I spoke with author Pixie Lighthorse about her book Boundaries and Protection. Specifically, we discussed boundaries as they relate to addiction, recovery, and codependence. Boundaries and Protection is an incredible resource for anyone who is trying to figure out, as Lighthorse put it, “’Where do I end and the loved one in my life begin, and how can I honor the space between us?’”
What is the importance of creating healthy boundaries in recovery?
There are so many ways to think about recovery. Whether we’re talking about alcohol and substance abuse, or addiction patterns within relationships, our emotional sobriety directly relates to having boundaries. Simply not doing the act anymore isn’t where recovery begins and ends. If the goal of recovery is to create safety, stability, and security in your life that you didn’t get to have and was unmanageable due to addiction, boundaries is just on the menu of all the different things you need in recovery.
That really resonates with me. I’m over six years sober and the work is ongoing.
Oh yeah, it’s lifelong. It’ll never end, and that’s not a prison sentence. That’s an invitation to actually live.
It’s an opportunity to heal. I think everyone can use healing, but it makes that drive more prominent in your life.
Yeah, I think we enter recovery to learn how to soothe ourselves in healthy ways. In recovery, we do all these things self: we learn how to self-love; we learn how to self-care. Self, self, self is the center. Leaving a self-centered disease—if you want to call it that, in the old-school words—means, “Oh wow, now I have to center self in a really conscious way.” But the whole point is to tend the self so that we can be in healthy relationship, so that we can stop centering rugged and mediocre individualism.
In early sobriety, I had to get to know myself—sort of for the first time or maybe again—because I had spent so much time disconnecting from myself and my feelings. How can people start setting boundaries when they’re still getting to know their needs, triggers, and things like that?
I think language and communication can be really helpful. It’s something we engage in every day, whether we’re muttering to ourselves, journaling, or in dialogue with other people.
Language is one of the ways I’ve had to learn to set boundaries. I come from an addict household; language was weaponized. It was never used to soothe, neutralize, or diffuse. It was used to ramp up emotional states, to deflect the terrible feeling my addict relatives were experiencing that they didn’t know how to contend with. The addicts in my life are very sensitive, sensory, perceptive beings. That’s not valued in our culture, so that’s going get squashed early on—especially in anyone who is trending masculine.
So it’s about learning to take responsibility for our own bodies and lives and emotions, rather than expecting someone else to. That’s the codependence that goes hand in hand with addiction: we want somebody else to make us feel better.
Start saying loving and kind things to yourself. Then it’s just baby steps. It’s important to start practicing everywhere we can. In stages of feeling not very emotionally sober, I can blast my children, or get highly activated around something my animal does. Every time we interact with people and ourselves is an opportunity to practice empathy.
There was a quote that really stuck with me in Boundaries and Protection: “Without the desire to be here, we don’t have much to work with. The desire to be somewhere else is the phenomenon of craving that addicts report feeling beholden to, and it eventually sends them to their bottom.” I was wondering if you could talk more about that link between the feeling of not wanting to be here and addiction.
Yeah, that chapter’s called “Want to Be Here.” It really is an invitation to the reader to learn, “Maybe not all parts of me want to be here; maybe there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be here, and why is that? Is it because I have such a low tolerance for my own discomfort? Is it because I don’t think highly of myself? Does it feel too hard?”
I don’t want to minimize anyone’s experience of those parts that don’t want to be here. But can I concede that if I am going to be here, I can ask myself to do better?
It’s hard to want to be here sometimes. And that’s a sometimes. Human beings are fluid and in flux. Martín Prechtel speaks about how in the Western world, we want things to be rigid and black-and-white. That’s a trauma response; it’s about control. “I want it to be this way all the time, or else I’m under threat.”
Or if I can’t easily figure this out, because it’s not one thing or the other.
If I can’t name it—if it bewilders me—I’m going to give up. And there’s no judgement around that. I think that’s suicidality in general, which sometimes accompanies addiction. Just feeling so worthless and low and bad, and maybe so angry.
The addict’s lament is, “I don’t want to feel these feelings; I’m going to shut them down and numb them. I want to have my inhibitions or reserves taken away. I want to use so I can be bolder.” Whatever it is, we want it our way. There’s a reason they talk about life on life’s terms. It’s because we don’t have the ability to make a static life out of being a human animal. It’s going to ebb and flow, and be very disappointing and hurtful, and very triggering to old patterns that really did us harm early on. My goal is to build tolerance for what actually is.
That’s huge. Especially if you’ve had different patterns—not even necessarily just substance use—of not having to feel those feelings.
Yeah, it’s all tied together. Most people’s lives are unmanageable to start, even if it doesn’t look like they are. Internally we’re a big hot mess.
I was going to ask about codependency and addiction. The section in the book you talked about it most was regarding children who grow up in homes with addiction. Can you talk more about how those two relate?
I experienced codependence and enabling in addicts; that is the template that I was raised on from before birth. I had teenage parents who were codependent decades before anyone was even using that word, at least in my family circles.
We don’t have a lot of power over our codependence; we need each other, and yet we must tend ourselves. Some friends and family will sometimes joke, “We’re consciously codependent.” I want to be able to say, “I need you in my world, but I don’t want to need on you in an unhealthy way that takes your energy. I don’t want to entitle myself. I want to ask for something.” We can stop vilifying our codependence by being like, “I don’t want to need anybody.”
Asking for what you want is like, “I need soothing from another person today, do you think you can do that with me or for me? Can we co-regulate? Can we put our energies together and then soothe?”
Is there anything else you want to add?
I don’t say this to plug, but Boundaries and Protection is a great starter conversation for people who are like, “Where do I end and the loved one in my life begin, and how can I honor the space between us?”
But as we start to do that, a lot of discomfort gets stirred up—whether we’re together and a disruption happens, or we’re apart and that emptiness starts to swell. Goldmining the Shadows, the book that came after Boundaries and Protection, is my voice on the matter. There are many, many, but it’s my voice on, “How can I dig a little bit deeper inside myself, so I can become more tolerant of what’s moving through me?”
The inner work is where it’s at. Being deeply interior in the process of recovery—in a way that is helpful and sweet—will make us sturdier for staying sober. Whether you have one year or 30 years, there’s going to be all that old patterning that says, “I don’t want what’s uncomfortable.”
Yeah, like you said earlier, it’s a lifelong process.
And I think we can exhale and go, “Okay right, it’s a lifelong process. I don’t have to get it all right now.” To be a human animal is to allow for all that nuance.