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Setting Boundaries in Recovery: How To Do It + Why It Matters

Starting a life in recovery is a monumental shift.

Not only are you learning to live without drugs or alcohol, but you’re learning how to live your life in a way that’s conducive to your recovery.

If you don’t make any changes besides putting down the bottle, it’s all too easy to find yourself in old patterns that lead you back to substance use.

Setting boundaries in recovery is just one of the tools that can help you along the path and can free you from taking on all the world’s problems as your own.

Why Setting Boundaries in Recovery is Important

When you first get sober, you quickly learn that not everybody has the same goal in mind for you. Your friends or family may not understand why you stopped drinking or using drugs and may try to pressure you into doing so again.

Or perhaps they simply don’t understand that recovery takes work and that the way you’ve interacted with each other before has to change.

Setting clear boundaries can help resolve this challenge and provide a tremendous amount of relief in other areas of your life.

But setting firm boundaries on where you can and cannot spend your energy in recovery is often easier said than done – it’s a skill that many people don’t have when they begin their journey in sobriety, and it takes practice to learn how to set and maintain these boundaries.  

A man in recovery from alcohol addiction speaks to a woman about his boundaries
setting boundaries in recovery

How to Set Boundaries in Recovery

Setting boundaries isn’t easy. Not only do you need to learn how to communicate your boundaries in an assertive way, but you need to decide what boundaries are most important to keeping you on the right path and how to maintain those boundaries when they are pushed back upon.

Let’s break it down step by step:

Decide What Your Boundaries Are

The first step is deciding what boundaries are important for you to keep. This is an entirely personal decision process and one that you can think over before you’re ever in the position to have to set and maintain a boundary. 

In my own early recovery, the two most important boundaries I had to set were around my friends’ drinking and my own time.

I couldn’t go to the bars and clubs with my friends without feeling the itch to pick up a drink myself, and I couldn’t volunteer my time to help my friends or loved ones when it interfered with what I needed to do to keep my sobriety on track.

So, I decided on two boundaries I needed to set for myself:

  1. No spending time at drinking establishments.
  2. Time planned for recovery groups, self-care, or personal growth could not be rescheduled.

Of course, the boundaries that you need to set might be quite different. To decide which boundaries are important, ask yourself:

  • What do I need to do to stay sober?
  • How do other people’s requests interfere with that?
  • Where do I want to spend, or not spend, my energy?
  • What’s causing undue stress in my life that I’d rather avoid?

These questions can help guide you towards what your personal boundaries need to be. Your boundaries can be emotional, interpersonal, physical, and either internal or external – whatever you need to not be overwhelmed.

Internal vs External Boundaries

Understanding the difference between internal and external boundaries can help you to build a healthy foundation for your own mental health.

Put simply, internal boundaries revolve around honoring your own capacities, recognizing your limits, and deciding what you are and aren’t comfortable with.

In contrast, external boundaries revolve around setting rules for social interactions – what we can and can’t accept from other people.

Setting Boundaries with Others

Deciding on your boundaries is the easy part. Setting those boundaries is an entirely different endeavor, because it’s no longer just about your wants and your needs, but the wants and needs of your friends, coworkers, family members, or loved ones as well.

The most important thing to remember about setting boundaries is to be clear and assertive. You need to express your boundaries out loud, and not leave room for them to be changed or modified.

Here’s a few examples of different types of boundaries and how to express them to others:

Sobriety Boundaries“It makes me uncomfortable when you drink in front of me. I need you to leave or stop.”
“I can’t spend time with you when you’re still using drugs every day.” 
Time Boundaries“I’d be glad to come, but I can only stay for two hours.” 
“I don’t have time to do that this week.”
Emotional Boundaries“I’m not ready to talk about that with you right now.”
“I see you’re having a hard time, but I don’t have the emotional capacity to help you right now.”
Personal Space Boundaries“When you touch me like that, it makes me uncomfortable. If you can’t respect my personal space, I’m going to leave.”
“I’m uncomfortable when you’re standing so close to me. Please take a step back.”
Financial Boundaries“I can’t give you any money.”
“I understand you’re experiencing hardship, but I don’t have the means to support you right now.”
Sexual Boundaries“I’m not ready to have sex with you yet, and I need you to respect that boundary.”
“Here’s what I’m willing to do, and here’s what I’m not willing to do in the bedroom.” 

You don’t need to explain your boundaries or apologize for them. Note that all the examples end in a period – they’re not up for negotiation. This style of communication can be difficult to master, and it’s natural to struggle while you’re still learning the process. 

A woman crosses her arms in front of herself in defiance, setting boundaries
how to set boundaries when you’re sober

Holding To Your Boundaries

The next step is holding to your boundaries. This process begins the moment you finish setting them, as people will often push back if your boundaries get in the way of their desires. 

Essentially, holding your boundaries is the act of sticking up for yourself, and recognizing that sometimes your needs are more important than the needs or wants of others.

Remember what these boundaries are for.

They’re to maintain your mental health, to keep you sober, and to allow yourself to not take on the stress of the world. These are worth fighting for and holding to your boundaries lets you reap the benefits down the road. 

Here’s a few tips to maintain your boundaries, and make sure you get what you need to thrive in your recovery:

  1. Be consistent. If somebody repeatedly pushes back against a boundary, and you let it slide on occasion – they learn that the boundary doesn’t really exist if they fight hard enough.
  2. Don’t be vague. If something makes you uncomfortable, use the formula “When you do ______, it makes me feel ______, In the future, I’d like you to ______, or I will ______.” This clarity helps people understand what your exact boundaries are, how they can respect them, and reduces the likelihood of conflict.
  3.  Don’t be afraid to say no. This was one of the hardest things for me to learn, but “No.” is a complete sentence. It’s not your responsibility to help everyone with everything.

If you find that you’re unable to say no or struggle to hold boundaries at all with certain people, you may be in the middle of a codependent relationship.

This brings its own set of problems – and while practicing your skill of boundary setting can help, you might need to take further steps to protect your own space and energy.

Resources for Setting Healthy Boundaries in Recovery

When you need some additional support in learning to set boundaries, the best option is to reach out to a licensed therapist.

Therapists can help you determine what your boundaries are, coach you through the process of setting boundaries, and cheer you on when you succeed. Therapists are truly mental health experts and can help you in several aspects of your new life in recovery.

You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a qualified therapist who gets you, try BetterHelp. Get 10% off your first month when you click the link below.

You’re Worth the Effort 

Living with a healthy set of boundaries can help you to feel safe, reduce tension in your relationships, and help you stay on course to a long and fruitful life in recovery.

I know just how hard learning these skills can be, but the rewards are worth the effort. You are worth the effort. And ultimately, that’s what boundary setting is all about – learning to protect your space and your recovery, no matter what comes your way.

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