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Why is Setting Boundaries in Recovery So Important?

Man leaving rehab to start recovery
We all have personal boundaries, often thought of as our “comfort zone.” These are limits we set for ourselves that define our self-worth and values, to protect us emotionally and physically. Ideally, we respect the boundaries of others as we expect others to respect our boundaries. When our relationships with others are healthy, positive and supportive we feel safe and respected. Maintaining healthy boundaries with others encourages a healthy self-image.

Because a healthy self-image is key to the recovery process, setting boundaries and limits is crucial to the recovering addict. Setting and keeping boundaries is essential to achieving a healthy sense of self-worth. When addicts say ‘yes’ but their mind and body are really saying ‘no’, their self-image is negatively impacted, resulting in discomfort and low self-esteem. If a recovering addict feels uncomfortable enough, he or she is more likely to drink or use again.

Why do addicts tend to have unhealthy boundaries?

Boundary issues are usually rooted in an addict’s past. As children, they may have had neglectful caregivers (parents or other guardians), who set no boundaries and who failed to model healthy emotional relationships. Children of these guardians don’t know how to express emotion, how to ask for help, or how to form healthy relationships.

At the other end of the spectrum are children raised by overly strict caregivers. Setting too many boundaries sends the message that the child is incapable of personal growth and independence. These children may become overly dependent on others. The inability to understand and live within healthy boundaries often causes addicts to be manipulated by others and frequently leads to codependent relationships.

What do healthy boundaries look like?

The basis of healthy boundaries is respect — for one’s self and for others. From that springs the ability for a recovering addict to take responsibility for his or her words and actions. Healthy boundaries include feeling safe to express feelings in a calm, assertive manner, and to stand firm even if others don’t agree. Healthy boundaries mean maintaining personal values, being yourself, and not bending to who others think you should be.

What do unhealthy boundaries look like?

While the basis of healthy boundaries is respect, for one’s self and for others, the opposite can be said of unhealthy boundaries. Examples of unhealthy boundaries can include:

  • Impulsive behavior, especially in relationships.
  • Ignoring personal values to make someone else happy.
  • Belittling others for their beliefs or emotions.
  • Belittling yourself.
  • Attempting to force personal beliefs on others.
  • Allowing others to tell you who and what you should be.
  • Not allowing others to take responsibility for their own feelings.

Recovery and getting comfortable in your own skin

Learning to set limits and boundaries is a process. The recovering addict must learn to listen to his or her body in order to learn how treatment by others affects them. If an addict says “yes” but their stomach is in a knot, it likely means they really wanted to say “no.” It’s important to identify personal values and to clearly indicate to others how they expect to be treated. Addicts must learn to be assertive and to speak up if others aren’t respecting the boundaries they have set.

Often, addicts have never learned how to articulate desired boundaries, or have been unable to speak up when boundaries have been violated in the past. For long-term success, and in order to achieve healthy relationships, recovering addicts must feel in control of their lives. The ability to confidently identify and require that others respect their boundaries gives those in recovery that sense of control.

To recover, addicts need to like and respect themselves enough to say “no.” A major goal in therapy and 12-step programs is for addicts to learn to be comfortable with who they are, to recognize their own needs and rights, and to care more about what they think of themselves and less about what others think of them.

Healthy boundaries enable recovering addicts to take control of their own lives, to live autonomously and to cultivate healthy relationships. Without healthy boundaries, fostering healthy relationships with one’s self and with others is not likely to happen.

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