Setting Boundaries During the Worst of Times

This month we’re talking about setting boundaries while staying open to the Universe. Susan wrote in End the Struggle and Dance With Life about a worst-case scenario—a family member with a substance abuse problem—and how setting boundaries can be essential to dealing with the situation.

Bob’s 19-year-old son was taking drugs and flunking out of college. Bob was brought up believing that he was responsible for everyone around him…that everyone else’s happiness (or unhappiness) depended on him. He also believed that he could somehow change others with his words, actions, or attitudes. So in the beginning of his son’s troubling times, Bob desperately tried to “fix” his son…but to no avail.

Eventually, he realized his powerlessness in this situation and he had to pull back entirely and let his son find his own way. This was very difficult, but at the same time, very freeing. He said he asked God to take over and give his son what was needed for his highest good. With that, he bowed out of the picture and let God take over.

His son dropped out of school and lived a very paltry kind of existence, but Bob no longer was an “enabler,” which in co-dependency terms means someone who tries to shield another from the harmful consequences of his or her behavior. This sounds noble, but it ultimately is controlling and destructive, as the other person is allowed to continue irresponsible behavior. Instead, Bob used what has come to be known as “tough love.”

It took a while, but eventually his son awakened to the possibility of a more satisfying and productive life. He now walks a healthier and more responsible path then he walked before. And for the first time, Bob and his son have a chance at being friends.

Someone asked Bob how he would have felt if his son had ended up dead or in prison. His answer was, “I did the best I could. I tried to get him help. Finally, I simply had to let go. If he ended up dead or in prison, it would have been incredibly painful, but I would have known that it wasn’t my fault. That was his choice. While I would have mourned the loss, I would not have let the quality of my life depend on his decisions in life.” Enabling behavior doesn’t help another person; it makes matters worse. Bob’s method of “tough love” was the healthiest thing he could have done for himself and his son…despite the ultimate outcome.