Who ever said, "Good fences make good neighbors," was talking about boundaries and minding your own business. That can get to be complicated sometimes. People who are addicted, compulsive, or codependent have a tendency to mow down fences both literally and figuratively.

There are two kinds of boundaries: physical and emotional. Physical boundaries are about space: "You can come this close and no closer," or, "€œYou stay in your yard and I will stay in mine." If a door is shut, you do not open it without permission from the person behind it; you don't read other people's mail or touch their money unless invited to do so. It is not ok to use someone's possessions without permission. You get the picture. Physical boundaries are taught in school and laws are made to protect them.

Emotional boundaries are harder to define but equally as important. People who have grown up in dysfunctional families or live with compulsivity or addictions know very little about healthy emotional boundaries. So maybe the best way to make it clear is to illustrate unhealthy emotional boundaries:

  • Talking on an intimate level and telling all to new acquaintances. The recipient of this feels like someone just opened up a garbage bag and dumped it on their head.
  • Being overwhelmed and obsessed with another person, preoccupied and fixated on that person. The object of this obsession soon feels trapped and smothered.
  • Going against personal rights and values to please another person, often blaming the other person for "making" you do it, for example, lying for another person.
  • Letting others describe your reality, claiming to know you better than you know yourself, pressuring you to be what they want you to be.
  • Letting others describe your character, and interpret your actions, accusing you of thinking things you do not think or knowing things you do not know. This is called mind raping.
  • Having an opinion on everything and feeling free to share it. This is often called diarrhea of the mouth.
  • Being told how to dress, how to wear your hair, or what to do. For example, "Are you going to wear that?"€ or "€œI really like your hair better long, (short)"  or "Here is  what you should do."
  • Expecting others to fill your needs automatically as in, "€œIf you really loved me, you would know what I need; I wouldn't have to tell you."
  • Falling apart and acting helpless so someone will take care of you. "I can'€™t do this will you do it for me?"€
  • Having a high tolerance for disrespectful or inappropriate behavior.
  • Not noticing or ignoring disrespectful or inappropriate behavior.
  • Accepting food, gifts, hugs, or sex that you do not want.
  • Being sexual for another person rather than for yourself.
  • Touching others without asking.
  • Giving as much as you can for the sake of giving.
  • Taking as much as you can for the sake of taking.
  • Being pressured to eat or drink something you do not want.
  • Being criticized or put down for a choice you have made.

The human psyche is a wonderful thing. Everyone has a gift for rationalizing behavior or making excuses for inappropriate conduct, but no one can easily stifle that still, small voice inside that says "This just isn't right."

Some people have not been taught that they have a right to set boundaries and to expect to be treated lovingly and respectfully. Some people are like drops of water running together: put two drops of water near each other on a table and when they run together you cannot tell which drop is which. These people are ensnared, have lost a sense of self. Other people construct solid walls. Walls shut people out and keep one from having intimate relationships. Walls are built by hurt people to keep from getting hurt again. A low self-worth, a need for approval, a fear of abandonment, ignorance of decorum all can lead to one being either ensnared or walled off.

Healthy boundaries are limits you put on yourself and others. They are good manners, respectful behavior and social etiquette. Healthy boundaries go hand in hand with feelings of self-worth and self-respect. One need never apologize for setting boundaries and demanding respect.


Evelyn Leite has been in the addiction and mental health counseling field for over 25 years. She founded Living with Solutions in 1989 to help addicts and their families to heal from abuse, grief, trauma and other issues common in homes with addiction present.