The Importance of Boundaries in Addiction Recovery


Why Healthy Boundaries Are Important to Recovery 

Setting healthy boundaries is a crucial aspect of recovery. You could say that it is second only to maintaining sobriety. 

Boundaries protect your well-being as well as your resolve; they keep you safe from unhealthy relationships. They allow you to prioritise your needs, your recovery and yourself. 

If you struggle to set boundaries, don’t worry. You are not alone. Many people starting recovery lack a firm grasp of what boundaries are and why they matter. 

People who become addicted to drugs or alcohol often have complicated family histories and may have grown up with parents who failed to set reasonable boundaries. You might have been raised by strict parents whose numerous and seemingly arbitrary rules made you wary of structure and discipline. Or you may have grown up with careless, neglectful parents whose lack of boundaries left you lonely and lost. 

Whatever your experience, you can learn to set the boundaries you need to protect your inner peace, your goals and your well-being. Doing so is an important step on the road to recovery, as boundaries provide you with an inner and outer safe space and a strong foundation for your new sobriety. 

What Are Boundaries and Why Are They Important?

Boundaries are like the invisible guardrails that define the territory of our personal space, physically and emotionally. They are the limits we set for ourselves, outlining what is acceptable and what is not in our interactions with other people and the world around us. 

These guardrails keep us on a safe path, preventing us from falling into situations that pose a danger to our emotional, mental, or physical health. Simply put, our boundaries are the lines we define to protect ourselves and maintain a sense of who we are. 

There are two types of boundaries: internal and external. Internal boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves. They are a kind of self-discipline and one that is key for emotional resilience and self-care. 

For example, if you are aware that you tend to take on the emotions of others, you might set an internal boundary to take the time to acknowledge and validate your feelings rather than absorbing others’ emotional states. 

External boundaries concern our interactions with other people and our environment. These boundaries are at the heart of maintaining healthy relationships, protecting personal space, and ensuring respect from others.

For example, if your coworkers constantly come over to your desk to gossip, preventing you from working on a project that matters to you, you might tell them that they can only come during certain hours or that you are unavailable when you have your headphones in. 

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Why People with Addiction Often Struggle With Boundary Setting 

Individuals suffering from substance abuse problems frequently face challenges related to setting and maintaining boundaries.

The causality goes both ways: struggling with emotional and physical boundaries affects well-being and can contribute to the onset of addictions. In turn, the negative impact of substance abuse on your sense of self and relationships makes it harder to set boundaries. 

Here are just a few of the psychological, emotional and behavioural factors that define the complex relationship between addiction and boundaries. 

1. Escape from Painful Emotions

A lack of proper boundaries can cause an individual sadness or guilt and enable abuse or manipulation from others. This can lead them to addiction, as substances often serve as a prop to escape painful experiences or negative emotions. Once alcohol or narcotics become the main way you handle their feelings, it becomes even harder to set boundaries. 

2. A Blurred Sense of Self

Addiction can erode one’s sense of self, as your behaviour changes in reaction to the substances, and your lifestyle reorganises itself around your consumption. Individuals may prioritise the needs of the addiction over their own well-being, leading to a blurred distinction between their identity and the demands of the substance. This feeling of a loss of identity makes it difficult to assert your limits.

3. Relationship Strain

Addiction often strains relationships and leads to a breakdown in communication and trust. You might stop confiding in your loved ones out of a sense of guilt or fear of judgment. They, in turn, might show annoyance or frustration at your substance abuse. This makes it harder to set boundaries with your friends and family, as your ties feel more tense and insecure than before. 

4. Impaired Decision-Making

Drugs and alcohol impair cognitive function and decision-making. Individuals in the grip of addiction might find it challenging to make rational choices and feel a sense of loss of control over their own lives. This makes it hard to maintain personal boundaries. On an emotional, physical or sexual level, you might find yourself making choices that you wouldn’t make sober. 

5. Seeking External Validation

Individuals with addiction often rely highly on external validation and seek approval and acceptance from others. This creates a fear of rejection that dissuades them from expressing their needs and their boundaries. They may even accept mistreatment so as to avoid rejection. 

How Boundaries Foster Recovery

While individuals suffering from addiction may find boundary-setting challenging, it is a crucial skill for recovery. Here are some of the ways boundaries will help you on your road to sobriety. 

1. Managing Time and Priorities

Recovery often involves reorganising your daily routines and habits. Setting boundaries around how you spend your time becomes essential. This might include prioritizing self-care activities, attending support group meetings, or dedicating time to therapy. By clearly defining your commitments and responsibilities, you create a structured and intentional environment which prioritises your recovery. 

2. Establishing Accountability

Recovery is a personal journey, but accountability to oneself and others is crucial. By setting boundaries that include regular check-ins with a sponsor, therapist, or support group, you create a system of accountability. This helps you stay on track with your recovery goals and provides a network of individuals who understand and support your journey.

3. Handling Triggers and Cravings

When you start your recovery, you might need to step back from certain people, places or situations that you associate with substance abuse that you are likely to find triggering. This requires setting new boundaries for yourself and with loved ones. 

In some cases, you may be surprised to find that friends or family are not fully supportive of your recovery. Some people might be angry, as your decision reminds them of their own substance abuse problems that they are not ready to tackle. Some might be scared of the change in dynamic in your relationship or even afraid of the opportunities that await you once you have regained control of your life.

If you realise that certain people are being less than supportive, boundaries are crucial to prevent their attitudes from harming your progress. The flip side of that coin is building new connections with people who share similar goals and experiences. 

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How to Get Better At Setting Boundaries 

We’ve seen how important boundary setting is to recovery. We’ve also explored why many people with addiction may struggle to set firm boundaries. So the question now is, how can you get better at defining and expressing the boundaries you need? 

Overcome the Fear of Rejection

You might be concerned that asserting your needs will strain relationships or lead to abandonment. It’s essential to understand that setting boundaries is an act of self-love and self-preservation. 

You need to embrace the difficult fact that not everyone will understand or agree with your boundaries. Those who genuinely care about your well-being will respect and support your efforts, while those who resist may reveal that the relationship was not helpful to your growth and recovery. 

Understand that Setting Boundaries is an Act of Love 

You shouldn’t see setting boundaries as being unkind towards the people in your life. Quite the opposite: you are letting them know you better, by telling them what you need, what your values and requirements are. 

Doing this shows that you want to keep them in your life. It is a way of aligning who you are with who they are. If they cannot accept this, it shows that they are not interested in your well-being and that the relationship may be harmful. 

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Get Help From a Professional Therapist

If you are still struggling to set boundaries in your relationships and with yourself, talk to a therapist or counsellor. They can help you explore what fears or beliefs prevent you from being able to set boundaries and support you as you progressively learn to do so.

They might provide exercises to examine your thought patterns around communicating your needs and dislikes. They can also guide you through specific situations and give insight into managing difficult relationships in your life. 

Setting boundaries is a crucial part of recovery that allows you to avoid triggers, reorganise your life and minimise emotional distress. At the same time, it is a process that many people with addiction find challenging. 

To improve your boundary setting, it is important to let go of your fear of rejection and embrace setting boundaries as an act of love towards others. If you are struggling to set the boundaries you need for your recovery, our trained therapists at Smarmore Castle can help you. Contact us today for a free phone consultation. 

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