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A Guide To Boundaries In Addiction Recovery

Posted on June 16, 2020

A Guide To Boundaries In Addiction Recovery

When a person struggles with addiction, they may often find that their personal boundaries become ignored. These rules may cause the addicted person to behave in ways that they otherwise would not. For example, many people struggling with addiction may lie, cheat and steal to cover up their behaviour or gain access to their preferred substance.

When going through recovery, it is important for the person to have clear personal boundaries which can more easily allow them to navigate their way through recovery. In addition to this, if clear boundaries are set by loved ones, the person who is addicted will be much more likely to gain access to help.

Why Healthy Boundaries Are Essential In Addiction Recovery

One of the main reasons that healthy boundaries are so important whilst going through addiction recovery is that these boundaries can serve as a guide and bring some self-worth back to the addicted person.

What’s more is that healthy boundaries will create a feeling of stability and security, something which is often lost when in the throes of addiction. Having a healthy set of personal boundaries can allow the person the freedom to express their needs in a constructive and safe way. [1]

What Is A Personal Boundary?

A personal boundary may be thought of as a limit that we set for ourselves, in how far we will comfortably go in a physical, mental and emotional sense. These boundaries may also extend to material things, sexual boundaries and spiritual boundaries. You might think of your personal boundaries as being your ‘rules.’

Many people set personal boundaries as a way of ensuring that they do not come to any harm or find themselves in a situation with which they are uneasy. They allow you to have greater control over your personal relationships and set out clear rules as to what you are comfortable with. By setting these types of boundaries it can give you a sense of self-worth and self-respect.

Below you will see a brief summary of what each type of personal boundary might be set around:

  • Physical boundaries are to do with your body and your personal space, for example – do you feel more comfortable with a hug or a handshake when greeting someone?
  • Mental boundaries relate to your thoughts and feelings such as how impressionable or easily swayed you might be. These could also apply to your morals and how easily you might move away from them
  • Emotional boundaries allow you to set apart your own feelings from those of other people, this might translate into how you react to a person or situation
  • Sexual boundaries are to do with how comfortable you are in engaging in various sexual activities, for example, who you are intimate with and when
  • Material boundaries relate to your personal belongings, for example, are you happy to loan out items to a friend?
  • Spiritual boundaries pertain to your spiritual or religious beliefs [2]

It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong when it comes to personal boundaries, what is right for you may not be for someone else and we each have a right to stand by our own limits.

Why Addicts Tend To Have Unhealthy Boundaries

When a person is addicted to a substance, this becomes their main priority and everything else of importance in their lives will often fade into the background. Before addiction, the person may have had healthy personal boundaries which they now no longer adhere to.

The main reason for this is because people who struggle with addiction become willing to break their boundaries if it means gaining access to their preferred substance.

Addiction is an illness in which the user will ignore their own personal needs and those of others in favour of using drugs or alcohol. Quite often, the addicted person will be suffering from feelings of low self-worth and their confidence and respect in themselves will be at rock bottom.

For this reason, it is not uncommon for people struggling with addiction to engage in behaviours that they would normally be averse to. A good example of this is that an addicted person might be willing to perform sexual acts in return for money or drugs.


How To Establish Boundaries In Addiction Recovery?

Getting through addiction recovery is a difficult time for both the addicted person and those around them, so setting healthy boundaries can often be a challenge.

However, in order to get through this time successfully, it is important that all parties are honest and open about their feelings and needs. This way, boundaries can be set that is comfortable for everybody involved.

You should consider what it is that you need from the boundaries and why you are setting them, this will allow you to come up with relevant personal boundaries. It is wise to ensure that these boundaries will ensure your sobriety and will not tempt you to fall back into addiction.

Furthermore, there should be a consequence if a boundary is broken, this will ensure that they are more strictly followed and that recovery is much more likely. A good example of this is that should you find yourself in a situation where you are exposed to the substance you are addicted to – you will be aware that this may cause a relapse and you should agree to leave the situation.

Once boundaries are established it is important that you clearly communicate them with those around you and you should never feel that you are ‘in the wrong’ for doing so. For example, if you are addicted to alcohol and are invited to a friends’ birthday party which will be held in a nightclub, politely declining the offer doesn’t make you a bad friend, it puts you in control so that you can be a better friend. [3]

Can Boundaries Work In Co-dependent Relationships?

When two people are existing in a co-dependant relationship, boundaries may become much more difficult, but that is not to say that it is an impossibility. Creating boundaries in a co-dependent relationship might take a little more effort and practise than those in a healthy relationship.

In a co-dependent relationship, the couple will look for ways in which the other person can fulfil them rather than allowing them to fulfil themselves, this is not healthy behaviour and can be a difficult pattern to break free from. Being able to set yourself apart as being a different person from your partner can take time but it can be done through clear communication and honesty about how you are feeling.

Setting personal boundaries in a co-dependent relationship will allow each party to express how they wish to be treated and interacted with. This is a great opportunity to develop a deeper connection and understand the other person more.

Examples Of Boundaries In Addiction Recovery

Each person will require their own set of boundaries whilst going through addiction recovery and one of the most important first steps is to understand the needs of the individual. Boundaries for friends and family should also be taken into consideration and it is important for the person struggling with addiction to respect these as part of their recovery.

Some examples of boundaries which may be appropriate could be as follows:

  • Nobody who uses drugs or alcohol will be allowed to enter my home
  • If somebody uses drugs or alcohol in my presence, I will remove myself from the situation
  • If I get into legal trouble as a result of my addiction, my family and friends will not bail me out or provide me with legal representation
  • My family and friends will not give me money to fund my addiction and I will respect this
  • I will not take what does not belong to me in order to access drugs or alcohol
  • I will consider the feelings of those I care about
  • There will be no negative comments made about myself or other people – I will respect myself and the people around me
  • My family and friends will not lie for me

One of the easiest ways to determine what boundaries to set is to look at how various situations make you feel, if there is any unease, this is a clear sign that a boundary needs to be put into place. If you have previously found yourself in a dispute with a loved one over a particular situation such as borrowing money, this may also indicate that boundaries are needed. [4]

What’s The First Step For Setting Boundaries?

Knowing where to begin when setting new personal boundaries can be somewhat intimidating, especially if you have not had any during your addiction.

Quite simply, you should begin by asking yourself why you are setting the boundary, this will give you a clear indication as to what it is preventing. For example, are you setting it so that you do not have easy access to your preferred substance? If this is the case, you will know that breaking the boundary may lead to your relapse, and this can better help you to be mindful.

For friends and family of the addicted person, it can feel as though you are showing ‘tough love’ and this can be difficult but by establishing why the boundary is being set, you can clearly identify how this will help your loved one.

For many of those with a loved one who is addicted, they will often find themselves catering to the person needs as a way to ‘keep the peace’ or to avoid seeing the person in pain. Whilst recovery is going to present you with a different set of challenges, boundaries will help you to deal with these as they arise.

Most importantly, the first step in creating healthy boundaries is, to be honest with everybody involved and ensure that you express your thoughts and feelings in a clear yet polite manner.

What Is The Best Way To Communicate Boundaries?

When you are letting other people know your personal limits, it is most important to do so clearly and firmly. You should not be afraid to really mean what you are saying. However, this isn’t to say that you should be rude, exerting yourself in a calm, polite manner will show authority in a much better way than aggression.

There are certain ways in which expressing your needs can be made easier since it can feel as though you are making yourself somewhat vulnerable.

  • Stay with factual information rather than emotional, for example saying something like ‘If I go to the pub, there will be a temptation, we should meet in the park instead’
  • Using ‘I’ statements can be very effective in communicating your boundaries as this gives a more personal feel to what you are saying
  • You should be prepared to experience a reaction from the person you are talking to. It is important to remember that your boundaries are for you and other people may not completely understand. Remaining calm and explaining why you have the boundary in place can go a long way in gaining an understanding
  • Above all, honesty is key

The 6 Different Aspects To Have Boundaries On In Addiction Recovery

There are different areas of your life that boundaries will apply to during addiction recovery with each one being just as important as the next. These boundaries include:


You will likely spend a lot of time with your family throughout your recovery and if there are boundaries that they need to respect, you should be open in talking about this.

For example, if you have a member of the family who likes to drink a bottle of wine with their meal when you go to dine with them, you should ask them not to drink in your presence.

Explaining your difficulties will go a long way in helping them to understand the boundary.


As with your family, your friends should be aware of and respect your new boundaries. As a way of avoiding difficult situations, it is important to set clear personal boundaries with your friends at the beginning of your recovery journey.

You might also take this opportunity to reassess your social circle, are there friends with whom you used to engage in addictive behaviour?

Are these friends also going through recovery or do they continue to abuse the substance? Removing yourself from friendships which may lead to you relapsing can work well as a boundary.

Social Activity

There may be certain social activities in which you will no longer be comfortable and if this is the case, it is important to be honest with yourself and other people about this from the get-go.

Those who truly care about you will be more than happy to arrange social events at locations where drugs and alcohol are not used.


Your job may be your livelihood but it is important not to over-work yourself. If you do, you will likely be exposed to higher stress levels and this may result in a relapse.

Once again, honesty is important and speaking with your employer is essential.

Significant Other

Your partner will likely be the person who goes through your recovery with you in the most depth, therefore boundaries with this person are vital.

Gaining their support will be extremely important in remaining sober and asking them not to use drugs or alcohol around you is an important boundary which they should respect.

That being said, it is important to communicate both of your needs openly and clearly so that you can find a way to move forward and both be happy.


Throughout your time as an addict, you may have lost your sense of who you are, and now is the best time to rediscover who you are as a person. Setting limits and rules for yourself during this time is vital to your recovery.

What To Do When Boundaries Are Not Respected

There are bound to be times when your personal boundaries are pushed or ignored and it is important to know how to handle this type of situation. When your boundaries are broken this may lead you to feel tempted to go back to the substance you are addicted to but there are healthier ways in which to address this issue.

You should speak directly with the person about how you feel the boundary has been broken, using the ‘I’ statements we discussed earlier and offering clear information on how you feel will be conducive in getting the message across. On top of this, you should be prepared to distance yourself from this person if they are not willing to change their behaviour.

In addition to this, you might decide to attend a support group as a way of talking to other people who are or have been in similar situations.

How Boundaries Lead To Healthier Relationships

One of the most notable ways in which boundaries can lead to healthier relationships is that they can allow both parties the ability to express themselves and feel safe and secure in doing so. Not only this but healthy boundaries can ensure that both people in the relationship – whether its romantic, platonic or with a family member, feel a sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

With boundaries in place, each person in the relationship will be aware of what the other person expects from them and this can build trust and respect between the two parties.

Boundaries To Set When Helping Someone Recover From Addiction

When helping someone to recover from addiction, it can be difficult to transition from enabling or ignoring their behaviour to actively discouraging it. You may feel worried that you might upset the person or cause them physical or mental harm by not helping them to access the substance.

However, whilst it may be challenging, in the long term, what you are doing is going to help them and it comes from a place of love. It is important, therefore that you set clear boundaries from the beginning and express to the addicted person that you expect them to be observed.

  • No drugs or alcohol will be allowed in the house, nor will you be allowed in if you have used them
  • You will not bring anyone who uses drugs or alcohol into the house
  • I will not provide you with money
  • I will not take responsibility for your behaviour nor will I cover for you

Setting Boundaries With Your Teen

Teenagers can be notoriously difficult to set boundaries with, but expressing to them clearly that any breaking of the boundaries will not be tolerated can make all the difference.

By setting boundaries, a young person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol may begin to realise that they need to get help for their problems and take responsibility for their actions. What’s more, boundaries and consequences can allow you to feel more in control of the situation.

It is important to include your teen in the process of setting boundaries and allow them a voice, this will make them feel a greater sense of responsibility when adhering to the rules that have been set. There are a few points to consider before setting any boundaries with your teen.

  • Realise everyone’s right to their own feelings and beliefs
  • Address any underlying concerns that may affect the boundaries and allow everyone to talk openly
  • Be prepared to defend the boundaries as things may not always run as smoothly as you would like
  • Be clear on what the consequences of broken boundaries will be and stick to your guns, no matter how difficult it may seem

There are also certain boundaries that teenagers will break as a way of gaining access to something they want or simply as a result of peer pressure. This might include things such as feelings of guilt if they have to say ‘no’, giving up their personal needs to make someone else happy or feeling responsible for other people. These are all things to consider when setting boundaries with your teen.

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