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.
For example, I have heard 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. 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.
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:
- Refusing to pay for their loved one’s bills or provide them with free housing
- Expecting loved ones to return home by a certain, mutually agreed upon time if they live in the same household
- Limiting how much they cook for or clean after their family member out of treatment
- Needing a “cool-down period” during emotionally charged conversations to self-regulate
- Requiring their loved one to continue to the next step of treatment
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.
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.