How To Set Boundaries During Recovery

Naomi Carr
Morgan Blair
Written by Naomi Carr on 31 January 2024
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 31 January 2024

Setting boundaries is important for everyone’s well-being but can be especially important for those going through the recovery process. Understanding the different types of boundaries and how to put them in place can be crucial to building the confidence and discipline needed during this time.

How To Set Boundaries During Recovery

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are how we regulate the behaviors and actions of ourselves and others to protect and respect one another. External boundaries are the requirements we have of others’ behaviors and interactions and how we regulate and communicate our needs within different types of relationships. Internal boundaries are the expectations we put on ourselves to regulate our own emotions and actions.

Boundaries include:

  1. physical
  2. material
  3. mental
  4. emotional
  5. spiritual
  6. Internal

1. Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries are how we maintain our safety and the space we need between ourselves and others. This can include what each person determines as an appropriate level of touch and affection. For example, we might feel comfortable hugging and kissing our friends, but would only shake hands with an acquaintance.

2. Mental boundaries

Mental boundaries relate to our right to have our own thoughts and beliefs, with no requirement to tell others or share the beliefs of others. It can also relate to our right not to listen to information or opinions that feel unpleasant or upsetting.

3. Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries involve understanding that we are not responsible for the emotions of others, nor are others responsible for how we feel. Each person can control how they react to situations and regulate their emotional responses. This can also include setting boundaries within relationships that are harmful or toxic and the right to protect ourselves from them.

4. Material boundaries

Material boundaries relate to people’s right to refuse to allow someone else to use, touch, or engage with their possessions.

5. Spiritual boundaries

Spiritual boundaries involve people having the right to believe in whichever religion, spirituality, or faith they choose, without others trying to push their ideas onto them or tell them what to believe.

6. Internal boundaries

Internal boundaries are the regulations and expectations we set for ourselves. This can involve discipline and impulse control, and how we regulate our own emotions, behaviors, and actions.

Why are boundaries important in addiction recovery?

A lack of boundaries can be part of the development of addiction, with parental influences in childhood or current relationship dynamics contributing to the problematic use of substances. These relationships can also lead to a lack of confidence and self-esteem, which is also a common factor among those with substance use disorders and can require internal boundaries to rebuild.

Learning how to enforce boundaries can be crucial to recovery as it can help individuals refuse to engage in triggering situations, be dedicated and disciplined in their abstinence, and recognize how to be assertive with others without being disrespectful. This takes practice and time to learn and requires a commitment to the recovery process.

Committing to abstinence can also help lead to the implementation of additional boundaries and reinforce dedication to mental and physical well-being, such as

Boundaries can help people reclaim some of the control they have lost through their addiction, while also releasing negative emotions that have contributed to their substance use and learning positive attitudes and behaviors.

How to set boundaries

The way we set boundaries can vary depending on the situation. For example, setting boundaries with an employer may require the use of different language and openness compared to when setting boundaries with a romantic partner. However, the pathways to these boundaries are often similar.

If a situation causes negative emotions or a feeling that something is not right, this is a clear indicator that it is not healthy and may require the setting of boundaries.

This can include:

  • Say no: It is important to be clear and direct about what you are comfortable with. This can mean first recognizing when someone is asking too much of you, holding you to an expectation you cannot adhere to, or trying to force a behavior that feels unhealthy and saying no to them.
  • Be polite but assertive: Don’t be afraid to say exactly what you mean. Being direct will help others understand your boundaries and needs and help prevent any confusion or misunderstandings. This is also important to do when regulating your own behaviors. Leave no room for inner conflict or temptation by telling yourself exactly what you will and won’t do.
  • Provide alternatives: If someone asks you to do something you can’t do, you might be able to suggest an alternative that works for you so that you don’t feel you are letting them down. For example, if a friend wants to meet in a bar but you are abstaining from alcohol, you could suggest instead going for a walk or meeting for coffee.
  • Give guidelines or reasons: If there are certain behaviors or places that you want to avoid, you can explain your reasons to your friend, loved one, or employer and inform them of what you are comfortable with or can manage, so they are clear about your boundaries.
  • Use ‘I’ statements: Saying ‘I feel that…’ or ‘I need to…’ can be beneficial when explaining your boundaries to others, rather than ‘You make me feel…’ or ‘You need to…’. This can help prevent them from feeling defensive or upset and can demonstrate to others why your boundaries are important to you.
  • Explain consequences of certain actions: Explaining to someone that you will leave the room or walk away from a situation if certain actions occur is a perfectly acceptable way to demonstrate your boundaries. This shouldn’t be used as a punishment or threat, but rather a way to protect yourself from harmful situations. For example, when in recovery, it may be necessary to say that if someone drinks alcohol or takes drugs in front of you, then you will have to leave for your own sake.

What to do if someone doesn't respect your boundaries

Boundaries are crucial for your own well-being, so once they have been set, it is important to protect and maintain them while continuing to be respectful to others and their needs. If someone is not respecting your boundaries, you can:

  • Explain that a boundary has been broken and how. In some situations, the person may have just misunderstood the boundary and might appreciate the additional clarity about your needs. If they respect you, they will try to understand, reflect on their mistakes, and change their behavior.
  • When discussing this, try to remain factual and objective rather than becoming emotional. Getting upset or angry can cause the person to become defensive and may make it more difficult for them to understand.
  • If you cannot discuss your boundaries and what is needed in the situation, simply walk away. 
  • If the person continues to disrespect your boundaries after attempting to explain to them, it may be beneficial to no longer spend time with them. If they can’t respect your boundaries, they are likely to cause you physical or emotional harm from continued engagement.

Resources:

  1. Ashley Addiction Treatment. (2024). Boundaries in Recovery. Ashley Treatment. Retrieved from
  2. Stabilis Treatment Center. (n.d). A Guide For Setting Boundaries in Addiction Recovery. Retrieved from
  3. Bloomgarden, A., & Mennuti, R.B. (2010). Psychotherapist Revealed: Therapists Speak About Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy. Routledge
  4. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. (2018). Boundaries in Addiction Recovery. Retrieved from

Activity History - Last updated: 31 January 2024, Published date:


Reviewer

Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 30 January 2024 and last checked on 31 January 2024

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan Blair

Reviewer

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