What does shame have to do with boundaries?

When we think of healthy boundaries, the word shame doesn’t often come to mind. But what are boundaries really? Boundaries are the ultimate self-care and personal responsibility. A boundary is something we set for ourselves, not for others. If we try to set boundaries for others, what we are really trying to do is control them - and controlling other people is impossible.


Let me define the word boundary using a parable:

Imagine a house with the doorknob on the outside only. This is a dangerous way to live. The person living in this house is at the mercy of the world outside. This person has no control over who or what enters his home, nor when or how often they come. The person living in this home does not get to decide whether the door is open or closed, locked or unlocked. We can imagine that this person feels very unsafe and unprotected, and likely even endangered. 


THIS is boundary-less living

Now imagine a house with the doorknob on the inside. The person living in this house decides who, what, and how many will enter. He decides when. He opens, closes and locks his door according to what he deems appropriate for himself. He has control over his own space, time, and safety to the extent this is possible.

This is what living with healthy boundaries looks like. 


Establishing boundaries requires 2 steps

Step one - is a verbal statement of intent

Step two - is enforcement, an action to back up the boundary


Let's start with an example many of us can relate to:

A 14-year-old boy wakes up late for school on a regular basis. Mom and his siblings are always late because they have to wait for him in the morning.

Mom has tried discussing this problem with him. She has pleaded with him: “Please, David, you will get in trouble for being late; the rest of us will be late because of you. You’re not being fair to me or your siblings.”

But is it really David’s fault that Mom is late for work and the other kids are late to school? She could just leave on time and David would have to find his own way. But this would make Mom feel uncaring and mean. So she tries to deflect the responsibility of her own decision to be late onto him, and in this way, she avoids taking responsibility for herself. She does not want to have to do the hardest thing, which is to stand up to him and say, “Enough is enough!” She is afraid of his reaction. But no amount of begging, yelling, or screaming is working. Mom finally decides it’s time to set a boundary. How will it look?

Step 1: Verbal Statement: 

I will leave at 7:30 AM from now on. If you are in the car by 7:30, I will be happy to take you to school. If you are NOT in the car by 7:30, it will pain me, a lot, but I will leave without you.

Step 2: Enforcement: 

Mom leaves at 7:30 even if David is not in the car.


Healthy boundaries = healthy relationships

As unpleasant as it is for both mom and David, this boundary is essential in order for them to have a healthy relationship. Because relationships without boundaries can create resentment, fear, blame, and insecurity. Without boundaries, we don’t know where we stand or who we are, where we end and someone else begins… Mom resents David deeply for sleeping late. She blames him and guilts him. He feels resented, blamed, and unsure. But he is not motivated to change because there is little consequence to sleeping late. This is not a healthy relationship.

Once mom takes responsibility for herself by setting her boundary, she detaches herself from David with love and returns to him his sense of personal responsibility. At this point, resentment, blaming, and shaming can evaporate, and a healthy, loving relationship is restored.


One more example, the wife of an alcoholic

Step one - I will not continue to live with your drinking

Step two - action, the wife moves out if the husband doesn’t stop drinking, or takes steps to get help.

These are just examples of verbal intention followed up by action. These scenarios are invented to give examples and not intended to give specific instructions as to how to deal with difficult family relationships. Specific actions can be much less harsh, such as refusing to give the child money. Each situation is unique. However, in order to protect your boundaries, you must follow up with an action that will change the dynamic of the relationship. 

These examples were chosen specifically to show how difficult setting boundaries can be with people you love. It’s scary stuff. 

There is fear of the unknown: what will happen if I put my foot down and enforce my boundary? Will my husband divorce me? Will my son simply refuse to get up and go to school?

These are natural reactions, and the codependent person will try instead to heal or save the addict. They try to control the addict. Often what this means is that the codependent will do everything he or she can for the addict except set the boundary. Perhaps resorting to empty threats and yelling, or trying to make the addict feel guilty, are tactics for control. However, as we discussed earlier, controlling others doesn’t work. While the mother or wife tries to control her husband or son, she becomes disconnected from herself; she forgets her own needs, her dreams, her aspirations, and her feelings.


Overcome the fear of setting boundaries

For most people, some fear will accompany setting boundaries. For people who are addicts or codependents, the fear can be crippling, and so overwhelming that it prevents them from doing what they need to do. Many avoid setting boundaries by using control tactics instead. Why? One of the reasons is SHAME. Shame can make up a big part of an addict or co-dependent’s sense of self, and they may not even fully understand this.


Shame vs Guilt

While guilt and shame may feel like similar emotions, they are very different. Guilt is associated with an action that we have done or failed to do. It is connected to another person. For example, when we feel guilty we say things like, “I feel guilty. I don’t want to do that again. I will apologize and do better next time.” The person changes and believes he is worthy of forgiveness and moves on. And most importantly, he forgives himself! 

Shame is different. Shame is based on a global feeling towards the self. Rather than saying to himself, “I did something bad,” the shameful person will say, “I AM bad.” A person who is overwhelmed with shame believes himself to be worthless at his very core. He is hopelessly flawed and defective and believes himself to be unworthy of acceptance, forgiveness, and love.


Overcoming shame

The inability of addicts and codependents to set boundaries is what allows them to enable each other in staying stuck. This situation is like a car with two steering wheels and two drivers. The addict is trying to drive in one direction and the codependent in the other. They end up stuck together in a small space, fighting while going nowhere. Neither of them is willing to give up the controls. The only way out of this conundrum is to disconnect with love and allow each to drive his own car and control his own behavior… and his own choices.

Shame is the driving force behind addiction and codependency. Unfortunately, shame-based adults produce shame-based children and the cycle continues… until one of them has the courage to get the help they need to make the changes necessary to break the cycle. At which point something new will happen.

But we don’t know what.

The only question is, are we ready to take a chance? Are we willing to experience the discomfort, the fear of the unknown, and the feeling of being out of control? These feelings accompany setting firm boundaries. The important thing is to remember that the CHOICE to set personal boundaries - which are the ultimate self-care and personal responsibility - this choice is ours alone.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Retorno can help. Visit us at www.retorno.org to learn more.

Addiction Alcoholism Codependency Family Conflict Substance Abuse