Boundaries. We hear that word all the time but how many people actually understand what boundaries are and how to set and respect healthy boundaries?
A few years ago I was in a therapy session and my therapist started speaking about boundaries and I finally admitted to her that I didn’t really understand what she was talking about. She had mentioned boundaries off and on during previous sessions, and I just kept nodding and smiling because I had a vague idea of what boundaries were. However, during this particular session I realized that not understanding clearly what boundaries were and how to apply them in my life in a healthy way was causing problems for me.
The way that my therapist explained them during that session was in terms of physical boundaries. She explained that countries have clearly defined boundaries that define what territory makes up their jurisdiction. A country has the right to create laws, penalties for violation of its laws and responsibilities to its citizens within its boundaries. It also has the right to protect itself from violations of its boundaries. Countries also need to respect the boundaries of other countries or there can be negative consequences.
At the time it was still a little abstract for me. Over time as I have worked with my therapist to understand what boundaries are and gained experience with implementing and respecting boundaries, I have begun to understand the concept better. I also better understand why learning about and implementing healthy boundaries in your life is so critical to living well with bipolar disorder.
Why People with Bipolar Disorder Struggle with Boundaries
When you have bipolar disorder, especially before you learn how to effectively manage it, you can feel like you don’t have any control over what is happening in your mind. The dramatic mood cycles you experience–from mania to depression–feel like an extreme mental and emotional rollercoaster that you cannot get off. This can cause you to act and speak in ways that you normally wouldn’t act or speak.
You may not even recognize that you are experiencing a mood cycle initially because many of the symptoms are in your head and feel normal to you. Many of the thoughts and feelings are irrational but may seem completely rational to you. The intensity of emotion (or lack of emotion) feels overpowering.
All of this can cause you to experience anger, frustration and helplessness as you daily fight a battle with an enemy in your own mind. Having bipolar feels unfair and this feeling of unfairness can make it difficult to set healthy boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others.
You may feel like you don’t have a choice, it’s not your fault and you can’t do anything about it anyway, so everyone else just has to put up with it, too. This leads you to violate the boundaries of others and feel justified in doing it.
On the other hand you may feel overwhelmed by guilt for the things you do and say when you are struggling with a mood cycle, or feelings of worthlessness because you judge yourself as damaged or broken. These feelings can lead you to believe that you don’t have the right to have boundaries. You feel like you have to allow others to treat you however they want because you don’t have the right to object.
Unhealthy boundaries damage you and others. It damages relationships, your feelings of value and self-worth and the emotional turmoil can make your mood cycle worse.
Understanding Boundaries for Bipolar Disorder
Going back to the border analogy, when you are establishing boundaries for yourself you need to identify two things: your “laws” for what is permitted and your responsibilities within your borders.
Laws within your borders
When you have bipolar it is easy to feel like you don’t know if you are rational or not. When you are manic you think you are the most rational person in the world, compelled to act on the thoughts and feelings you have. When you are depressed you may struggle to function at all. You can feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and robbed of the ability to do simple things like shower, or even get out of bed.
Both sides of this can lead to feeling either defensive when someone comments on your behavior, or may make you feel like you don’t have a right to object to the way they speak to you because you think they’re right, you must be irrational, lazy, compulsive, etc.
Not having healthy boundaries about what kind of communication you will respond to, however, is not beneficial to you, or to the relationship. If you are allowing someone else to speak to you in a way that reinforces negative thoughts and feelings you have about yourself you will further damage yourself emotionally which then feeds the mood cycle.
You need to set healthy boundaries for communication and behavior. This includes setting clear boundaries to protect yourself from unhealthy or abusive behavior and words. You should also agree with those you trust on healthy ways they can communicate their concern if they see you behaving in a way that is harmful to you or others.
Working with your therapist you can begin to identify what boundaries will be best for you and how you can effectively communicate your boundaries to others. You can’t choose how others behave, but you can establish what you will allow in your life and what you will do if someone doesn’t respect those boundaries.
Responsibility within your borders
Just as a country has responsibility to the citizens within its borders you are responsible for yourself–your behavior, your choices, your self-care. This may feel impossible at times when you have bipolar disorder. Experiencing irrational states of mind and emotions can make you feel like the bipolar is in control and you are just along for the ride.
The reality is that you are the only one who can be responsible for yourself. You are not your disorder, and you can learn how to manage it so that you can live a healthy, balanced, productive life. It takes work and persistent effort, but it is possible.
The first step is to learn how to successfully manage your mood cycles. Start by creating a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This plan helps you proactively manage your mood cycles so that you lessen the impact on yourself and those you love and shorten the duration of the cycle.
The next step is to work to find something to balance your brain. For some people that is with medication, for others it is through treatment with micronutrients, or a combination of the two. The symptoms of bipolar are telling you that something is missing or out of balance and you need to address that need in your brain. Persist until you find what is right for your brain.
Third, go to therapy. When you have bipolar disorder you will develop unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy coping mechanisms (sometimes this includes addictions) and you may have unhealed trauma, and unhealthy boundaries. Working with a good therapist will help you identify what you need to work on, process and heal so you can interact with the world in healthy ways. If you avoid therapy you may find the right medication or supplements but the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors will continue to trigger mood swings.
Finally, develop a self-care routine. Self-care is a phrase that you hear all the time and it can conjure images of manicures at a day spay, bubble baths or vacations to tropical places. These are definitely nice ways to take care of yourself, but the self-care necessary for managing bipolar disorder is caring for your mind and body in a way that helps you stay healthy and balanced. This includes important tools like mindfulness meditation, healthy sleep patterns and nutrition, yoga and simple, consistent exercise.
Respecting the boundaries of others
It is necessary to learn how to respect the boundaries of others. It’s really hard to feel like you can accept responsibility for your actions when you are doing and saying things from an irrational state of mind. But the reality is that you are still doing and saying those things. So how do you take responsibility for yourself?
First, always say sorry when you hurt someone by something you say or do. It may not be easy. It can feel humiliating to have to admit to the things you do or say when you are in a manic or depressed state. But the first step to mending the damage is to acknowledge what you did and apologize sincerely.
When a child hurts someone, even if it is by accident, you teach them to say sorry. They didn’t do it on purpose, but the other person still got hurt and so it is important to acknowledge their pain. The same is true for pain you cause when you are struggling with a mood cycle. You may not have meant to cause the pain, but the other person was still hurt by something you did, and you need to acknowledge their pain.
Next, talk with others about their boundaries. Having conversations with your partner or spouse, children and others who are close to you will help you understand their boundaries better so you can learn how to interact with them in healthy ways. If you aren’t sure how to approach this kind of conversation, talk with your therapist. He or she can give you help understanding what to say and may even be able to facilitate it in a session with the other person or people.
Finally, accept that there will be times when someone needs a break from the relationship. This is really hard because it doesn’t feel fair that you have to deal with this disorder in the first place. We all want others to accept us and love us as we are. However, there will be times when someone needs to prioritize their emotional, physical or mental safety and may need to set a boundary to protect themselves.
Just as you need to set healthy boundaries and prioritize caring for yourself, you need to respect the need and right for others to do the same.
How to Define and Apply Boundaries
The most effective way to learn how to define and apply healthy boundaries in your life is by working with a good therapist. Boundaries can feel abstract and complicated, and your life experience and unhealed trauma can create barriers to learning how to implement them. A therapist can work with you to help you learn what boundaries are and how to implement these tools effectively.
Learning how to utilize and respect healthy boundaries in your life is an important step on your path to learning to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder.