“With dignity we will stand for ourselves, but not against our fellows.”
-“From Survival to Recovery”I entered the rooms of family recovery meetings with many figurative bumps and bruises. I had tried every angle to find a way for my loved one to get help for their struggle with alcoholism. I had begged and pleaded. I had cried. I had created grand loving gestures. I had formulated plans. And in the midst of this, I found that I was losing more and more of myself in my reaction to the disease that was happening in my home.
When I first heard about the concept of boundaries, I found it daunting, scary, and also exciting. My “what ifs” kicked in. What if I set a boundary and it wasn’t well-received? What if I set a boundary and things got worse? But, also: what if I set a boundary, and I was able to take care of myself better? I noticed that the people in my meetings who were talking about setting boundaries seemed to be healthy and happy in a way that I was not at the time. That was attractive to me, so I decided to give boundaries a whirl.
As with almost every change in my life, I started by moving from one extreme to the next. (Some of you might identify. I don’t think that I’m the only person who has ever started back at the gym from a hiatus, and then worked out so hard that I couldn’t walk for a week.) I went from being a person with virtually no boundaries to one who had all sorts of boundaries all of the time!
At first, I felt liberated! I was speaking my truth! I was being clear! I was standing up for myself! I was no longer a doormat!
But, then, I found that I was very attached to my boundaries. They gave me a sense of security. I was using them to create a world where things were going my way, and quite honestly, that things going my way was the only acceptable outcome. My boundaries started creating a fortress around me. They started not only separating me from the things that were unpleasant in my life, but they also started separating me from everything else. There is no way to protect yourself from anything painful, and yet be open enough to experience the good. I found that my boundaries were shutting me in, and that in some ways they had also moved away from being about what I could do take care of myself, to being more punitive in nature. I sometimes had boundaries at people.
When I started to see this pattern in myself, I started to look at boundaries differently. I looked in the dictionary and saw that a boundary was defined as “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line”. Of course, there are times when I need a dividing line. But, not everything requires a dividing line!
Today I like to think about the difference between a boundary and a bolster. A bolster is something that props up or strengthens or supports. Bolsters are the things that help me to be the best Sherry I can be. They are part of the ideal format, but they also have some flexibility. Life requires flexibility, as things do not always go according to plan.
The boundaries in my life are pretty black and white, and non-negotiable. They are facts. They are lines I’m not willing to cross. And, they are important. But, they are not the only tool I have in my tool box.
Bolsters are the things in my life that I aspire to. Some of my bolsters are: having connection with the people I love, getting 8 hours of sleep a night, attending my weekly family recovery meeting, eating vegetables, moving my body, having two days off in a row, having play time, having rest time, having an organized home and office. These are some of the things that I have identified that help me be at my best. When the sun and moon align, and I can have ALL of these things happen at once – well, trust me, serenity abounds! But, in the reality of life, having all of these things line up at once is rare.
I’m currently in the midst of a super busy time in my work life, filled with amazingly good things. This involves hosting an amazing group of people, facilitating a program that I love, and bringing back some programming that my heart holds dear. Some of my bolsters will not come to fruition during this timeframe. There is a LOT to do in the midst of this. But, I know that those bolsters will be back in play very soon, because that is my intention, and I know it’s what is best for me.
If these bolsters were boundaries, these few weeks would play out differently. I would be either trying to force my boundaries into place, or being resentful that I wasn’t able to. This would also impact others in my life. If I were forcing these bolsters-now-boundaries to be upheld, it wouldn’t create any space for others to have any of their needs met in the process. Sometimes relationships require compromise, which is difficult to reach when there is rigidity involved.
In the midst of this bolster-flexible timeframe, I still have my actual boundaries in place. I have strong boundaries that I will not accept unacceptable behavior (which means speaking up when it’s happened). I set a boundary years ago that I won’t get in a car with someone who has been drinking. These are still black and white in my world, and remain firmly in place regardless of other circumstances.
But, it’s my bolsters that help me on a day to day basis. Sometimes I need to be reminded of them when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes I need to lean on them more. Sometimes I need to make them more of a priority. And, in busy times like this, sometimes I just need to connect with the ones that I can, and know that the rest of them are here for me, and will be waiting for me like an old friend when I get to re-visit them.