A Blog by Dr Brad Reedy Ph.D., LMFT, Owner, Clinical Director of Evoke Therapy Programs

The topic of boundaries is one of the more nuanced concepts in therapy, self-help, and relationship psychology. People are eager for clear and simple illustrations of boundaries and when confronted with addiction or mental health dynamics, clients seek manualized marching orders for going forward. After a session, many go ahead with ideas for a clear path, but when the equation shifts just a little, they can be thrown off course. Instead, I want to offer a set of principles that will not tell you what to do in a given situation, but rather will explore the kind of thinking that goes into discovering your own boundaries.

1. Boundaries are for Self-Care, Not for Changing Other People.

Some years ago, a colleague and I were having lunch together and during our discussion, he asked me about my boundaries with clients. “How are you with boundaries?”

I hesitated to consider his question because various circumstances affect my ability to maintain clear boundaries: client’s issues, my counter-transference with those issues, my state or mood at the time, etc. While I was hesitating, he illustrated with an example, “If a client called you on a Sunday morning, would you be sure not to respond so they would learn to wait for business hours or their scheduled session for a non-emergency.” As he clarified his question, something crystallized for me. I explained, I don't set boundaries to teach other people lessons or to change them. While boundaries do very often have that effect, I set boundaries to take care of myself. My boundaries are my limits—the edges of what I need to feel comfortable. If I was feeling okay, I might answer the phone. If I was depleted, I might let it go to voicemail. And in some cases, I could miscalculate my energy level and I would answer, leaving me feeling resentful. But in the end, boundaries are for me—not for the other person.

When we teach our clients or our families suffering with addiction that boundaries are the cure—that if they set a boundary, the addict or the identified patient will hit bottom and be cured, we do them a great disservice and actually contribute to addictive family dynamics. Teaching boundaries as the “cause” in the “cause-and-effect” hits at the heart of addictive thinking. When one enters into recovery from codependency (the pop-psychology term for poor attachment), they learn about the three C’s—I didn’t cause it; I can’t cure it; and I can’t control it.

Recently, I was giving a workshop on family addiction and co-dependency, and a clinician challenged what she thought was my assumption, “Brad, how can you tell the parent of a heroin addict to kick their child out of the house when the possible consequence could be death?”

I responded, “I would never tell a parent to kick their child out of the house. That‘s not my responsibility and is a violation of the ethical code I agreed to (avoid giving advice in major life decisions). My work with such a parent would be to help them heal their co-dependency and with that healing, they would decide what to do.”

The wife of an alcoholic does not set a boundary to divorce her husband to get him to stop drinking. Rather, the recovering codependent will say, “I am leaving. I can’t have this in my life anymore. You can keep drinking. I am not trying to get you to stop—I have spent the last 15 years of our marriage trying to get you to stop, but now I am giving up. I am leaving for me.”

2. What Others think and Feel About You is None of Your Business.

The essence of boundaries can be understood with attachment theory. And the simplest dynamic that underscores boundaries is the idea that one is responsible for one’s feelings. While many teach this idea of boundaries in their work with couples or families, they also suggest interventions and assignments that undermine this very idea. It’s common for treatment programs, therapists, and interventionists to suggest that loved ones share the pain, grief, anger, betrayal, or sadness with the identified patient with the notion that it can be the primary source of motivation for the addict to get into recovery. This line of treatment suggests family members are responsible for each other’s feelings. Many might argue that any reason for an addict to get into recovery is a good one, even if its shame or for other people, but there is a fundamental danger to this idea: where does it stop? Because of this, at Evoke Therapy Programs, we shifted one of the key assignments that many programs use. Instead of an Impact Letter, which focuses on how the client has affected parents and others, we ask family members to write a Hope and Intentions Letter. The focus is on the consequences the identified patient has suffered and the hopes that they find relief from their suffering.

For many addicts and sufferers of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, self-medicating and other distracting symptoms serve to numb or escape feelings associated with the sense that they are responsible for others’ feelings. In The Journey of the Heroic Parent, I suggest what “parents think and feel about their children becomes their inner-voice.” And this inner-voice is sometimes the thing that people use alcohol, drugs, cutting, or suicide to silence.

In Al-Anon, a program designed to support loved-ones of addicts, participants learn that “What someone else thinks about you is none of your business.” And further, loved ones are encouraged to own their own feelings rather than make the addict responsible for them, “My serenity is my responsibility.”

Our emotions can and do inform us. Our emotions can be the fuel to set boundaries. In her wonderful book on boundaries, The Dance of Anger, Lerner[1] teaches, “Anger is a tool for change when it challenges us to become less of an expert on others and more of an expert on the self.” Anger and resentment are evidence of poor self-care and a signal that we need to do something different.

Many believe talking about a boundary, threatening a boundary, lecturing, pleading, nagging, or begging that someone change, is a boundary. Instead we understand, a boundary is a boundary is a boundary. All these other things are our attempts to get someone to change so we don't have to do the hardest thing of all—set a boundary and risk rejection, loneliness, and judgment.

3. Guilt is the Biggest Barrier for Self-Care and Boundaries.

If you aren’t battling guilt, you probably aren’t stretching to improve your boundaries. I think one of the most dangerous messages we can give is to equate guilt with morality. Guilt is the experience of or expectation that we hurt someone else. Everyone reading this can think of dozens of examples, past or future, where they would feel guilt even when doing the right thing. When we grow up in a home where healthy concepts of Self and Other were not modeled, we have little sense about what it means to be our own person. We learn that when mom and dad are upset or worried, we have done something wrong or are on the wrong course. If mom, dad or other authority figures or loved-ones are happy or proud of us, we are on the right course. While this might seem harmless and might even seem helpful, it runs contrary to ideas of the development of a Self. This fusion with what mom and dad feel and how a child is supposed to feel about themselves is dangerous at best, and toxic at worst.

Epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, and rising suicide rates can often be traced back to parental and societal expectations. While addicts or anxious individuals may not have parents with unique or more profound levels of diffuse boundaries, many of the symptoms they display are, in part, medicating or solving the problem associated with poor boundaries. While clients will identify their pain as shame or a critical inner-voice, the origin of this voice came from the outside. In this model, the anxious parent or teacher who projects their emotions into the child may create or contribute to the problem. That can be clear. But the solution to this trauma is unique to the individual suffering from the addictive or mental health disorder: alcohol, opioids, cutting, depression, anxiety (hyper-compliance), or rebellion.

4. Enmeshment is Not “Loving-too-much.”

Conflating anxious attachment and too-much-love is a common euphemism of our day. Many self-help and therapeutic professionals use terms like “helicopter-parenting,” enabling, and rescuing to identify problematic behaviors common with mental health or addiction issues in relationships. Some offer a reframe for these dynamics as “loving-too-much.” However, the idea of too-much-love is preposterous—you cannot love-too-much. Gandhi explained, “Projection, fusion, ‘going home,’ is easy; loving another’s otherness is heroic. If we really love the Other, as Other, we have heroically taken on the responsibility for our own individuation, our own journey.” Love is capable, strong, clear, and must come from the foundation of a solid sense of Self and separation from the Other.

The problems with boundaries stem from our own attachment wounds and models. Our unfinished business will be on display in our current relationships. Murray Bowen, a founder of family therapy, shared that families pass on their level of differentiation (his term for boundaries) to their children and children grow up and seek out partners, friends, and raise children with similar levels of differentiation. We seek out people with similar ideas about what it means to be in a relationship. People with low levels of differentiation seem immature, reactive or dependent to those with high levels of differentiation. People with high levels of differentiation seem aloof, distant, and uncaring to those with lower levels. I prepare clients as their boundaries improve, their loved ones may resist this change, accusing them of abandonment. It can be helpful to prepare for this push back message as it may trigger guilt and echo messages from their family of origin about correct levels of emotional proximity—boundaries.

In the end, loving-too-much is a dangerous reframe. Anxious attachment is not loving-too-much, it is not enough Self.

5. Developing a Self.

Moving from being right to being a Self. Years ago, I was asked how we support connection in a program where the identified patient is treated for several weeks without the family. I responded, “The first ingredient in intimacy and connection is a Self.” And as Prentis Hemphill[2] explained, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

This is a lifetime of work and we will have to do battle with the sentinels of guilt and shame. As the philosopher Joseph Campbell[3] teaches, we will have to slay the dragons where every scale has written on it Should or Should Not. That is a heroic journey—the journey inward to confront the ideas of what we should be, what we should do, and what it means to love someone else.

Thus, the most important shift that occurs as boundaries become clearer is the shift from being right to being YOU. I teach parents and partners to state the boundary this way: “I may be stupid, crazy, old-fashioned, or even wrong, but this is my boundary. This is what I need to feel okay.” One of the reasons we avoid setting boundaries, even in the most necessary of situations, is that we worry that we are wrong. But when one surrenders to the idea of being a Self instead of being right, there is power and freedom. This is true for partners, friends, and parents.

We learn to lose and get comfortable being wrong. I simply teach it this way: In this way of thinking you don't get to be right anymore—you get to be a Self; you get to be YOU. And that is so much better.

Our recovery from our attachment wounds, from codependency, from our family of origin, is not an instant recovery. It requires deep work. It requires pain and a willingness to kill ideas, parts of the Self, and early ideas we were taught. As Alice Miller[4] taught in her landmark book on child development, “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.”

Frustration with enabling family members, rescuing parents, or even with ourselves as we struggle to navigate boundaries is a barrier to effective treatment. As therapists and treatment professionals, it is key that we show the same kind of compassion to family members and loved ones of addicts and identified patients. They too are suffering, have inherited a disease, and hating the symptoms of poor boundaries, enmeshment, codependency, does not heal them.

About the Author:

Dr. Reedy began his studies at Brigham Young University where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. in Family Science. Next, he attended Loma Linda University where he received an M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy and then returned to B.Y.U. and completed his Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy.

Brad's research and clinical experience includes parenting issues, family trauma, treatment with sexual abuse victims, domestically violent offenders, adults/adolescents with substance abuse issues, eating disordered patients, sexual perpetrators, attachment issues, developmental psychology and children suffering with grief and loss. Brad works with a variety of populations that often include students with dual diagnoses and gifted intelligence. He has served on the board of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and the Utah Department of Child and Family Services.

After years as a parent educator having broadcast over 1000 webinars on parent and family issues, Brad released the book, The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child's Struggle and the Road Home. Using his personal story and stories from thousands of clients, he shares wisdom on how to think about parenting. Parents are asked to shift from relying on experts for advice to learning how to think about parenting questions by truly understanding themselves and doing their own work. Miles Adcox, Onsite CEO, praises the work as a "must-read for any parent" and Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger, calls Brad a "gentle, authentic and wise guide."

Most recently, (with his partners Rick Heizer & Matt Hoag), Brad envisioned a company that focused on the whole health of the people it served as well as it's employees. In this spirit, they founded Evoke Therapy Programs where Brad now serves as Clinical Director. He travels the country lecturing, running parenting workshops, and hosting weekly webinars to support parents and families. These broadcasts are also available on your podcast app. His parenting book is used as a foundational principle in the Evoke Therapy Programs model and is also used industry-wide to educate and support families.

Born and raised in Orange County, California, the middle of three boys, Brad was raised by his mother. He grew up surfing, listening to Bob Dylan, and causing his mom a great deal of grief. Brad is married and has four children. He is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Angels and can be easily engaged in a debate on any sports-related topic.