Learning to set boundaries in A.A.

Learning to set boundaries in Alcoholics Anonymous 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had become a phobic perfectionist. I came from a family of generational shame-based parenting, where the least little annoyance or mistake would send parents or grandparents into a tirade of shaming insults and ridicule. And even worse was the threat of being ostracized in some way from the group. I was, in many ways, a recluse with a big wall around me.

Now I was going to participate in a fellowship that would require commitment and participation. I would have to become reasonably open and honest when I spoke at meetings or shared in a group. The Big Book of A.A. says we give a general description of what it was like before we joined. So I had to find the balance. What do I share in meetings and what do I share with a sponsor or therapist? Over time, as I became more confident, I learned that was my call. I would share what I wanted to share and no more. 

For many years the fear remained. What do I say? How do I say it? Will I be rejected? I knew there was no turning back. I had to go to A.A. if I was ever going to have a life of my own. Rigorous honesty was the key to my emotional sobriety and physical sobriety. I used those words as a mantra. I always felt I had been born in hell. Nothing in my new journey through sobriety could be as bad as where I had come from. 

Alcoholics Anonymous and the other twelve-step programs are wonderful. When gathered together the group is very spiritual, powerful and liberating. But on an individual basis that is not always the case. It took several months before I realized I was not the only person in the room with problems.

The more I explored the underlying motivations for my addiction, I realized that the occasional knot in my stomach came from being around certain people who reminded me of my past. I did not judge these people. Like myself, they were trying to get better. But walking into a Twelve Step meeting often felt like I was walking into the living rooms of my family of origin.

By my tenth year of sobriety I was regularly sponsoring other women in the program.  It was rewarding and enlightening work, but not always pleasant.  A young woman I sponsored became difficult to work with, abusive and demanding.  It was the final straw. I severed the relationship.  But the experience triggered something I had experienced before and I did not understand what the problem was. As always I asked myself, “What was I doing wrong?”

I discussed it with a program friend.  He recommended I called his therapist. Her name was Sandy. We talked about my internal pain from the experience, and she informed me I was having a shame attack. I had never heard that term before. She was right. I was in shame up to my eyeballs. Sandy then informed me that I did not have any boundaries. That it was the lack of boundaries that had sent me into a toxic shame spiral. She was absolutely right. Not only did I not have any boundaries, but the thought of learning to create them was very anxiety provoking. I was never allowed any boundaries growing up. It went against everything I had ever been shown or taught as a child. Any time I tried to set a boundary I was called selfish. It was like I was breaking the law somehow. I worked with Sandy once a week for over a year. It was wonderful. I continued to be a sponsor. But now it was different. I had boundaries.

I became a regular speaker at Twelve Step meetings. Occasionally something I said would upset a listener. Sometimes I couldn’t even figure out why they were upset and what they were talking about. Apparently something in my story triggered them. But this time my response was different. I had boundaries. I did not have to take on their aggression. It was not about me. Just like my story was not about them.

Over the decades I have taken great comfort and pride in the fact that I do not know what is going on in other member lives from second or third hand gossip. I do not participate in malicious gossip. I always have tried to discourage the women I sponsor from participating in gossip. I encourage them to ask themselves, “Why do I feel the need to self medicate with gossip?”  I have to protect my sobriety. I need the meetings. I will not allow petty dynamics to get in my way. Your business is your business and mine is mine. It is important to me that I respect your boundaries in the same way I want mine respected.

Share what you want to share. Go to the meetings you want to go to. Do not let any one force you to do or say anything that makes you uncomfortable..

Alcoholics Anonymous is the perfect program for imperfect people. It is a program designed and dedicated to rigorous honesty. For people who have lived a life of rigorous dishonesty.

Be true to yourself!


By Cynthia Peterson



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