How To Set Healthy Boundaries in Recovery

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How To Set Healthy Boundaries in Recovery

Healthy Boundaries in Recovery

By:  Rick Fannin

Setting boundaries is an important part of establishing one's identity and is crucial for mental health, well-being, stability, and healthy relationships.  Knowing how to set healthy boundaries in recovery from addiction should be a critical part of your recovery and self-care plan.

Healthy boundaries are the ultimate guide to successful relationships and will help you greatly in your recovery from addiction.  Without healthy boundaries, relationships do not thrive and result in feelings of resentment, disappointment, or violation.  These feelings, unchecked, can lead to being cut off from others or enmeshment, where there's no clear division between you and others' needs and feelings.  Neither of these situations is ideal, and this limited sober support, increased stress and negative emotions put you at risk of relapse.  Healthy boundaries are necessary to build a robust social support system and healthy relationships are critical for being able to achieve long term sobriety.

Boundaries can be physical, emotional, or other types, and they can range from being loose to rigid, with healthy boundaries often falling somewhere in between.

The easiest way to think about a boundary is a property line.  We have all seen "No Trespassing" signs, which send a clear message that there will be a consequence if you violate that boundary.  This type of boundary is easy to picture and understand because you can see the sign and the border it protects.  Personal boundaries can be harder to define because the lines are invisible, can change, and are unique to each individual.

Boundaries are a life-enhancing system of "yes" and "no's."  They are stop signs and borders you install to protect yourself so that it is clear that you own your life, make good choices, and pursue the authentic expression of who you are in the way you live, love, give and relate."

Creating healthy boundaries is empowering.  By recognizing the need to set and enforce limits, you protect your self-esteem, maintain self-respect, and enjoy healthy relationships.  Research indicates that in families with healthy, flexible boundaries, each person can develop into a distinct individual with their own unique interests and skills.  This helps foster well-being, self-control, self-esteem, and secure relationship attachments.

Unhealthy boundaries cause emotional pain, leading to dependency, depression, anxiety, and even stress-induced physical illness.  A lack of boundaries is like leaving the door to your home unlocked: anyone, including unwelcome guests, can enter at will.  On the other hand, having too rigid boundaries can lead to isolation, like living in a locked-up castle surrounded by a mote.  No one can get in, and you can't get out.

Learning to show compassion and kindness to yourself is crucial in setting healthy boundaries.

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

A boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person, a clear place where you begin and the other person ends.   The purpose of setting a healthy boundary is, of course, to protect and take good care of you and to respect the values, privacy, and dignity of others.  In general, healthy boundaries are those boundaries that are set to make sure to maintain physical, mental, and emotional safety and stability.  Another way to think about it is that our boundaries might be rigid, loose, somewhere in between, or even nonexistent.   A complete lack of boundaries may indicate that we don't have a strong identity, struggle with attachment security, or are enmeshed with someone else.

Healthy boundaries can serve to establish one's identity.  Specifically, healthy boundaries can help people define their individuality and values and can help people indicate what they will and will not hold themselves responsible for.

Signs of Ignored Boundaries

You can tell boundaries are being ignored if you are experiencing one or more of the following challenges:

Over Enmeshment

This requires everyone to follow the rule that everyone must do everything together and that everyone is to think, feel and act in the same way.  No one is allowed to deviate from the family or group norms.  Uniqueness, autonomy, and idiosyncratic or unusual behaviors are viewed as deviations from the norm.


This is blanking out during a stressful, emotional event.  You feel your physical or emotional space being violated, and you tell yourself something like: "It doesn't matter." "Ignore it, and it will go away soon enough." This "blanking out" results in being out of touch with your feelings about what happened.  It also may result in your inability to remember what happened.

Excessive Detachment

This occurs when neither you nor anyone else in the group/family/relationship is able to establish any fusion of emotions or affiliation of feelings.  Everyone is totally independent of everyone else, and nothing seems to hold you and them together in a healthy union.

Victimhood or Martyrdom

With this, you identify yourself as a violated victim and become overly defensive to ward off further violations.  Or it can be that once you accept your victimization, you continue to be knowingly victimized and then let others know of your martyrdom.

Chip on the Shoulder

This is reflected in your interactions with others.  Because of your anger over past violation of your emotional and/or physical space and the real or perceived ignoring of your rights by others, you have a "chip on your shoulder'' that declares, "I dare you to come too close!''


This involves you pulling in or over-controlling so that others, even yourself, never know how you are really feeling or what you are really thinking.  Your goal is not to be seen or heard so that your boundaries are not violated.

Aloofness or Shyness

This is a result of your insecurity from real or perceived experiences of being ignored or rejected in the past.  This feels like a violation of your efforts to expand or stretch your boundaries to include others in your space.  Once rejected, you take the defensive posture to reject others before they reject you.  This keeps you inward and unwilling or fearful of opening up your space to others.

Cold and Distant

This builds walls or barriers to ensure that others do not permeate or invade your emotional or physical space.  This, too, can be a defense, due to previous hurt and pain, from being violated, hurt, ignored or rejected.  This stance is your declaration that "I've drawn the line over which I dare you to cross.'' It is a way to keep others out and put them off.


This results when another is overly solicitous of your needs and interests.  This cloying interest is overly intrusive into your emotional and physical space.  It can be so overwhelming that you feel like you are being strangled, held too tightly, and lack the freedom to breathe on your own.  You feel violated, used, and overwhelmed.

Lack of Privacy

This is present when it seems to you that nothing you think, feel, or do is your own business.  You are expected to report to others in your family or group all details and content of your feelings, reactions, opinions, relationships, and dealings with the outside world.  You begin to feel that nothing you experience can be kept in the privacy of your own domain.  You begin to believe you do not have a private domain or your own space into which you can escape.

Healthy Boundaries and Selfcare

Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care and well-being.  Poor boundaries in our work, r personal, or recovery life contribute to feelings of resentment, anxiety, isolation, anger, and burnout.  The consequences of not setting healthy boundaries often include stress, financial burdens, wasted time, and relationship issues, which can cause mental distress.  In other words, a lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect all aspects of your life.

Setting healthy boundaries can have many benefits, including helping people make decisions based on what is best for them, not just the people around them.  This autonomy is an important part of self-care.

In the context of recovering from substance abuse, self-care can include meaningful connection with recovery support and children, taking care of physical health, maintaining spirituality, healthy eating, exercise, journaling, continuing education, staying busy, sponsorship, establishing boundaries, self-monitoring, abstinence, and dealing with destructive emotions.

Self-care, which can include setting boundaries, is important for leading a mentally healthy life.  But unlike more intuitive aspects of self-care like healthy eating and exercise, setting healthy boundaries isn't something most people understand.  For more people to experience greater well-being and fulfillment, they must learn about healthy personal boundaries.

What Are Personal Boundaries?

Personal boundaries are the rules and limits we set for ourselves within relationships.  A person with healthy boundaries can say "no" to others when they want to, but they are also comfortable opening themselves up to intimacy and close relationships.  These individuals also tend to be secure in their attachment to others.

A person who always keeps others at a distance, either emotionally or physically, is said to have ridged boundaries.  These individuals tend to have insecure-fearful/avoidant attachment styles.

Alternatively, someone who tends to get too involved with others has porous boundaries.  This type tends to have insecure-anxious/preoccupied attachment styles.

Rigid Boundaries

  • Avoids intimacy and close relationships
  • Unlikely to ask for help
  • Has few close relationships
  • Very protective of personal information
  • May seem detached, even with romantic partners
  • Keeps others at a distance to avoid the possibility of rejection
  • Tends to have either insecure-fearful/avoidant or insecure-disorganized attachment styles

Porous Boundaries

  • Overshares personal information
  • Difficulty saying "no" to the request of others
  • Overinvolved with others' problems
  • Dependent on the opinions of others
  • Accepting abuse or disrespect
  • Fears rejection if they do not comply with others
  • Tends to have insecure-anxious/preoccupied or insecure attachment styles

Healthy Boundaries

  • Value's own opinion
  • Doesn't compromise the values of others
  • Shares personal information in an appropriate way (does not over or under share)
  • Knows personal wants and needs and can communicate them
  • Accepting when others say "no" to them
  • Tends to have a secure attachment style

Most people have a mix of different boundary types.  They may have healthy boundaries at work, porous boundaries in their romantic relationship, and a mix of all three with friends and family.

The appropriateness of boundaries depends heavily on the setting.  What is appropriate to say when you are with close friends may not be appropriate to say at work or in front of your grandmother.

Types of Boundaries

Physical boundaries refer to personal space and physical touch.  Healthy physical boundaries include an awareness of what is appropriate and what is not in the various settings and types of relationships.  Physical boundaries may be violated if someone touches you when you do not want them to or when they invade your personal space, like snooping in your bedroom.

Intellectual boundaries refer to thoughts and ideas.  Healthy intellectual boundaries include respect for others' ideas and an awareness of discussion topics.  For example, it may not be appropriate to discuss the details of your sex life at work.   Additionally, intellectual boundaries are violated when someone dismisses or belittles another person's thoughts or ideas.

Emotional boundaries refer to a person's feelings.  Healthy emotional boundaries include limitations on when to share personal information and when not to share.  For example, gradually sharing personal information during the development of a relationship instead of revealing everything to everyone upon first meeting them.  Emotional boundaries are violated when someone criticizes, belittles, dismisses, or invalidates another person's feelings.

These boundaries protect your sense of self-esteem and ability to separate your feelings from others.  When you have weak emotional boundaries, it's like getting caught in the midst of a hurricane with no protection.  You expose yourself to be significantly affected by others' words, thoughts, and actions and end up feeling bruised, wounded and battered.

Sexual boundaries refer to the emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects of sexuality.  Healthy sexual boundaries include mutual understanding and respect of limitations and desires between sexual partners.  Sexual boundaries can be violated with unwanted sexual touching, pressure to engage in sexual acts, leering, or sexual comments or jokes.

Material boundaries refer to money and possessions.  Healthy material boundaries involve setting limits on what you will share and with whom.  For example, it may be appropriate to lend a car to a family member, but probably not to someone you met this morning.  Material boundaries are violated when someone steals or damages another person's possessions or when they pressure them to give or lend them their possessions.

Time boundaries refer to how a person uses their time.  To have healthy time boundaries, a person must set aside enough time for each facet of their life, such as work, relationships, and hobbies.  Time boundaries are violated when another person demands too much of another person's time.

Spiritual boundaries refer to the stipulations and standards set for both people and spirit.  Your spiritual boundaries refer to the moral code and customs that you live your life by.  Spiritual boundaries how we protect the health of our relationship with God and guide how you live your spiritual life.  This includes the core and moral values that are important to you.  A sign of spiritual boundaries is learning to take responsibility for yourself, and you also have a social responsibility to others.  This may mean at times we must confront inappropriate behavior.

Boundaries In Relationships

Boundaries in relationships can be especially important.  Healthy boundaries can be the difference between a healthy, happy relationship and a toxic, dysfunctional relationship.

A lack of boundaries can lead to an unhealthy relationship because one partner may feel that they have no privacy anymore.  However, too many boundaries can also be an issue, as in the case of people who refuse to spend time with the friends and families of their partners.  Often a jealous or insecure partner is controlling, but you cannot control someone into loving you.  When one person controls another, love cannot grow deeply and fully, as there is no freedom.

The fact that boundaries are important in relationships underscores the importance of setting and respecting boundaries.  It's important to understand and respect each other's boundaries in a long-term partnership, just as it's important to respect the boundaries of people whom one does not know very well.

One good way to avoid violating someone's boundaries, and avoid having your boundaries crossed, is to have honest conversations about boundaries with people.

Healthy Boundaries in Recovery from Addiction

When people struggle with addictions, they typically do not have very healthy or strong boundaries. This problem could have started in childhood if their parents were neglectful or overly strict. When someone has an addiction, they also generally have weakened logic and decision-making skills and are willing to do almost anything to get the substance they desire.

Alcohol and drug addiction takes a toll on our relationships, especially on our families. When you go to treatment for addiction, it begins your journey and learning process of how to stay clean and sober and focuses on reclaiming your life from addiction.  Your relationships with other people require rebuilding, too.

Healing relationships in recovery takes a concerted effort on everyone's part. Addiction can fuel many fear-based behavior patterns and other dysfunctional interactions in families, including the need to control others, perfectionism, hanging onto resentments or behaving like a martyr. A first step is for everyone, the recovering addict or alcoholic, family members and loved ones, to focus on establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in their interactions and communications with one another.

Especially with codependent relationships, it's important to remember that when we set personal boundaries, we are only making rules for ourselves—which gives others the power to decide how they want to interact with us. Our loved ones are free to set their own boundaries, which provides opportunities to negotiate relationship parameters based on one another's values and needs.

Setting up boundaries in addiction recovery means placing limits on aspects of your life that are or have the potential to become harmful to you. You might set boundaries with people, situations, or places. You decide what things you will and will not allow in your life, and then you enforce said decisions in your life. This can help protect your physical, mental, and emotional health.

After detoxing from drugs or alcohol, you may discover there are other areas of your life that needs to be detoxed, such as your toxic relationships. Toxic relationships are any relationship that causes emotional or physical harm to either party. As you become sober, you may start to see where relationships are toxic that you did not before. When you do so, it is important to start setting up boundaries.

Some people you may need to remove from your life completely, while others may just need to set up boundaries to protect yourself as you repair your relationship.

Boundaries during addiction recovery are beneficial for a variety of reasons. Boundaries can help a person resist temptation by keeping distractions and temptations minimal.  By having healthy boundaries, it can help you develop the skill to say no and gain self-worth. Rather than giving everything to the substance, setting boundaries can help you begin to value their own self and mental and physical health.

Setting boundaries in recovery is an important part of getting and staying sober. Having strong boundaries about things like drugs and alcohol in the home will help prevent you from relapsing. If you do not allow those who bring substances into your home or life, you will have less temptation. Boundaries like these with yourself and others are key to staying sober.

How to Set Boundaries

The first part of setting boundaries is examining the boundaries that already exist, or the boundaries that are lacking in your life.  For example, you might decide that she has healthy boundaries with her romantic partner, but not with her friends and coworkers.  From there, you can decide what types of boundaries you want to set with her friends and coworkers.

As for how to exactly set these boundaries, utilize assertive communication to say no to something you do not want to do.  Do not feel that you need to explain.  Not overexplaining is a crucial aspect of setting boundaries, as everyone has the right to determine what they do and do not want to do.

When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible.  Do not justify, get angry, or apologize for the boundary you are setting.  Keep the focus on yourself.  Instead of setting a boundary by saying something like, "You have to stop bothering me after work", a person can say, "I need some time to myself when I get back from work."

It is important to remember that it is impossible to set boundaries without setting consequences if these boundaries are violated.   This means it is important to state why they are important when explicitly setting boundaries.  For example, a person in an unhealthy relationship might declare that his partner needs to start respecting his career goals if his partner wants to continue being in a relationship with him.  It is also crucial to only declare consequences that one is willing to follow through on, or the boundaries will not be effective.

You are not responsible for the other person's reaction to the boundary you are setting.  You are only responsible for respectfully communicating your boundary.  If it upsets them, know it is their problem.  Some people, especially those accustomed to controlling, abusing, or manipulating you, might test you.  Plan on it, expect it, but remain firm.  Remember, your behavior must match the boundaries you are setting.  You cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologizing.

At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary.  Do it anyway and remind yourself you have a right to self-care.  Setting boundaries takes practice and determination.  Don't let anxiety, fear, or guilt prevent you from taking care of yourself.

When you feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary.  Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively.

Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time.  It is a process.  Set them in your own time frame, not when someone else tells you.

Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries.  Eliminate toxic people from your life— those who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you.

In general, the key to setting boundaries is first figuring out what you want from your various relationships, setting boundaries based on those desires, and then being clear with yourself and with other people about your boundaries.

Signs Your Boundaries Are Getting Stronger

Whether you’re the one setting or adhering to the boundaries, there are some clear signs that they are working. It’s all about having the confidence to establish boundaries, so have you noticed any of the below lately?

  1. You can say no without guilt
  2. You do what you want and need, not what others want you to do
  3. You do not take on the responsibility of keeping others happy
  4. You take things less personally
  5. You can have disagreements and maintain a relationship
  6. You can act on your feelings when necessary
  7. You do not take responsibility for people’s thoughts, emotions, or actions
  8. You can both give and receive
  9. You are less angry and resentful

Summary On Healthy Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries is a crucial part of life and an important aspect of any self-care practice.  Someone who's not used to setting boundaries might feel guilty or selfish when they first start out, but setting boundaries is necessary for mental health and well-being.  Appropriate boundaries can look very different depending on the setting, and it's important to set them in all aspects of one's life.

Finally, while setting boundaries is crucial, respecting the boundaries that others have set for themselves is even more crucial.  This goes for parents, children, romantic partners, bosses, coworkers, and anyone who interacts with or has power over anyone else.  Respect is a two-way street, and appreciating the boundaries others have set for themselves is as important as setting boundaries for oneself.

If you are struggling with healthy boundaries and they are creating a risk of relapse in your recovery then a counselor, Faith-Based Recovery Coach, or a Christian Life Coach can help.  A Faith-based Recovery Coach has a deep understanding of how toxic relationships and unhealthy boundaries create a huge risk in recovery and block your ability to build strong stable sober support.  A Christian Family Life Coach can incorporate the family as part of your recovery and work with each family member on communication skills and healthy boundaries.  A Faith-Based Life Coach can help you to look at how unhealthy boundaries have impacted past relationships, provide wisdom on how the bible describes healthy relationships, set some realistic relationship goals, and help you work toward achieving these goals.

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