When I was in active addiction, I had trouble setting boundaries. Creating boundaries requires knowing what they are, which means being in tune with what you’re feeling. This is difficult to do when you’re not cognizant in general. It is also hard to do when your sense of self is enmeshed with substances.
I did have some intuition about what I needed. But I let it stay at the level of intuition, instead of actively checking in with myself. This meant that my boundaries became permeable. When I was intoxicated, I would often break my own boundaries. I felt almost gleeful about this, like I was getting away with something. But all I was getting away with was not affording myself respect or dignity.
I have spent more than four and a half years in recovery working at understanding and enforcing boundaries. Here are some things I’ve learned:
1. Write them down
By this I mean: actively engage with them in whatever way works best for your brain. This could entail journaling, or just setting aside time to reflect on your boundaries. Let’s say you’re starting a relationship, and you’re not sure how you feel about how often the person is contacting you. Ask yourself whether the pace works for you and if the contact feels healthy. Then if you decide a change is necessary, you can plan what you will say to the person. If that person really wants to be in a positive relationship with you, they will appreciate your honesty.
2. Trust yourself
In early recovery—or perhaps even in long-term recovery—you may still not be sure what you want or need. This is okay. But generally, if something feels bad, it feels bad for a reason. Trust this, and explore it (see number 1). Learning to trust myself has been some of the most rewarding work in recovery.
3. Trust that the people you want in your life will respect your boundary-setting
Often, we are not taught from an early age how to enforce a boundary. In fact, a lot of us are taught by the culture that setting boundaries is somehow hurting other people’s feelings. However, the people you want in your life won’t make your boundary about their feelings. Setting boundaries can seem like pushing people away—but some of the hardest conversations I’ve had about boundaries have made me closer to people.
4. Be prepared to have hard conversations
The thing about boundaries is that they often involve other people. You will likely have to talk to someone in your life about it. This is very rarely easy, but it is always worth it. Even if the person has a negative reaction, it gives you the opportunity to assess that relationship. Take care of yourself before and afterwards—and also keep in mind that the conversation is another way of taking care of yourself.
5. Stick to it
There have been times in sobriety when I’ve still had an urge to break my own boundary. Being sober doesn’t mean that every instinct you have will be perfect. The work is in reflecting on those instincts before you act, and having the wherewithal to choose something different if necessary. No matter how good you think whatever it is will feel in the moment, it will always feel better in the long run to stand firm in your boundary.
6. Establish boundaries in your recovery (and continually reevaluate)
This could be whether you are okay with your partner or roommate drinking in the house, whether you feel comfortable sitting at the bar when eating at a restaurant, etc. It is important to check in with yourself about these things at various stages in recovery, as the way you feel can change. Then it is important to communicate these feelings and set healthy boundaries with the people in your life.
The word “boundaries” gets tossed around a lot and can seem abstract. Boundaries are tied up in feelings, which are themselves not concrete. A lot of times, people don’t enforce clear boundaries because they aren’t conscious of the need to set them. The good news is that simply by considering your boundaries, you are showing yourself the respect you deserve.
At Amatus Recovery Centers across the country, we can help you set boundaries as part of the recovery process. At our addiction treatment centers, we provide a full continuum of care for substance use and co-occurring disorders, including aftercare and relapse prevention. Much of the work in recovery starts when you remove substances. We will not only help you get sober, but also give you the tools to build healthy relationships and a fulfilling life in long-term recovery.