In sex addiction treatment and in therapy in general, we talk a lot about people needing to have good “boundaries.” (Take the quiz on relationship boundaries.)
Boundaries are limits on what you will or will not do.
Boundaries are basic internal principles guiding your behavior through which you can keep yourself safe, calm, rational and respectful of those around you.
Addicts use their addiction to self-medicate, escape or rebel. When emotions such as anger, fear, loneliness and shame pile up in difficult situations addicts reach for their “drug.”
If you are calm, effective and appropriate in getting your needs met then you diminish the feelings that can trigger your addictive behavior.
In sex addiction treatment the term “boundaries” is often used in a narrow sense to mean rules about what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are part of your addiction. These boundaries identify behaviors that signal relapse.
The broader meaning of boundaries in sex addiction treatment and therapy in general includes things like:
- Knowing the limits of what you are willing to tolerate in a relationship
- Doing those things that fit with the kind of person you want to be
- Sticking up for yourself when you disagree or are being misrepresented
- Acting on your right to privacy and pursuing your own goals without guilt
- Being able to decide that certain people and situations are toxic and get away from them
For example if you do not have boundaries around what you consider to be your own private business, you may feel that you have to share something even though you resent doing so. The resentment can then become an occasion for self-medicating with addictive substances or behaviors.
Boundaries keep you from reacting to voices from the past
Addicts tolerate all kinds of bad situations because of their fears. You may be very afraid of being hurt or rejected by others due to your conditioning from early life.
The kinds of boundaries that allow you to stick up for yourself and ask for what you need require a willingness to risk being rejected or disapproved of. These fears of rejection often take the form of a disapproving voice of a parent, a judgmental voice that exists only in your head.
When you learn to state your needs and wants and express your real feelings you may find that the disapproval you fear from the other person does not happen or that if it does you don’t take it “personally.”
When you stick up for yourself you are resisting the negative voices in your head. You are acting based on what really works for you.
Boundaries build a more positive sense of self
Many addicts are so focused on what others think of them that they have no sense of power over their lives. People who grew up with narcissistic or disengaged parents, for example, are likely to feel that the only way to get their needs met is to be pleasing or useful to someone else.
If all you can do is react to others then who you are, your sense of self and your ability to self-activate are severely limited. This can easily lead to getting stuck in feeling victimized.
Addicts typically have this kind of poor self concept and lack of self-efficacy. The addict often accepts the role of “black sheep” or “bad boy/bad girl.” But it is crucial to be able to question what others say about you.
If criticism from others is accepted unquestioningly, then you are letting someone else define who you are. You have likely brought that habit with you from early life. Feeling helpless about yourself and your victimhood brings with it anger and self-hate which are a set up for addictive behaviors which serve to release you from the feelings of being constrained by others.
In deciding to place the “locus of control” inside yourself and in learning the boundaries that separate you from someone else you become more independent and more able to like who you are.
Boundaries protect your recovery
In sex addiction recovery and recovery in general you are building a new and stronger sense of self. Boundaries allow you to protect that new-found sense of self. They are a way of demonstrating to yourself that you will be OK, that you can weather the storm and stay centered.
It is not always easy to learn to act on these good boundaries and there is uncertainty and awkwardness in the beginning. But the point is to begin this new behavior and keep doing it. It gets easier with practice.