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Setting Boundaries



Your loved one is starting a recovery journey—a mission to work on a fundamental aspect of themselves. One thing that you need to understand is that they will be different, your relationship will be different, and you will have to be different. If you are like other people that love someone suffering from addiction, you have most likely found yourself in the same insanity cycle that you have seen in your loved one, even when you are not the one abusing the substance.

Still, you show many of the same behavioral and emotional patterns characterized by a de-focus on who you are as a person instead of a fixation on something outside yourself. While your loved one is locked in on drugs as their primary motivator, you are stuck on them. Continuously worrying that you are simultaneously doing too much and not enough. Overwrought with trying to protect your loved one and hoping that reality would give them enough of a bounce to snap them out of their patterns. This exhausting cycle all the while de-prioritizing your needs and your life. 

If this sounds like you, know that you’re not alone and things are not hopeless. You got sucked into the same chaotic patterns, and it will take time, reflection, and support to recognize that your boundaries were non-existent, and the result was that you were not helping your child or yourself.  Though it is not an easy task, setting healthy boundaries is an essential part of maintaining sobriety. However, for many, especially those starting their recovery journey, establishing boundaries does not come naturally. I recently attended the Bradford Health Services Family Program. Part of the program’s teachings includes developing and putting into practice this critical skill. Here is what I learned.

What are Boundaries?

First, to understand how to establish boundaries, we must understand what exactly a boundary is. According to Oxford Languages, it is “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.” When I think about this definition, I think of fences, walls, or the lines painted on the road. All of these things mark the limits of an area, but they also help to create privacy, protection, and, most importantly, a sense of security.

Within addiction, boundaries can provide so much more. They help take the pressure of your loved one’s decisions from you, allowing you to maintain your dignity and sanity. Your loved one will also benefit from these boundaries in the long run. If set correctly, healthy boundaries will prevent you from enabling your loved one. These new guidelines may make them mad initially; however, it is usually the wake-up call that they need to get help.

Now I know what you may be thinking, “Am I supposed to build a wall around myself forever?” The answer to that question is no. Instead of walling yourself off, focus on establishing healthy guidelines for avoiding and managing awkward situations.

How do you Establish Boundaries?

Now that we have a better understanding of what boundaries are, we can begin to look at how to establish them in our daily lives. A crucial part of setting a boundary is understanding that every situation is different. In the Family Program series, setting a boundary is compared to building a fence.

Likely, someone who lives in a nice neighborhood with a low crime rate would not have a 10-foot barbed-wire fence. Someone in an area with a high crime rate may need more than a simple picket fence to feel safe. This idea often holds true when setting up healthy boundaries in life. Different situations will require different levels of rules to establish. For example, if someone is bothering you at work by talking about politics, you probably would not immediately tell them to never speak to you again. You may start by setting up your ‘picket fence’ and telling your coworker political discussion at work makes you uncomfortable. In saying this, you are establishing a respectful boundary with your coworker.

Setting these guidelines can be very difficult to do, especially when dealing with your addicted loved ones. They will not show you any appreciation for setting up these rules. In most cases, they will lash out in anger. It never feels good to set a restriction on your relationship with your loved one, but it is often necessary.

Another thing to keep in mind is the idea that other people cannot affect your boundaries. You set your own boundaries to ensure your safety. Other people may try to intrude, but it is your responsibility to make sure that you ‘build a fence’ high enough to stop this person from doing this. You cannot control others, and honestly, it is not your job to do so. Keeping this thought in mind, you need to maintain your boundary within the presence of these types of attempted trespassers.

How do you Maintain Boundaries?

Once boundaries are set, the next step is to maintain them. There will be people who do not respect the rules you have made and infringe upon them in your journey. In the Family Program, I learned that you could take four progressive steps to maintain them when this happens.

Step 1: Establish healthy boundaries. Take the time to sit down and talk with the person you need to establish these boundaries. Clearly state what is bothering you and how you will go about avoiding these things moving forward.

Step 2: Re-establish the boundaries that you have set. Take the time to repeat the guidelines that you have set to the person who has crossed them and make sure they know that they have overstepped these bounds.

Step 3: Reinforce the guidelines. For example, if you told your coworker that you do not want to talk about politics, but they continue to do so, you can tell them that you don’t want to talk to them outside of work-related issues. This new rule raises the metaphorical wall and makes it harder for your coworker to cross it.

Step 4: If reminding those who cross the line and reinforcing the guidelines does not deter their behavior, cut off contact. If they cannot respect your boundaries even after following the other steps stated, it will be healthier to keep your distance from them.

Good Boundaries to Set

Some examples of common boundaries that you can set with your loved ones struggling with addiction:

●     “No drugs are allowed around me. You are also not allowed around me while under the influence of drugs.” – You cannot force them to stop using drugs, but you can ensure that you are not involved in it.

●     “I will not help bail you out if you are arrested.” – A boundary like this will help your loved one understand that their consequences are their own. It will also take the responsibility off of your chest.

●     “I will not tolerate any more abuse.” – This applies to both physical and verbal abuse. Addicts often resort to abusive behavior when they are intoxicated. Informing your loved one that you will not tolerate it allows you to keep your self-worth. It also shows your loved one a glimpse of what you have been going through during their addiction.

Much like sobriety, the ability to set healthy boundaries is a skill that is learned through experience. Each person and situation is unique, meaning there is no single set of techniques. Develop what works best for you!

Boundaries are a difficult topic to cover, and I encourage you to seek a greater understanding than this article can provide. Our Family Program is an excellent opportunity to learn more. It provides an in-depth look at the disease of addiction and teaches people valuable skills. Skills, such as healthy communication, enabling vs. helping, and of course, maintaining healthy boundaries. Bradford hosts the program via the zoom platform in 2-hour sessions spread out over two days. Anyone is allowed to join free of charge. If you are interested in learning more about boundaries and other things to help you or your loved one in their sobriety, visit https://bradfordhealth.com/services/family-program/.