Addiction and Boundaries

February 17, 2020

Where would any of us be without boundaries? 

We need them if we are to have healthy and rewarding marriages, other relationships, friendships, and lives overall.  Think of boundaries as standards to follow for acceptable behaviors, to meet responsibilities, and to take appropriate actions.  They generate value for us and help ensure that we continue to contribute to our many communities, and experience fulfillment in living.

With addictions, especially those categorized as severe, boundaries quickly deteriorate then disappear altogether.  With those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, the priority becomes continuous substance use that results in complete neglect of their own and others’ boundaries, regardless of negative consequences.  Their and their loved ones’, their coworkers’, and their communities’ boundaries are constantly violated.

For those in recovery for alcohol or drug addiction, an essential boundary is to abstain from using alcohol, other illicit drugs, and non-prescribed medication.  For them and all those that their addiction has affected, other informed, healthy choices – boundaries – have to be formulated and made.  These include guidelines that clarify thoughts and opinions; parameters that keep us safe emotionally and allow for the fair exchange of feelings; and structure that ensures physical safety, e.g., that specifies physical space factors.  Key to effective boundaries is assertive, direct communication that defines limits.  Healthy boundaries also are flexible in that they allow for seeking support if and when necessary.

Setting boundaries isn’t easy for those recovering from addiction or those affected by it.  It’s not unusual to have to overcome the fear of others’ reactions to boundaries, or of being afraid of appearing uncaring or ‘cold.’  Too, often the thought of deciding on boundaries leads one to think they are building unyielding barriers that prohibit changing for the better.   

A time-honored tradition for those in treatment and continuing recovery in association with the philosophy and practice of the 12-Step program speaks to these challenges.  It entails the awarding of a 12-Step coin, the back of which reads, ‘To thine own self be true.’  Achieving the restoration of self and establishing healthy boundaries while in treatment and continuing in aftercare and beyond is fundamental to making and keeping boundaries.  The same holds true for whoever is affected by one’s addiction.  Finding and retaining one’s true self lays the groundwork for establishing and maintaining boundaries that sustain continued growth and improvement in one’s health and wellness. 

Clear boundaries create an environment of honesty, mutual respect, and understanding.  Without them, those recovering from and an addiction and those affected by it may lack the framework and resilience they need to stay balanced and manage the ‘ups and downs’ that are an inevitable part of recovering from addiction.  Simply put, they are an essential part of successful recovery, and crucial to avoiding relapse for those addicted and the recurrence of frustration and defeat for those the addiction also affects.


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