CNM 003: Interview on Setting Healthy Boundaries with Professional Counselor and Author John Raven

 

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In this session, we have another special guest – an expert who’s been counseling for 11 years with a focus on relationship dynamics. He also worked for several years at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a premier addiction treatment organization. This episode was timed perfectly as we had recently completed tallying some survey results from our audience, and the topic of setting and enforcing healthy boundaries was a commonly raised theme.

John Raven, licensed professional counselor and author of the book Don’t Feed The Ducks: Overcoming Unhealthy Helping In Your Life And Relationships, spends some time with me talking all about boundaries. I enjoyed John’s intellectual approach to explaining things. He has a way of bringing together the “matter of fact” truths with theoretical constructs and a little bit of the neuroscience. Ultimately I walked away with a new understanding that, 1) When my “helping” is accompanied by a negative biological reaction, it’s probably an indication my boundary needs adjusted, and 2) If I’m afraid of pushing or re-establishing a boundary, it’s likely that my “stretch” is actually more in line with what is considered “healthy assertiveness”.

In this session, we discuss:

Session 3

Session 3

  • Why we sometimes have difficulty setting boundaries
  • How our view of boundaries can go awry
  • Where the line is between normal attachment and codependency
  • How your biology can help you set better boundaries
  • How to start putting yourself first
  • John’s 3-step process for establishing new boundaries
  • Why and how to benchmark your boundaries with others

Interview Transcript

Brian: Hey everybody and welcome to the Codependency No More podcast. This is episode 3 and today we have a special surprise. We have interviewed an expert all about the topic of setting healthy boundaries, and we did this because this is a topic that’s come up a lot recently. A lot of you have asked some really good questions about boundaries. It’s applicable to just about everybody in every relationship that you have, and for co-dependents, it tends to be one of the hardest things to do. And I think that’s why a lot of folks have been asking about it so we gathered up all the questions that were asked recently and we went out found a professional, sat down and discussed it. We hope we get a lot out of it, enjoy.

John Raven here to talk all about setting healthy boundaries. John hails from Portland, Oregon and he’s a licensed professional counselor and author of the book Don’t Feed the Ducks: Overcoming Unhealthy Helping In Your Life & Relationships. John, welcome to the show.

John: Thank you, Brian. I’m delighted to be here today.

Question: Before we get into the boundaries part, can you just take a couple of minutes and tell us about yourself and how you became interested in the whole topic of codependency?

Absolutely. Well, I’ve been in the field of counseling for just over 11 years. I’ve worked as a clinician with just about every population under the sun in the last 11 years, all the way from Alaska to Oregon.

I started to specialize in codependency, or interdependence family issues, when I was in Alaska working with the Alaska Native populations. There were a lot of unique characteristics within the culture that made that work unique. Coming from the dominant Western culture, I had my assumptions and my suppositions about what I thought dependence was, or the way I thought that people were supposed to act. So, working with a different culture, I had to confront my own biases and that became an interesting thing. I’ve tried to balance cultural competency with helping people define what is unhealthy in their lives.

I continued studying and working with difficult family dynamics throughout my career, and probably most notably I spent about three or four years working with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, working with family issues and helping people get into treatment for substance abuse problems and some of the unique issues with codependency that come along with that. That’s a little bit of my background.

In 2013 I published the book Don’t Feed the Ducks: Overcoming Unhealthy Helping in Your Life & Relationships just as a kind of culmination of my experience, to share my experiences and support some of the insights that I’ve come to with folks about this about this topic.

Question (Brian): Well, thank you for that, and we’re glad that you’ve chosen that course. I am anyway, because there are a lot of people out there that need help with this topic – that have personal struggles – so we’re glad that you are where you are and that you’re joining us for this episode. So let’s get into it. The topic here is setting healthy boundaries.

To set this up a little bit, a couple of weeks ago we surveyed our email list with an open-ended question. We asked our list to name two questions that you absolutely need us to answer about codependency in an upcoming course that we’re creating, and the results that we got back showed that about 40 percent of their questions were recovery-related, which wasn’t a huge surprise.

And within that subtype there was a subtopic of boundaries, which was very significant. So I’ve pulled together all the questions that were asked and I’ve boiled down our audience’s specific questions about boundaries. So I’m going to fire these questions at you and I know myself and my audience is very interested in what you have to say.

To start off, there were a lot of people who said something to the effect of, ‘we know codependency involves helping others to a great extent. In fact, you know kind of overdoing it codependency you’re catering to other people to an extreme, but at the same time, isn’t it good too? Isn’t it good to do good things for people?’

So, if it’s good to do things for people and codependents are doing good things for people why is it bad to be codependent? Or to put it another way, where’s the line between a healthy normal attachment and serving somebody else and then taking it too far into codependency?

Yeah, I get a lot of these questions, and there are two kinds of main categories. The first being the philosophy or the “why?” of boundary setting, and then there is the “how?” And this is probably the “why?” but it’s somewhat paradoxically humorous. It’s sort of like, what is the boundary between a boundary and boundary? And I think that overall, we sort of just know, and there’s actually a lot of humor in the recovery community.

One of the jokes I think that I hear quite a bit is,

When a codependent dies, someone else’s life flashes before their eyes.

And that, I think, we understand. We instinctually understand that that’s fine, and we understand why it’s funny. We know that there is a boundary, but we just don’t know how to explain it. So I’ve come up with kind of a generic answer to this, and I’d like to share that with you today.

From a neurological perspective, if we look at attachment, if we look at dependence or co-dependence as an attribute, similar to our sight, our taste, or having fully grown arms — it makes sense that it can go awry. For example, the occipital lobe in the brain is where our sight is housed, and if that particular section of the brain becomes damaged, it affects our ability to see. (It’s a little bit more complex with human connection and human attachment.)

But, perhaps if something happens to that part of the brain, for example, during child growth, if you’re exposed to something that stunts your growth, you’ll have difficulty. Maybe you’ll end up being shorter than you were supposed to be. Similarly, if something stunts your attachment or your sense of having healthy boundaries, you may experience difficulty with this concept. So, unfortunately there’s no real guideline that says something like, “Okay, you should give $200 to a person and no more.” … or those kinds of easy answers.

I think as human beings we have a general sense of a healthy attachment and we know that can go awry, and if we look at it from a neurological perspective as an attribute — or an ability maybe is a better word to use — we can understand that that line will become blurred, if that makes sense.

I’ll call it our sense of community, a sense of interconnectedness. That attribute sort of grew and evolved in humans in the same way that we had an ability to distinguish delicious foods from harmful foods for example.

On the one hand, if you’re looking at old tribal affiliations, you could say, ‘I’m giving you a boost so that you can climb up into a tree and get these coconuts or whatever is great.’ That’s healthy interdependence. But if I boost you up to the tree, and then you don’t those coconuts with me, maybe that isn’t healthy dependence. I believe that we evolved to understand that one of those feels good, and one of those doesn’t feel good. And so there’s no definitive border. But I believe that we have it. It’s an instinct to follow what relationship dynamics are healthy and what relationship dynamics are problematic.

Brian: Let’s say I’m at work and my boss says he needs me to do a certain assignment and I go and I do that assignment. But sometimes I like to do a little bit extra because I like to get praise. I like to be told I did a good job.

If I just did what I was asked, there’s a chance that it might not be good enough, but if I go and do a little bit extra I know I’m going to get that praise, and I’m always going to be looked upon favorably.  

If I’m in a different situation, let’s say a romantic relationship and my partner asked me for something and I don’t want to say ‘no’, I can take it beyond what the average person would do or should do or what would normally be acceptable for people.

I think the sentiment is: yes, we all understand that doing things for people is good, but for some reason some of us don’t understand what is enough and what is overboard. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. I think that’s what makes this thing so complex. We have this intuitive instinct about it, but when the hard coding is put down into the brain in childhood (it can happen anywhere in the cabin in adolescence or adulthood, but it usually happens in childhood), it can cause our instincts to lead us awry.

Our bodies clue into this, and that is why people end up going to seek out help, connection to other people, or to seek out a change in their lives. Our body’s natural instinct for wellness just knows this, even though we might be telling ourselves something that isn’t true. I think we have that intuitive sense of trust of mutuality, of predictability of relationships, of expectations about having equitable relationships (which I would sort of put that in the category of healthy interdependence versus co-dependence). Codependency has a great deal of anxiety, uncertainty, ambiguity, a great deal of resentment, and is ultimately inequitable.

So, to take your example, if you’re the kind of guy who just really loves doing a great job at work, and it is meaningful for you then great; it makes you happy and brings you joy.

But if you’re exhausting yourself, you’re staying late at work and neglecting your own physical health, or it’s some kind of anxious, fear-driven process — not only do you enjoy the praise, but you’re afraid of the rejection or afraid of getting yelled at or being seen as incompetent, then that’s not meaningful. And I think that if we really tune into ourselves, we can feel that as human beings.

Question: That makes a lot of sense to me. You need to figure what is the underlying motivation for doing what you’re doing. Is it fear-driven? Is there an anxiety that’s going along with it? And if so, we need to be in tune with ourselves to feel if that’s happening. If you can sense that in yourself, is it fair to say that perhaps the boundary that you’ve established is not a healthy boundary and should be adjusted?

Precisely. I mean, I could use an example: even right now I have a lot of emotions just about being on your podcast. I want to present myself in a way that’s meaningful and my own issues with recovery from codependence, I’m shouldering in myself the responsibility of making sure that everyone that is listening to this deeply understands me, and I have these sort of illusions of, ‘Oh, I’m going to change everyone, and the world is going to be an amazing place.’ (Laughs)

And if I allow that (form my performance based upon that), I’m going to be wracked with anxiety. I’m going to go to the last call and I’m going to just be kicking myself: I should have said things this way, I should have said things that way, I was terrible — you know, all of those things. But if I am able to just say, ‘Well John, yes. You have a concern for sounding confident, and you have a concern for wanting to help people and wanting to present information in a good way, and let that be. You don’t have to carry the world on your shoulders.’  And so that’s the distinction, I believe.

Brian: That makes a ton of sense and, by the way, you’re doing a fantastic job, so please don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

I hope that resonates with some folks out there because I think what I’m taking away – and I’ve kind of glimpsed this before but your words just really solidified it for me is — I have relationships with a ton of people in my life. But if the relationship I have with that person, and what I’m willing to give or help them with, involves an anxiety or a discomfort in some way, or I feel like I’m stretching myself too far or please too much, then there’s an anxious biological response along with that doesn’t feel right in some way. That is probably a clue that the boundary with that person might need to be adjusted.

Precisely. Exactly. Yeah, I get into this more in my book. It’s a little bit complex. I’ve had difficulties paring it down into a little snippet, but essentially the problem is that that intuitive sense that you have — we have — this is a wonderful way of being in touch with that.  Part of the problem is that perhaps for some folks, when they were younger, they were taught to ignore that for the sake of the family or the sake of community. So that’s what makes it so insidious and so difficult for so many people; when we’re not connected to ourselves and to our bodies, we’re not connected to what our hearts are telling us. We’re not able to see that about ourselves. We tell ourselves all kinds of things like, ‘Oh no, this is fine or maybe we get rewarded, like you said. Maybe you get rewarded for working too hard at work and then that becomes problematic.

Brian: You know, this is a great segue. I had somebody else ask a very specific question about how their childhood relates to how they are as a 50 something person. So moving on a little bit, one of the questions was something like this:

“I was raised at a very young age to take care of the people in my family and put them before I put myself. So as a result I grew up always catering to my family, and now that I’m in my 50s and I have a family, I still put them first. And even when I’m tired and sick and everything I’m doing for them before I can do for myself. Since I was raised and programmed that way, how do I start to put myself first without feeling guilty about it?”

Sure. In the work that I do with folks, I tend to give them a lot of latitude. I think people that have that struggle with boundaries (people that struggle with this thing that we call ‘codependency’), they do a really amazing job of policing themselves and their behavior, probably more so than other people. I can think of an example in my life: I had a client who asked a question and it was, in my mind, this innocuous request for me to do something different.

And I said sure thing. And then she came back several weeks later and had been ruminating about it in her mind, and wanted to apologize for making this request. I think that most folks that are in that camp — to me she didn’t raise her voice and it wasn’t a big deal or anything like that, but in her mind she was like the embodiment of Hitler or something like that (Laughs) for making this request.

I tend to give people a lot of latitude and say, How can I put myself first? I would say, go farther than you think you should because more than likely what you see as completely selfish behavior is more than likely not that big of a deal. And so I would say, give yourself permission to be relentlessly selfish with that (for lack of a better term), because more than likely your view of “selfish” is probably more in line with what we would consider healthy assertiveness.

Question: This makes perfect sense, and in my situation — I’ll go back to my career — I started to do essentially what you said. I started to be a little more assertive, but I didn’t start to do it until I had less at stake. I knew I would be leaving my company at a certain point in the future, and I didn’t care as much about climbing the ladder, so to speak. I became a little more selfish with my work and with my time, and had I not been planning to leave my company, I probably would have been scared to death to start doing that.

But when I started to, the reactions I got were not those terrible ‘the world is coming to an end’ reactions from people I thought I would get, so it’s interesting to hear you say that.  

What if I’m somebody who has a relationship where I’m looking to establish better boundaries, but I have that fear, and I haven’t really tested the waters yet. What happens? I might be thinking, Well, what happens if somebody does react negatively or how do I conduct myself if I try to do this? I want to feel safe when I try to do that. What do you say to that?

Sure. Yeah and that’s a challenge. That’s one of the biggest challenges in not only in working with others but working with myself; pulling myself down from those beliefs and through that situation, it seemed simpler because you had less to lose. And I think that’s actually the solution, not necessarily that you put yourself in a position where you have less to lose because some people can’t do that, for example with a family member, but to just turn your mind more towards that perspective.

In other words, there’s almost always some sort of logic or some sort of thing that you’re telling yourself that is preventing you from making a change. So, for example, the one that I heard the most often was, “I’m not going to throw my child out on the streets because they’ll die.” You know, when you have to deal with someone who was living in the home, maybe they had a drug problem, and it was an intolerable situation for that person, and they say to themselves, “I have to do this” or “I have no choice.”

How do you know that’s all fine for Brian to put himself in a position with his career? But this is my kid. I can’t. How do I do that? Again, I recommend moving yourself into taking some kind of radical steps towards seeing things differently: is that really true? Is that person really going to die? Are you really in charge of their life? Is it your responsibility in this respect to comment and to push yourself into setting those limits?

I think the feedback you gave is the same feedback that I almost always get; the person says, ‘I started setting limits in my mind. I thought I was being totally unreasonable. But actually, most people think it is a completely reasonable thing to do. They say they would do the exact same thing in my situation.’ So be bold, brave, and push yourself to challenge those beliefs. Challenge those thoughts to see your internal reactions to things a little bit differently, and allow yourself to come up with creative solutions to a problem.

Question: I wonder: what if somebody has a particular relationship, maybe a parent with an addicted child, and they’re still living at home and there’s some codependency issues there. Is there a standard benchmark out there in the world that we can compare our situation to and say, ‘yeah this is normal or this is too much.’ Or do you talk to your friends or a counselor and bounce it off of other people like, ‘hey I feel like my child really needs to get out there and do something different. I don’t know what to do. You know, what would you do if you were me?’ How do you when you’re looking to establish that new boundary and that new yardstick.

How do you decide where to adjust that new boundary next?

Sure, sure. Well, it’s a little paradoxical because you have to rely on other people since your view may be skewed. It is a good idea to get feedback when we’re struggling with a problem, but can be a bit of a minefield, and we may not want to or be ready to take the steps that are necessary to make change.

Unfortunately we tend to seek out people that will confirm our beliefs or our bias. Maybe you’re having anxieties about your job and you wanted to make yourself feel better. You might call someone who has a similar kind of anxiety about that. And to say, Yeah, you know my boss is a real jerk, or whatever reason you’re choosing to leave. But I can’t because I have bills to pay and the person goes, ‘oh I know, let me tell you about my bills,’ and then you have a party together and confirm that. So, it is good to have folks you can talk to that can be honest with you, and this is one of the reasons why I support self-help. Places like CODA or Al-Anon can be good places for people to go and get that perspective from other people. It’s a place where you can admit, ‘My thinking has been skewed because of my past and because of my thinking. I need some help to see this in a different light, and to trust that that perspective is maybe a good benchmark without becoming codependent on that person.’

Brian: For those of you listening who may not have heard of CODA or Al-Anon we will have a link to those in the show notes. CODA is Codependents Anonymous and Al-Anon is for family members of addicted folks that are looking to have support with each other that have similar situations where there’s an addicted person in their life.

John: That’s correct.

Question: We’ll have links to both of those organizations in the show notes. Moving along, I want to ask you one final question. If there were a perfect tool: a guidebook, a handbook, for setting new boundaries, what’s the step-by-step practical process to start to create new boundaries in our lives where we need them?

I’ve boiled it down to three steps that I’ve found most useful to folks, and this is the simplest way I think a person can begin this journey. The first step is to become more aware that it is happening. Going back to what we were saying is that there’s no right or wrong, but that instinctual feeling that we get when things aren’t meaningful, when things aren’t equitable, when there’s a lot of anxiety and resentment, or uncertainty and guilt about something. To become more aware, you have to first check in with your body, notice signs that you are compromising your needs.

For me, when I start to talk myself, maybe I don’t matter — one of the one voices in the course of my head has been that John doesn’t matter, that I’m not important to the world. My upper back starts to hurt. These are the early warning “Check Engine” light signs that you’re compromising your needs.

You might now understand that’s happening, you might have a history of waiting and ignoring that instinct. So, you might have prolonged periods of suppressing that need, or you might have floods of startled irritability once you start to assert your needs. It’s like that feeling where someone’s been standing behind you for a while but you don’t realize it, and then you suddenly realize it, and it’s sort of like a flood of emotion. So check in with your body to become more aware of whether it’s happening.

I would suggest that people start keeping a journal, either in your mind, or an actual physical journal or a log of recurrent patterns, of how you respond to situations and compare that to how you would prefer to respond to a situation. Become an expert on yourself. Become an expert on your body and on your sensations. Become an expert on your thoughts and feelings.

And again, as I was saying paradoxically, check with people you trust to get feedback about yourself if you’re thinking can become skewed. You lose objectivity when it becomes skewed. Self-help groups are folks that are in recovery themselves, or folks that do have sort of a healthy mindset. Check in with them to make sure that you’re more aware of the things that are happening in your life.

The second part that is useful for folks is to have an awareness of why it is happening. So this may require delving into some painful memories.

It’s important not to let your past cripple you or start thinking, ‘Oh, this happened and so therefore this is all I’ll be,’ but see your past for what it is. It’s the thing that happened, and the rational you is deciding that you don’t want to believe those things anymore. I think this will help to develop a quick sense of, ‘this is not me thinking, this is just that old tape is playing in my head and I can choose any one I want.’

Lastly on the point of awareness, allow your body time to catch up with your mind. There’s going to be a lag time before your body will give up its old habits. Additionally, both the body and the mind are going to be fighting to go back to what it considers to be ‘normal’. It’s hard to stop telling yourself all those interesting things that keep you stuck, ‘I have to stay in this job, I can’t change this thing. This will never be different. It’s too hard to make change…’ things like that.

Sometimes you’re going to have to ‘fake it till you make it’. So you set a boundary, or get feedback from someone and say, ‘Hey, this is the right thing to do,’ and you set that boundary, then every fiber of your being sort of tries to push you back into making those old choices. It just takes time for the brain to rewire it. It’s going to take you time to reset your intuition and not give up too soon before you see the benefits. That’s really important.

The second step would be to have an understanding of why it’s happening. The third would be to change it and then allow yourself time to actually see the fruits of your labor.

Question: I can’t help but think if it might be a good idea for us to create some material, a framework for how to set a boundary – the actual steps you should take.  For any of the listeners out there, if this resonates with them we’d love to have a comment in the comments section at the bottom of the podcast page for this episode.

Okay, that really entails all the questions that I had from the audience. And I think this has been tremendously helpful for me personally and I hope it’s been helpful for the listeners. I also wonder, John, if somebody wanted to find you or get a hold of you somehow, where would they be able to do that.

I am online. I just launched a website recently called www.unhealthyhelping.com. Also, my counseling page is johnravencounseling.com. And on both of those you can find links to go to my blog if someone is interested in reading that.

I also have a private practice in the Portland, Oregon area. So if someone is in the Portland, Oregon area and is interested in talking to me about counseling for codependents or addiction issues, or any other issues, they can they can find me as well on Psychology Today. Just search for my name.

Question: All right. Perfect. Before we wrap up the boundaries conversation, are there any last words you would have for somebody who is struggling with this topic?

I would just say keep moving towards getting better. There is help out there. People can change. I have, and I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of people that have, and it is a worthwhile and worthy pursuit. You are important. Your needs are important and you know it. I think, again, people know that instinctually and they perceive that, otherwise they wouldn’t be listening to this podcast. Otherwise they wouldn’t be seeking out help.

Keep reinforcing that you’re worth it and that things can be better. I hope that people remember that, and know that I can help inspire that in folks.

Brian: Well you’ve definitely inspired that for me today. And I think you’ve done the same for a lot of the listeners out there to this podcast episode. John, thank you so much for being on this episode. This is a topic we really wanted to discuss. Given our feedback from the audience it’s really meant a lot. I don’t think this will be the last time we hear from you, and we wish you the best of luck with your new practice.

John: Thank you very much. It was great to be on here and it was great to talk to you today.

Brian: Thanks a lot. Take care and we’ll see you later.

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8 Comments
  1. I’ve recently joined Nar-Anon and having a support system has been a lot of help. I’m also keeping a journal, which will assist with targeting patterns. I do agree that when I think I’m being selfish, the average person thinks that I’m being self-assertive.

    • Thanks Angela! What a great feeling to know that you can test a boundary, put yourself first a little more, and realize it’s totally acceptable.

  2. I find that when I give too much to other people, I tend to ignore those feelings of warning. I think it’s because I am so scared that they will condemn me for going against their requests. I fear not having a defense for the way they portray me. What if they are right that I’m a fool or too controlling, etc? I feel like I have to entertain their negative opinion so I do everything I can to prevent them from forming a negative opinion. What can I do to have more confidence in my value as a person?

    Thank you very much for these podcasts, they are very helpful to me!

    Mary

    • I feel the same way, Mary. I have given so much to my job (for over 26 years), yet have never gotten over the fear that I’m not good enough or doing enough. After years of praise (which I fed upon excessively) I received negative comments at my last review, which really threw me into a tailspin. I’ve gone over and above for so long that reducing to a ‘normal’ level has meant I wasn’t doing enough. That hurts!

      Thankfully I’ve just turned 59 and a half, so I can access my retirement savings if necessary. I’m going to cut back one day a week at work and live a more healthy life.

      These podcasts have been incredibly helpful, as well as my middle daughter, who has given me a lot of encouragement.

  3. Would love to have material available to print.
    Thank you

    • Hi Kathryn, I’d love to understand more about what you’d like. Are you looking for printable resources to reinforce what was discussed in the podcast, a guide to help setting your own boundaries, something to help someone else with boundaries, etc? Would love to know! 🙂

  4. Thank you so much William for doing these podcast…they have been so very helpful and useful!! I have told many others that suffer from Codependency about your website and podcast!!

  5. You’re welcome Shirley, and thanks for sharing!