Setting boundaries is an essential skill in life, especially for people in recovery. Addicts often grow up in dysfunctional homes, where boundaries were either too rigid (leading to suppressed emotions or distant relationships) or too enmeshed (depriving them of a sense of personal identity). Later in life, their interpersonal relationships may continue to be defined by old roles and patterns, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety and addictive or compulsive behaviors.
As part of recovery, addicts learn how to set boundaries and to respect other people’s boundaries in return. In the addiction field, treatment providers often refer to this process as embracing the authentic self. While it may sound like psychobabble, it is really a process of discovering who you want to be, how you want to interact with other people, and taking responsibility for the consequences of your choices.
Why are boundaries important? They keep you safe from being manipulated, abused or taken advantage of, while also protecting other people from harm you may consciously or unconsciously inflict. They prevent both parties in a relationship from blurring the lines between self and others, which can lead to enmeshment and codependency. With healthy boundaries in place, you can begin to tune in to your inner voice and trust your own thoughts and feelings, and then communicate those to other people.
Without a healthy role model, it can be difficult to know what healthy boundaries look like. First, let’s cover what healthy boundaries are not. They are not threats or attempts to control or manipulate others into doing what you want. They are not rigid rules or “walls” designed to keep people out or shield you from expressing your emotions.
Healthy boundaries are simply a delineation of what type of treatment is acceptable to you, and what consequences will result from violating a boundary. People with healthy boundaries share their thoughts and feelings, take care of their own needs, and are able to say no when necessary.
By contrast, people with weak boundaries:
• Sacrifice their personal values, plans or goals to please others
• Allow others to define who they are and make decisions for them
• Expect others to fulfill all their needs
• Feel guilty when they say no
• Hesitate to share their opinions or assert themselves if they are being treated unfairly
• Frequently feel used, threatened, victimized or mistreated by others
• Frequently offer unsolicited advice, or feel pressured to follow someone else’s advice
• Take responsibility for other people’s feelings
• Tell others how to think, feel or act
Every individual is called upon to set their own boundaries. What works for some may seem either too intrusive or too distant to others. When laying out your boundaries, work through the following steps:
Create a Personal Bill of Rights. Before you can start setting boundaries, you have to recognize your right to have your own feelings, values and beliefs and to express to others how you want to be treated. For some, this requires a colossal leap in self-worth.
Identify Your Emotions. Our parents always admonish us to “think before you act.” When you have a strong response, take a time-out to identify the underlying emotion and figure out what you want to convey. Doing so allows you to interact with other people in an honest, direct way rather than blaming or lashing out.
Set Limits. Once you have a few guidelines in place for how you expect to be treated, practice setting limits with people in a clear, direct way. Examples of healthy boundaries are: “I choose to be around sober people” or “I’ll be happy to talk with you when your voice is calm.”
Assert Your Needs. If you feel that your boundaries are being violated, speak up. This doesn’t mean lashing out or blaming others, but rather assertively communicating your needs. Ask for what you want and say no, politely yet firmly, if something isn’t right for you.
Listen to Your Instincts. If a situation feels uncomfortable or inappropriate, chances are a boundary is being pushed. By tuning into your instincts, you’re more likely to respond in ways that are true to your authentic self.
Defend Your Boundaries. Once you set boundaries, expect that they will be tested. Before this happens, set consequences that you are willing and able to enforce (e.g., “If you continue this behavior, I will…”). Know that by setting limits, you may disappoint the other person, especially if they have weak boundaries themselves. While you should always act with dignity and respect, you can’t control other people’s feelings and behaviors.
If someone continually violates your boundaries, you may need to minimize contact with them, or if they are toxic to your recovery, cut ties altogether. By choosing not to let people violate your boundaries, you stop being the victim, stop blaming others and start reclaiming responsibility for your own life.
Respect Other People’s Boundaries. Just as important as honoring your own boundaries is respecting other people’s, even if they are different from yours. If they don’t have defined boundaries, show them the respect you know they deserve anyway.
Only you can know your own limits; only you can set boundaries that make sense for you. In the process, you’ll find your voice – not the one that bids you to use drugs and alcohol, but the one that protects you from harm.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Sack served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms, and neuroendocrinology. He currently serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Promises rehab centers in California, The Ranch rehab in Tennessee, The Recovery Place in Florida, and Right Step and Spirit Lodge in Texas.
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Last reviewed: 9 Oct 2012