Everyone needs boundaries. They are a set of personal values, guidelines, and beliefs that allow us to function in society. Setting boundaries is not just necessary for a person in recovery, but also for the people around them. Boundaries are especially crucial in the process of addressing addiction.They can help a person remain in recovery, develop self-esteem, and regain control of their life.
Although everyone carries some set of rules, they are not always healthy. Furthermore, not everyone respects them, even if those boundaries are their own. But establishing boundaries is not just about writing out a set of rules. Boundaries need to be fair, in good motive, and they need to be enforceable. Because of this, it is important to learn to establish and maintain one’s boundaries. Failing to do so can be detrimental to one’s recovery and thus lead to relapse.
Defining Boundaries in Addiction Recovery
A boundary is a personal limit meant to serve as a safeguard from physical, psychological, or emotional harm. This can be a concept or behaviour, such as always keeping a promise or never engaging in drug use.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Boundaries
Like any rules, boundaries can be good and bad, fair and unfair, healthy and unhealthy. It can be hard to distinguish between the two. However, understanding the difference is very important, as unhealthy boundaries can lead to additional problems.
A healthy boundary is meant to help people define their values, their sense of self, and build a life that is safe and comfortable. It is meant to strengthen people and their relationships and reduce potential problems.
An unhealthy boundary is based on manipulation and control. It can damage one’s self-esteem and hinder progress. It discourages healthy relationships and respect for self and others. An unhealthy boundary can be either excessively controlling or it can be the lack of any rules at all.
For example, you may decide never to be in the company of anyone who is drinking alcohol. But, realistically this will mean limiting your social life to a huge extent which will probably have a negative affect on your recovery.
The Importance of Setting Boundaries in Addiction Recovery
One of the most important aspects of recovery is to focus on staying sober and rebuilding one’s life. The purpose of boundaries is to help that process. Establishing boundaries early on can make it easier to fix the things that have gone wrong and assure that what the future brings will bring benefit.
Boundaries in addiction recovery are based on self-care. That doesn’t mean that a person is acting selfishly it just means they are looking out for their own well-being. When a person practices good self-care they improve their health. In addition, they are also helping themselves to make rational decisions in the long-run that will benefit everyone.
Healthy boundaries don’t only help the person in recovery, but they also help others. With proper boundaries, a person will find it easier to build and grow relationships, learn to communicate, and express emotions in a respectful manner. They can also help a person identify toxic relationships, which can lessen the chance of a successful recovery.
There is little point to setting boundaries if one cannot maintain them. Recovery can be stressful at times, and in times of stress, it is also easy to let one’s boundaries lapse. This can trigger relapse. Learning to maintain boundaries is essential in preventing that stress from overtaking one’s life and keeping a focus on the road ahead.
Keep in mind that boundaries can, and likely will, change with time, especially in early recovery. You might set more strict rules in the beginning, and ease up on them when you’re ready to handle a more flexible environment.
How to Establish Boundaries in Addiction Recovery
When establishing healthy boundaries in addiction recovery, you need to first determine the boundary, communicate and/or establish the boundary, and maintain said boundary
What Do You Need?
When defining the boundary, ask yourself what it is that you need and what is important to you? Ask yourself what the purpose of the boundary is – it should be something that will help you in your recovery, not pull you back to addiction.
For example, the boundary may be that you decide you can be socially with people who drink alcohol provided they do not get drunk. The purpose of this rule would be to establish a sensible protection for you from undue stress while in early recovery.
A boundary should be based on one’s personal needs and beliefs. Your values should define what is or isn’t acceptable for you. It may seem simple, but if a person is in a codependent relationship, those beliefs can become blurred with their partner’s. Since each person needs to establish their own set of boundaries, this may take time, but it is possible.
What are the Consequences?
There have to be consequences for not following rules. These can be consequences for you or someone else. For example, if your friends persistently get drunk at social occasions, you may need to start finding new friends.
You also have to expect that maybe the other party will make a mistake from time to time. In which case, you have to figure out an alternative plan for what to do if your boundaries are disrespected. For example, you may decide to leave the social event at the first sign of drunkenness.
The most important thing when communicating is explaining your reasoning. Be specific, but do not set unrealistic expectations. This is why you have to define your motives and identify how this will help you in your recovery. If you can’t convince yourself that it’s necessary, how can you convince someone else?
When communicating your boundaries, you have to be firm but you also have to be prepared to negotiate. You have to expect that the person may disagree, in which case you need to have an alternative plan. You also need to set clear consequences, ones that you will stick to.
The other important thing is to always respect the other party, as well as yourself. Don’t be passive-aggressive or threatening. Rather, try to figure out what works for both of you. People will respect your boundaries if you respect theirs. It is important to understand that you can only set and work on your own boundaries, you cannot expect to impose boundaries on other people.
Stick To Your Word
Don’t apologise for asking someone to respect your boundaries and be strict when it comes to following them. Establishing and maintaining boundaries in addiction recovery can be difficult, especially if you have low self-esteem.
If people betray your agreement, don’t take it personally and follow through with the set consequences. However, also be mindful of the situation and show respect. This is how you gain respect from others. If they see you are serious, but at the same time respectful of them, they will be more inclined to work with you.
It takes willpower to establish and enforce personal boundaries. However, with practice, you will gain confidence.
When Your Boundaries Are Not Respected
If other people, or even you, don’t respect set boundaries, it can be detrimental to your recovery and it can grow into a larger issue. Furthermore, if you feel the other party doesn’t respect you, you might feel like a failure. This can lower your motivation to maintain sobriety and improve your life, especially in moments of hardship. You will also be less likely to establish or maintain boundaries in the future.
Support groups can be very helpful in this aspect, for both parties involved. Talking with others can be useful in directing the situation and seeing what went wrong where? Understanding why boundaries were not respected will help you determine your next steps forward.
If you feel that you are having problems with boundaries with your friends or family, suggest that they attend a support group, such as Al-Anon. Alternatively, suggest that they attend a meeting with you. It can help them gain a different perspective if they talk to someone else. Hearing from other people that have dealt (or are dealing) with similar problems may help them understand you and your situation better.
However, if a person continuously disrespects you and your boundaries, you have to realise that this may ruin your chances at recovery. Remember, you can’t change the person, but you can change how you react to them. In the worst case scenario, you may have to distance yourself from that person, because your well-being should come first.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | July 27, 2021