My Experience Setting Boundaries in Early Recovery

woman looks upset as husband takes a drink of beer in background

Hi, I’m Alex. As an individual in long-term recovery, I make a concerted effort so my sober structure can evolve as I encounter new obstacles. One of the most challenging elements of my sobriety has been creating and maintaining boundaries. Here is what I learned from my personal experiences.

Setting Boundaries in Early Recovery Can be Tricky

When I first returned to the “real” world after treatment, I quickly discovered the need to communicate to others what kind of boundaries would help prevent triggers and cravings for me. Some boundaries were immediately obvious, while others, I gradually discovered I needed as I came into contact with certain things and experienced uncomfortable emotions I didn’t see coming.

It wasn’t easy to ask my friends and family to respect these personal boundaries—why I needed alcohol taken out of sight before I came to a family gathering, or why friends smoking weed while watching a movie meant I would need to leave the room. Ultimately, I told myself (and my loved ones) that if my sobriety and health were important, then my boundaries needed respect and adherence to protect my recovery. I wasn’t asking people to stop drinking, just to not drink around me. If you couldn’t handle a few hours without whatever substance it was to spend time with me, then you weren’t the kind of person I needed to be around.

When Family and Friends Crossed My Boundaries

When you’re new to recovery, you often encounter stressful situations where your boundaries are tested. Two major examples stick out for me during my early recovery – a long drive with my mother on election day and an Oscars viewing party with friends.

Before that drive with my mom, I calmly asked her if she could limit the amount of news coverage we consumed during the drive. She was not pleased and sighed, “Alex, just don’t come then.” I was shocked and hurt, as I didn’t think this was a big ask and we share political views. I walked her through why I needed this and that there would be other things like this in our future. And I wasn’t banning all of it – just asking to unplug from something I found triggering. I needed a boundary with the news cycle, which is something that can become overwhelming, especially around election day.

The Oscars party was harder. I hadn’t hung out with this many friends in a while, and I had already discussed not smoking around me with several attendees, host included. As the curtain came up, someone turned to me and asked, “Alex, would you mind if we smoked?” I replied with something like, “I guess I could go into another room…” and then quickly realized they wanted to smoke throughout the WHOLE broadcast. Instead of leaving or insisting that my already established boundary be respected, I tucked my nose under my shirt and glared at the TV. After I left, I called another friend and sobbed. I was livid with myself and with them. One of the attendees texted apologizing but also thanking me for letting it happen. I power-walked deep into the cold night, literally letting off steam.

Reinforcing Boundaries to My Loved Ones

Both instances upset me deeply and forced me to confront how I wanted to balance the important relationships in my life and the things my sobriety demanded. Setting personal boundaries didn’t mean I was asking for a carte blanche to order everyone around me to behave exactly as I wanted. It meant having a constructive conversation with each person about what I needed from them after I reflected on what was at the core of this need. Each relationship is different and people unfamiliar with the “whys” behind boundaries might need that gentle reminder to respect your boundary. Communication, as always, is key.

What I Learned During My Experience

• Make sure to check in with yourself and others – meditate, journal, talk to your therapist, sponsor, or recovery coach. Reflect on your emotional state. By paying attention to it and identifying our feelings, we can begin to address what’s happening within ourselves. Writing it all out, and sometimes re-writing it, can clarify how I feel and what I really want to say.

• Be mindful about how you approach the topic with someone and be prepared for their response to not be exactly what you envisioned.

• Outline guidelines on how to flag potential boundary violations on the fly. If something feels like it’s veering across a line, it helps to have a neutral way to freeze the situation.

• You won’t always know the boundaries you need in early recovery, and it’s okay for them to wax and wane as your recovery evolves.

• Don’t beat yourself up when you don’t immediately defend a boundary. But try to right the wrong as soon as you can.

I hope some of my experiences and insight help as you learn how to nurture your own recovery. Boundaries are tough to grasp at first, but they are necessary to safeguard your mental health and build lasting relationships. And if you are someone who hasn’t struggled with substances, but has a friend or family member who does, try to open up a dialogue about what boundaries they need to set with you. Many of us are still learning how to ask for help and are still discovering what kind of support we need and from whom.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
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