Personal Growth

Internal Limits and External Boundaries
to Manage the Disease of Addiction

by Vicky Jeter

Recently, during a conference call discussion that my husband and I had on the phone, one of the participants posed a question about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal last November.  It seemed to her that there isn't any "right" or "wrong" anymore.  She asked me what I thought about it. 

While it may seem obvious that there are moral absolutes with regard to what a person and/or a society would know are wrong, such as unprovoked malicious injury or violation of another person or their life space, there is a more pertinent question. If there are moral absolutes, how do we go about bringing them to high functioning as active guides for behavior in relationships?  Let's break the question down to the foundational keys:  First, even with moral absolutes in consideration, "right" and "wrong" are intimately subjective concepts, not only in exactly what is determined to be right or wrong by a person or in a society, but especially what considerations go into determining something to be right or wrong.  What is good for the goose may or may not be good for the gander, as the adage goes.  In short, answering this question is effectively determining our own limits and knowing why we have these limits – such as our personal values and the influence of the values of the groups in which we are part of, such as family, societal or religious. Each person eventually needs to decide for themselves what is right and wrong and this is where the answer to the question and the solution to the problem for society begins.  As more and more people begin to learn about their own personal limits and are determined to put healthy boundaries into practice for themselves, the healthier and more balanced society becomes as a whole, naturally. This is an evolving process as more and more people take personal responsibility to reflect on their own limits and boundaries.

By now you may well be asking what all this has to do with addiction.  The ability to determine personal limits and exercising boundaries with others to set personal limits, or more accurately, the lack this skill has everything to do with the disease of addiction and the addictive process in relationships.  It sounds like I am referring to limiting the use of addictive substances, here.  In the strictest sense, I am.  But, understanding that knowing ones internal limits is crucial is not just about addictive substances; knowing our internal limits and exercising them is crucial to health in every relationship we have.  Our internal limits expressed become our external boundaries.  For example, a woman who knows she is not a victim internally, with her beliefs, carries herself as unapproachable when walking down a city street. On the other hand a woman, who never stops to think about this one way or the other, walks with far less discretion regarding what's around her and is much more vulnerable to be targeted by predators. 

When we are new to this world as children, our developing systems require stable environments with places and people that feel safe in which to grow.  If that environment is extremely unstable, such as I experienced with parents openly acting out their addictions, with unpredictable, volatile moods and behaviors, the child will look for ways to adapt by finding things he or she "believes" can be depended upon to fill the need for the feeling of stability.  This imaginary stability, that is not real stability, ends up being an attempt to control situations and people.

This process of the very real need for stability becoming the adaptive need to control can lead to what I call, "All white or all black thinking." This is a big part of the disease process of addiction.  For example, when I was a little girl, I learned by the age of four or five that as soon as I woke up in the morning I saw my parents were up and fixing breakfast, going to work, etc., it was going to be a good day all day, and I could behave certain ways.  If, on the other hand, when I woke up and my parents were holed up in their bedroom either sleeping, brooding or fighting, it was going to be a bad day all day, and the very best thing I could do was be as quiet, i.e. invisible as possible in an attempt not to do something for my parents to keep fighting about.  The part about my chosen indicators predicting the quality of the entire day was important because knowing what to plan for felt so much safer than the actual reality of the unknown, which was that anything could happen, good or bad, either way.  It is this drive to create a feeling of safety or feeling "good" where there is none that drives a great deal of the impulse to addiction to substances and/or to excitement and drama.  Immature as it was, this system worked very well for me in establishing with my system the idea that I had some control over an environment which was truly subject to chaos at any moment, throughout my growing years in my parent's home.

This basis for adapted patterns of relationship that emerge are dysfunctional when applied anywhere outside the addictive family system.  In early adulthood, I emerged into a conglomerate world, where every person I met had differing expectations and ways of approaching me and relating to me.  This being true for most of us, given the "melting pot" society we live in, it is very important to understand how to communicate our own boundaries and how to read the boundaries of other people.  And, perhaps one of the most vital qualities of this skill for vital, healthy relationships is that things being "all good" or "all bad", "totally black" or "totally white," is not at all the way life works.  I was called to learning about the reality of relationships being more gray.  For example, some parts of a day I spend with friends can be good, while at the same time, maybe some part of the day was bad.  It took me a very long time to learn that just because some "bad" things happen in my relationships with people, that does not color the whole relationship bad, necessarily.  I learned to imagine having shutters on my boundaries so I could learn to open and close them partially.  To accomplish this, I had to get to grow in self-awareness and I know myself very well.  It was important to understand and come to accept that my outer world responds to how I am doing in my inner world. If I don't know where my limits are on the inside, I absolutely can not expect people not to invade my boundaries. To take care of myself on the outside I had to be clear and strong on the inside.

The key to my learning was to realize that I do not have to control circumstances or the behavior of the people around me. Instead, I had to understand that when I know my limits about what I believe or what I am comfortable doing, I have very little challenge in setting a boundary and keeping it out in the world.  And, when I experience strong boundaries for myself, I create the safety that allows me to move through this ever-changing, often chaotic world freely.

In response to the original question, I believe foundationally that people who commit grievous violations against other people have no concept of limits, either internally or externally. We must return to learning and exercising the skills of setting limits within for ourselves because it is critical to re-establishing some degree of agreement about living morally "right" or "wrong" within expressed human decency in relationships.





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