Boundaries in Recovery: What They Are, How to Set Them, and Why You Need Them

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Worried man discussing boundaries in recovery with his son while seated at kitchen table

When clients in addiction treatment are working on rebuilding interpersonal relationships, they will likely hear from their clinician, “Your family is going to set a boundary with you.” While setting boundaries is often necessary for families with addicted loved ones, they are not a one-way street. Boundaries in recovery can also be extremely valuable for the clients themselves.

Clinician Alex Helfer says she hears some clients say, “My parents have paid for so much of my treatment and they want me to go to a family holiday party, but they drink a lot.”

When they voice this concern to me, I often recommend that the client shares with their parents that they are not ready to be in that environment at this point in their recovery.

A common reply is, “But I feel like I can’t disappoint them anymore.” My advice to anyone experiencing this is if they feel the gathering is not a safe place to be, it is perfectly acceptable to vocalize that they do not feel comfortable, says Helfer. The family should appreciate that the person in recovery is communicating openly about their feelings and taking steps to safeguard the progress they made in treatment.

What Are Boundaries?

“Boundary” has been a buzzword in the treatment industry. Not everyone knows, however, what it means or how fundamental it can be for someone’s overall well-being. By definition, a boundary is a limit, which can be physical, financial, or emotional. Other than actually giving up substances and creating a solid aftercare plan, setting boundaries is the most important lesson to learn in sobriety. Boundaries exist to protect one’s personal sense of safety and help delineate what one will and will not accept. Without them, a person may let others negatively impact their emotions.

Why Are Boundaries Necessary for People in Addiction Recovery?

Being able to create and maintain boundaries is an essential skill for people in recovery, but many recoil at the thought of drawing a line with their loved ones because doing so can be uncomfortable. At the same time, if a boundary causes the other person discomfort, that is likely a sign that the boundary was needed in the first place.

Setting a boundary can empower people with substance use disorders to become attuned to their own needs and stand up for themselves. So many have been called “selfish” during active addiction, and as a result, may feel like they have to be hyper-focused on the needs of others after they complete treatment, whether because of their guilt or the belief that they “owe” people favors. In other words, they misguidedly think they cannot set boundaries because doing so will further their perceived selfishness, perpetuating the shame and guilt cycle.

How Someone in Recovery Can Create Healthy Boundaries

To set healthy boundaries, a person in recovery first needs to invest in their own growth and work on themselves both inside and outside of treatment. This could involve seeking out a therapist, getting a sponsor, or completing the 12 Steps. Each of these practices can strengthen the person’s emotional well-being and sense of self as well as their ability to deal with conflict or triggers.

At some point after completing treatment, they will need to put sober skills such as stress reduction, conflict resolution, and boundary-setting into action in their home or work environment. Creating a boundary may feel strange at first, but it can become more natural with practice, allowing a person to better handle discomfort in the future. Recovery Coach Alex Lahr shares their experience setting boundaries in early recovery.

Boundaries with Parents

Setting boundaries with parents can be especially challenging. Jana Wu, Director of Cultural Integration, explains that there is an expression that “your parents know how to push your buttons because they are the ones that installed them.”  The parent-child or caregiver-child dyad is a challenging dynamic to shift, especially from an attachment perspective as these were our primary bonds and our guides to relationship norms and styles of communication. 

It might be best to start by drawing or writing your boundaries out, so you know where you are starting and the direction you hope to head in. “I recommend that my clients focus on their values, and their part, as in the part they can control in the relationship,” says Wu.  We cannot control other people’s actions, but we can let others know the consequences of their actions and the choices we will make.”

 If an adult child cannot control their parents’ drinking by respectfully asking them to stop, they can control if and how they choose to spend time with their parent should their parent continue to drink. This can be a challenging boundary to set with a loved one and might include saying things such as, “I would like to spend time with you when you are sober, and if you drink, you are not invited or welcome to my house for the holidays”.  Jana goes on to say that sometimes when we set boundaries, we can be too firm, rigid, or aggressive in our tone so try to be mindful of how you come across. Setting boundaries, like any other behavioral change, takes courage, and patience with ourselves.

What Are Common Examples of Boundaries for Recovering Individuals?

“Boundary” is a broad term. Here is what setting boundaries could look like:

  • Limiting social media use
  • Sticking to a regular gym routine or a nutritious diet
  • Leaving social gatherings early if the party gets out of hand
  • Needing roommates’/family members’ alcohol and prescription drugs stored out of sight
  • Avoiding triggering environments, such as bars and casinos
  • Limiting contact with old connections who may not be conducive to a new life in sobriety

What Types of Boundaries Can Families Set for Their Loved One in Recovery?

Because addiction is a disease of the brain, it can cause people to act out in ways they normally would not, potentially compromising their bonds with others. Even when a person returns home from treatment, their family may experience residual feelings of guilt, distrust, and worry. Therefore, it can be beneficial for families to learn how to set boundaries with their loved one in recovery sooner rather than later. Common boundaries can include:

It’s important for families to understand that they cannot dictate someone else’s behavior or control them. They can, however, set limits on what kind of behavior they will allow in their home or near other family members. In addition to voicing these needs aloud, families also must uphold and maintain the boundary. They must establish what appropriate consequences should occur if their loved one crosses a line, otherwise, the boundary is ineffective.

Final Thoughts

Boundary-setting is an acquired skill, but one with immense payoff. It is a form of self-empowerment that fosters feelings of pride and comfort when done correctly. Voicing personal needs and priorities to others can seem daunting, but this is critical to maintaining healthy relationships and shared expectations with relatives, friends, and even employers.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.