Woman at the harbor ready for setting boundaries in addiction recovery

Setting Boundaries in Addiction Recovery

A Few Simple Things to Know About Setting Boundaries in Addiction Recovery


Before we get started on setting boundaries in addiction recovery, take a moment to gather a few supplies: 

  • A blank sheet of paper
  • A pencil
  • A toddler 
  • A few crayons

(If you don’t have a toddler handy, your imagination should do the trick). 

Use your pencil to draw a simple shape on paper. Think of a heart, a box, a circle or a diamond. Toss a few crayons to an eager-to-please toddler and say, “Hey there! I drew a picture for you to color. Make sure you stay inside the lines.” Then cross your fingers—and maybe your toes—cause you’ll need all the good luck you can get. 

Try as they might; your little one’s crayons will inevitably wander outside the shape you’ve drawn and creep into the edges of the paper. And then all bets are off. 

That’s because boundaries are tough to set and harder to follow—even when coloring and especially when recovering from addiction. 

Today we’re going take a look at the reasons why boundaries fail and what you can do to set healthy, solid boundaries—boundaries that work in recovery. 

(As for that toddler? Try a thick black marker and a little more guidance next time). 


Why Setting Solid Boundaries Matters in Recovery

At first thought, boundaries might sound like an overly harsh approach to life. In reality, boundaries protect what’s important to us. Just like the lines on a coloring page are supposed to keep the edges white and crisp, creating healthy boundaries in recovery makes it easier for you to safeguard what matters. If we’re smart about it, boundaries end up doing a lot of the work for us! 


Boundaries are a clear way for us to communicate—even if just to ourselves—here’s what I care about. 


So take a moment to ask: What do I care about? What absolutes do I want to make? What people, places or things do I need to draw lines around in order to keep myself out or in? 


Use that piece of paper and pencil you grabbed early for something a little more productive. That’s right; you’re taking a first step toward healthy boundary setting. Go you! Jot down your thoughts on the questions above. 


Before We Get To What Boundaries Are, Let’s Talk About What They Aren’t

Let’s revisit our friendly toddler, shall we? Make a toddler mad, and she might say, “You’re not invited to my birthday party!” Five minutes later? You’re best pals again. Toddlers may be the cutest, but they stink at setting boundaries. 


Unfortunately, we adults can tend to be the same way. 


Some of us are extreme with our boundaries, putting up walls and tucking ourselves inside—completely separate from the outside world and all the richness that relationships with others and the challenges of life can bring. 


Others of us are a little too lax. We set boundaries, but we don’t really mean it. Give us enough of a guilt trip or an enticing opportunity for fun and boundaries be damned! 


All of this to say, boundaries are not steel bars behind concrete barriers, nor are they lines in the sand—easily erased and forgotten. Boundaries are—as the folks at MindTools say—like fences. 


Fences are firmly placed in the ground. Their designs are well-thought-out to serve multiple purposes. Fences have a gate for access to the outside, but you can lock it—deciding when you’ll open it and for what reasons. 


Your boundaries should look the same way. But maybe right now they don’t. That’s okay. Setting healthy boundaries takes work, and we’re going to get there together. 


For now, grab your notes and consider: Am I more likely to set boundaries that are too extreme or too lax? Jot down your response. 


Then take a look at a few expert-identified reasons you may struggle to create fence-like boundaries: 

  • A lack of self-esteem
  • Worry about hurting someone’s feelings
  • A desire to avoid conflict
  • Being a team player
  • Fear of failure


Which, if any, of these struggles do you most need to work on? I’m a people pleaser myself so that one’s always going to be at the top of my list. Sometimes, a simple awareness of what’s going on can help. Write down what you believe is the key to your struggle in holding fast to a firm but flexible (going for fence-like) boundary. 


Finally, a word of encouragement in our social-media world: there’s no need to share your boundaries with everyone around you in order for them to be real. Boundaries aren’t legitimized because they’re made public. They’re made real when you decide to set them and each time you stick to them. 


How to Set Boundaries That Work in Addiction Recovery

So we know why boundaries matter, what they aren’t and what they are, now let’s talk about how to make them happen. After all, this is where practicality does a little magic. 


Creating healthy boundaries right from the start can make things easier on you down the road. You won’t get this perfect from the beginning—perfection is never the goal—but by learning along the way, you’ll set yourself up for success. And that’s what we want, right?


So grab that paper full of notes again. By now, you should have a handy list including: 

  • Your values
  • Absolutes (or yeses and nos that you hope to maintain for the long haul)
  • The people, places and things you want to keep in your life
  • The people, places and things you need to remove from your life
  • Your tendency to either set boundaries that are too extreme or too lax
  • Characteristics that make creating healthy boundaries a challenge for you


If you noticed anything missing from your list, take time to fill in the blanks now. You might also take a moment now—or in the coming days—to flesh out each of these categories more fully. Maybe you’d like time to consider your values more carefully. 


Or perhaps you’d find it helpful to talk with a therapist or fellow friend in recovery about the lines you should draw around people, places and things. You may even chat with a trusted spouse or family member about your tendencies and characteristics when it comes to boundary setting. 


Take your time. Setting boundaries in addiction recovery isn’t a one-time activity, and, as we’ve said before, you don’t have to get it perfect right from the start. Still, going into something like this with purpose and intention will go a long way toward helping you create boundaries that work. 


When you’re ready, do the following: 

Have your notes handy to guide your boundary-setting.

Write out each boundary you’d like to set. Be as specific as possible. 

Under each boundary, list a reason for taking that action. Be sure to include the benefit the boundary offers to you as well as to anyone you love. This will serve as your motivation for respecting each boundary down the road. 

Make a plan for communicating your boundaries. Read over your boundaries and make a quick to-do list for anyone who will be affected by them and actually needs to be made aware of the boundary beforehand. Consider also informing a trusted friend, family member or therapist about all of your boundaries as a way of establishing accountability and requesting encouragement. 

Set a regular time to check in with yourself. We all slip up when we first begin to set boundaries, so why not schedule a regular time to ask yourself: How am I doing? You can give yourself a pat on the back in areas where you’ve done well and reevaluate areas where you’ve struggled. Perhaps you’ll need more time to adjust and stick to the boundary as planned. Occasionally, you might need to rework your boundary to serve you and your goals better. 


Do this, and you’ll set some boundaries for addiction recovery that actually work. That’s awesome! 

Still, maybe you’d like to work through this exercise together? Let’s do it. 


Setting Boundaries in Addiction Recovery: Let’s Practice! 

Let’s assume you’re a people pleaser like me. Maybe you’ve got a relative who loves you so much and really wants to help. She’s always available when you call—and sometimes shows up when you don’t. But, if you’re being honest, her frequent visits tend to bring on a bit of anxiety. And when you’re anxious, well, your substance of choice starts calling your name. 


Time to practice setting boundaries in addiction recovery! 


First: Review your notes. 

You value family; you plan never to drink alcohol again, you want this dear relative to remain in your life, you tend to drop your boundaries if they might hurt someone’s feelings and you’d definitely need to work on being comfortable with conflict. 


Second: Write out the boundary. 

Notes in hand, you decide that you’d prefer no more unsolicited visits from your well-meaning relative. You write: Aunt Rachel is welcome to call me anytime, but I’d prefer she only come over after first calling to confirm that it’s okay with me. If I’m not up for a visit, I’ll say no and offer another option for when we might see each other. 


Third: State your reasons. 

Rachel has been such a gift during my time in recovery. But her frequent unannounced visits tend to bring on anxiety. It is better for me to be prepared to see her. And since I already have a spouse who checks in on me and a dear friend and therapist who are available when I need them, I know that reducing my visits from Aunt Rachel will not deter my sobriety but rather help it. 


Fourth: Communicate your boundaries. 

Reach out to your Aunt and say, “Aunt Rachel, you have been such a gift to me during this time. I so appreciate all of your love and concern. It means the world to me! As I’m working to move forward in my recovery, I have new goals I’m striving toward, and my days may look a bit different. Because of this, I’m asking that you call before popping over in the future. And before you worry, know that Mark and Suzie and my therapist are regularly checking in on me—so you don’t need to worry!” 


Share this new boundary with your spouse and ask for his help in enforcing it if your Aunt shows up without calling. 


Fifth: Check in on your progress in setting boundaries in addiction recovery

Depending on how often you usually receive unwarranted visits from your Aunt, schedule a time to check in and ask: How am I doing? If you’re doing well, celebrate! If you’re struggling, consider how you might hold firm to this boundary in the future. Ask for help if you need it! 


That’s it! Simple enough, right? Of course, simple doesn’t always mean easy. If you need help setting boundaries in addicition recovery, give us a call at 844.767.9404.


By Stephanie Thomas

Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health

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