutely necessary for healthy relationships.
So frequently we humans look at disappointing others as a negative, but with a simple reframe, we can see that disappointing people is sometimes how we draw boundaries. Disappointing people sometimes happens when we communicate to people what is and is not acceptable treatment of us. Additionally, sometimes we disappoint people when we do not meet people’s expectations for us, and instead focus on meeting our expectations for ourselves, .
If you are a leader in an organization and two members of your organization are having a disagreement, you have probably noticed that you can not always play Switzerland and refuse to disappoint either side. You need to disappoint one of the sides, because you need to send a message about who is acting in an acceptable way under your leadership. And if you do not make a decision, you often end up losing both of your members because this sends the message that you are wishy-washy about what is acceptable behavior and what is not acceptable behavior. Likewise, with family and friendships, have you ever noticed that if you refuse to choose a side and disappoint one loved one (even if you know what side you actually believe in) you often end up upsetting both people? That is because not making a choice is still making a choice, only this approach expresses that you are too concerned about the expectations of others than to uphold your own expectations.
How does this relate to addiction?
As stated earlier, a lot of times the people who suffer from addiction were brought up by parents who did not understand healthy boundaries, and this can bring the child to have an unhealthy perception of boundaries as they grow older. An example of this might be in a step parent situation where the parent did not draw boundaries between the step parent and their child. Or another example might be in the form of extended family members having too much influence over a parent, and the parent not drawing boundaries between the extended family members and the child.
Parents of people suffering from addiction need to be looked at when we look at the whole scope of addiction. Boundaries are a buzz word in society today, and that’s because boundaries are important. Boundaries protect us, boundaries protect our loved ones, and boundaries are a strong message about what we think is acceptable and what we think is not acceptable when it comes to how we believe we should be treated. When we don’t stop worrying about disappointing others, when we don’t draw boundaries, we also express that we put more stock in other people’s expectations of us than we do in our expectations of ourselves. In a parent / child dynamic, this can also send mix messages to children about how they should allow others to treat them, and this confusing idea about how they should be treated may be carried by that child into their adulthood.
Imagine being a child and your parent/s failing to draw boundaries with others, and you being sent the message, “I do not know how I could / should expect other human beings to treat me.”
Boundaries are healthy. Boundaries are an expression of self worth and how you expect others to treat you. But boundaries can not be created if we do not fail to meet other people’s expectations of us sometimes. Parents, it is okay to put your foot down. You aren’t being cruel, you are drawing essential boundaries. And children of parents who did not draw boundaries, it is okay to feel hurt. You have lived through situations where you were given unclear messages about self respect, and that is a confusing situation to navigate.
Addiction is complex, boundaries are complex, and even knowing our own boundaries is complex. But rather than looking at addiction as a simple “good / bad” choice situation, continue to examine all these elements of addiction, and continue to consider how these elements themselves are confusing and complicated.