In the spirit of self-preservation, an essential part of my recovery has been learning how to practice healthy boundaries with myself and with others. In early sobriety, I was fortunate that recovery mentors modeled this practice for me, however irksome and foreign they felt at the time. Personal boundaries are physical, emotional, and mental limits that protect one from being violated, used, or manipulated by others. For those experiencing substance use disorder or any kind of compulsive or obsessive behavior, creating healthy boundaries is essential to creating a feeling of safety in which you may no longer feel the need to seek illusionary safety in another substance, person, place, or thing. Here are some ideas on how to work on this practice and phrases to help you along the way.
Implicit and explicit boundaries
When we feel physically or emotionally unsafe, even on a subconscious level, we may find false refuge in numbing out or distracting ourselves. Our boundaries demonstrate our needs, what we value, and what we cannot tolerate. They can be implicitly undertaken, such as choosing to distance yourself from a triggering situation or person, or explicitly stated. I experienced various kinds of boundary violations in my childhood home growing up, so I needed to find coping mechanisms to regain a sense of safety. Those mechanisms have worn different masks over time as various addictive and compulsive impulses. In sobriety, I learned I have the power of choice in regards to self-empowerment and how creating boundaries informs that.
Boundaries could look like going “no contact” with someone for a while and taking care of the parts of you that were triggered, then re-assessing whether it feels safe to re-engage. Whether you choose to explicitly communicate your need to distance yourself is ultimately up to you. In both cases, you are communicating your needs and honoring your self-worth.
Think of internal boundaries as self-imposed negotiations you have with yourself. Some examples include: not checking work email on the weekends, keeping your personal and professional social media profiles separate, or deciding that you’ll have dessert only after you eat dinner. Internal boundaries may not sound as explosive or noteworthy as external ones, but they are just as important in learning how to renegotiate your relationship with yourself.
When is a boundary needed?
Sometimes it may not be obvious when a boundary is needed, but certain feelings or sensations may indicate that you may benefit from having one in place. Feeling continuously triggered by a boss, family member, friend or roommate, is a sign that a boundary may help. Anger is an intelligent emotion that can indicate a need to (re)draw boundaries around a specific situation or person as well.
How to set a healthy boundary
Simple, clear, and direct boundaries are most effective. Some examples include:
“It sounds like you need to talk about _____ with someone, but that person can’t be me.”
“I’m not in a place to / I prefer not to ______ right now.”
Try to refrain from over explaining the reason for a boundary, as you could end up hurting yourself. How someone reacts to a boundary is not your reaction to fix or control.
Boundaries in early recovery
Some boundaries mentors set with me in early recovery included: asking me to cap my voicemails at the one-minute mark (as opposed to my multiple 3-minute voicemails), asking that I not come late repeatedly to coffee dates, and suggesting I go “no-contact” with an ex-partner to give myself space to heal from the break-up during my first year of sobriety. When these boundaries were communicated with me, I remember feeling upset and as though these requests were unfair. In retrospect, I now see that these boundaries were put forth to not only protect my mentors, but were communicated to protect me and my recovery as well.
Some examples of boundaries you could set in recovery include:
Choosing not to explain why you don’t drink or do drugs anymore
Asking not to receive feedback or advice when you share something, especially if you’re feeling sensitive around it, and asking that someone simply listen
Letting someone know ahead of time that you can only talk for a certain amount of time when you receive a phone call
Codependency and lack of boundaries
Codependents have an especially difficult time setting and being on the receiving end of boundaries. Characteristic of codependents is a diminished or fragmented sense of self that makes it difficult for them to determine where they (and others) begin and end energetically. Codependent No More by Melody Beattie is a wonderful resource in learning how to take care of yourself through the practice of boundary-setting. You might feel a range of feelings after setting a boundary, ranging from a sense of guilt to euphoria to some kind of emotional hangover. What’s important is holding space for the feelings that may come after, rather than rushing to another activity or numbing out. You are not responsible for how someone responds to your boundary. If you finds someone repeatedly violates a boundary you have set, be sure to bring it up. Having others to speak with about it can be helpful as well.
Your mental health and wellness
At first, setting boundaries may not come easily, but with practice, knowing when and where to enforce them will become intuitive and your boundary-setting muscles will strengthen. They may also change over time as your needs change. Boundaries indicate a great degree of self-awareness and will afford you a newfound sense of freedom as you learn to honor your needs without guilt. And your days of being an escape artist with substances and behaviors will no longer feel as necessary as they once might have.
-- Marina R. for Life Assurance Recovery, 2019