For many adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs), learning how to set boundaries can be a tough pill to swallow. From an early age, we weren’t allowed to say no and we weren’t allowed to express emotions as most normal children are able to. The simply act of crying was often harshly punished or mocked to the point where many of us learned to bottle our emotions, not daring to let them show for fear of retribution.
In my family, crying was an automatic admission of guilt for whatever I was being accused of rather than a natural response to a stressful stimulus. So, I learned that it wasn’t okay to cry.
“Children raised in alcoholic families, for example, may learn quite early that getting angry, having tantrums, and saying “no” are dangerous. For this reason, children of alcoholics may come to view anger as something to avoid, and separation as disloyalty. They may never quite learn where their boundaries end and another’s begin” (Lerner).
Furthermore, the child often doesn’t develop a good sense of autonomy and their moods are often based on the mood swings of the parent. This is one symptom of codependency (which is defined as excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a person, typically a one who requires support due to an illness or addiction).
“In many alcoholic families, personal space is invaded and emotions are not clearly defined or accepted. Attention is focused on the alcoholic parent, not the children, who learn to match what they feel to the mood swings of the parent” (Lerner).
There are many different types of boundaries, all of which can be violated–and often are–in addicted or otherwise dysfunctional families. We will discuss some of these boundaries now and examine the potential lasting effects on adult children.
Physical boundaries can be violated in a number of ways, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, inappropriate or unwanted touching, and neglect. What is worse is that often children internalize these behaviors and blame themselves for the abuse, even years after the abuse has taken place.
“When their physical boundaries are repeatedly violated, victims often feel they are betraying their abuser by setting boundaries. Feeling responsible for this leaves the child with the idea that the intrusion was justified” (Lerner).
Children learn to shut their mouth and endure whatever it is that is uncomfortable in order to avoid punishment or further abuse by their caretakers. They don’t learn how to set appropriate boundaries and often set themselves up to be involved in abusive relationships in the future, or to even abuse others.
You may recall my own tale of physical abuse in one of my previous postings. I had finally had enough and had to resort to a physical threat of violence in order to protect myself from my alcoholic mother. I do not recommend or condone this method in any way; rather, it was a last and desperate attempt to stop the abuse. In my case, it worked out, but it could have very easily backfired.
I don’t claim to have the right answer and it is very likely that there is no one-size-fits-all. However, you should know that you have a right to decide what you are comfortable with, and if you tell someone to stop doing something to you, they should be the ones to stop. Physical abuse is not your fault. Do what you must to get out of the situation: confide in a trusted adult, look for a counselor, or if you have the courage, report the abuse to the appropriate authorities. This is much easier said than done, but the most important thing to take from this is that physical abuse is not your fault in any way, shape, or form.
Emotional boundaries help us determine which emotions are our own and which are those of others. That is, just because your significant other is sad doesn’t mean that you have to become sad as well. For those unaffected by dysfunctional childhoods, that point might seem obvious. However, for many ACOAs, it’s hard to distinguish our own feelings from those of others because of our codependency traits.
“Typically, when parents are irresponsible with their feelings, their children will become irresponsible with theirs. If a father repeatedly rages uncontrollably at his child, that child will inherit feelings of rage and shame” (Lerner).
These emotional boundaries can be damaged in variety of ways. One such way is when the child feels responsible for the parent. The child might feel responsible for their parent’s happiness, well-being, or even the addiction itself. The ACOA learns to bottle up their own feelings–because it isn’t okay to have them–and instead is fully focused on the parent’s emotions.
“Children learn quite early to accommodate needy parents, often by emotionally shutting down. Realizing that their parents can’t tolerate anger, sadness, or pain, they learn to ignore and deny those feelings” (Miller).
Thus, for many of us, expressing anger, sadness, or pain is very hard for us to do, even in our adult lives. We often hold in all of these emotions until we are unable to any longer and end up exploding at anyone around us. This is often the result of prolonged emotional abuse.
It is important for the ACOA to learn how to express these feelings in a productive manner. It’s perfectly okay to be angry at your significant other for not doing the dishes for the tenth time, but screaming at them is probably not going too be healthy for the relationship. Likewise, saying everything is fine when it really isn’t may lead to even more unhappiness. Learning to express these emotions in a healthy way is imperative in order to find peace and serenity in one’s adult life.
Another way emotional boundaries are breached is when the parent humiliates, shames, or makes fun of the child in a malicious manner. This causes the child to put up a thick wall between themselves and their emotions in order to avoid being shamed.
I know from personal experience that I would often be blamed for anything and everything that was wrong in the house, regardless if I had anything to do with it or not. The dishwasher broke? Must be my fault.The stove won’t work? I must’ve broken it. Mom drinks too much at night? Clearly if I was never born, she wouldn’t drink so much. I understand now that such thoughts are toxic but as a child with no reference for a normal childhood, I internalized the blame.
Today, I still catch myself with internal shame. If I make a mistake, sometimes I call myself stupid, or chastise myself. I’ve gotten much better at catching it earlier, but it is still a daily struggle for me to accept that it is okay to make mistakes. Furthermore, I have finally begun to set my own emotional boundaries with people: I do not accept being yelled at by anyone, nor being emotionally manipulated via gaslighting or guilt-tripping.
As an adult, I understand now that I am not responsible for my parents’ actions. They are their own people and they make their own decisions; I am powerless over them. However, I do not have to accept that I am at fault for their misbehavior any longer. I no longer accept blame for things that are not my fault. I no longer apologize for things that are not within my control. It has taken me decades to learn to set my own emotional boundaries and I admit that it is a long and bumpy road. I encourage you to start on your own journey of self-reflection and healing as soon as you can because there is peace and serenity to be had in life.
In many ways, intellectual boundaries are similar to emotional boundaries. A parent might violate intellectual boundaries if they make fun of their child’s opinions (“You think chocolate is better than vanilla? Ha, that’s so stupid. Vanilla is obviously better!”). Sometimes a parent will make an assumption about what the child likes or dislikes (“What do you mean that you don’t like peas? You love peas!” or “You don’t mind that I missed your soccer game. It isn’t that big of a deal, anyway.”).
“Some parents often assume they know what their children think or feel without asking them. Children who are denied the right to think and feel for themselves often learn to distrust their ideas about the world. If, as children, we are often punished, ridiculed, or overruled for creating our own ideas of our world, we will learn to distrust what we believe” (Lerner).
For me personally, I often doubt my own perceptions of the world because of such boundary violations. Many times in childhood, I distinctly remember seeing or experiencing something. However, whenever I would bring up said event (for example, my alcoholic mother being physically abusive), I would be treated as though I was the crazy one (“What are you talking about?! I never did that! Stop lying! Stop making up stories! Stop manipulating people!”).
So, I began to doubt my own perceptions for a long, long time. Even little things I had to stop and give thought to in an attempt not to “manipulate” people. It took far longer than I’d care to admit to realize that I was not, in fact, manipulating anyone. Talking honestly about what happened, what I saw, or what I felt is not manipulation in any way, shape, or form. Just because the abuser denies that the abuse happened doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The important thing to remember is that you should trust your own feelings and perceptions, even the abuser is telling you that they aren’t true.
To this day, I still have some periods where I feel crazy, that my perceptions are not matching reality. Sometimes, I don’t believe what I am seeing or feeling for fear of manipulating someone. I recognize that this is unhealthy behavior and I am working hard every day to correct it, but it is a hard flaw to fix.
“Many children of alcoholics feel as if they have been on stage most of their lives, saying what they’re supposed to say, and thinking what they’re supposed to think. It’s crucial for us to get off the stage if we want to become honest with ourselves” (Lerner).
Like anything else, repairing intellectual boundaries requires constant effort and perseverance to amend, even if the alcoholic denies the abuse to this day. Whether or not the alcoholic recognizes the abuse is irrelevant; keep the focus on bettering yourself in order to achieve peace. Trust yourself. Work on yourself. You are the only person you can control.
Lerner, Rokelle. “Boundaries For Codependents”. Inspiration for Success. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
Miller, Alice, and Ruth N. Ward. The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Print.