Why are boundaries important in recovery?

In the depths of addiction, we can lose our own self-esteem. We have no faith in our ability to assess ourselves and, ultimately, we believe we are worthless.

To feel better about ourselves in this situation – if only temporarily – we seek the approval of others. 

This can become an obsession, and in the pursuit of approval, we become dishonest, inconsistent and unauthentic. 

As with any addiction, the need increases and therefore the use accelerates.

One of the major obstacles to us setting ‘safe’ and ‘acceptable’ boundaries is this need for approval.

Recovery teaches us the value of healthy boundaries, boundaries where we learn we can’t be all things to all people. It’s undoubtedly exhausting and stressful, and unfortunately, this stress leads us back to our addiction. 

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the limits we set in our lives to protect ourselves. They’re a way of remaining self-preserved and allow us to feel balanced and secure within ourselves.

Healthy boundaries are required in many areas of our lives, including:

  • Material Boundaries: You might often be asked to lend personal possessions like clothes or cars or money. It’s important to establish boundaries that you are comfortable with.
  • Emotional Boundaries: A healthy emotional boundary allows you to distinguish between your own emotions and those of your friends and loved ones.

    It’s important you do not take responsibility for the moods and feelings of other people. Equally, you should not make decisions based on other peoples’ emotions.
  • Physical boundaries: Something as innocent as a pat on the back may be uncomfortable for you, and whilst others around you seem to accept this as a mode of communication, it is okay if you don’t. Physical boundaries are vital to our mental well-being.
  • Mental boundaries: It is important to realize that your opinion is as valuable as anyone else’s, no matter who they are. Equally, you need to be open-minded to contrasting thoughts and opinions and consider them where appropriate.
  • Sexual boundaries: You are in control of your sexual boundaries. As obvious as that statement may sound, it is important that you say no when you feel uncomfortable. 

Why are boundaries important?

In dealing with addiction, we need to look at the underlying behaviour around why they even exist.

Typically, a lack of boundaries is present in some or almost all areas of our lives.

But why is it important to our recovery to maintain healthy boundaries?

  • Self Esteem: Throughout our addiction, we have come to believe that we are worthless. We have judged ourselves on our actions and often descend into a self-destructive cycle of use and self-abuse. In recovery, we look to accept the consequence of our actions. We are not defined by them.

    Boundaries are an important component in re-establishing our self-esteem. With every boundary we set, we are saying ‘I am important.’
  • Dealing with resentments: The existence of resentments is a major contributor to relapse. The book Alcoholics Anonymous regards resentments as ‘the number one offender’ in combating addiction.

    We are the creator of our own downfall. By failing to set boundaries, we are giving others ‘permission’ for their actions towards us, and instead of setting rules and abiding by them, we say nothing, get angry, and then take irrational action.

    Our inability to confront and verbalise this anger leads to resentments. Ultimately, in the absence of a healthy outlet for our anger, we return to the’ coping mechanism’ we are familiar with – addiction.
  • Boundaries allow us to be ourselves: Boundaries protect us physically, spiritually and emotionally from being manipulated or taken advantage of. It is as vital to self-care as brushing your teeth or eating healthily.

How do we set boundaries?

As with many of our behaviours, the lack of boundaries (consciously or otherwise) protects our addiction. It removes our ability to feel in control with our lives and makes us feel that the only other option is some sort of release.

Addiction tries to become our friend, even when it takes us to the depths of despair both physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Boundaries, then, are a tried and tested healing mechanism.

It is unsurprising that a certain amount of fear and trepidation is present when asked to change behaviour through setting boundaries.

We may ask ourselves ‘will people still like me?’, and ‘that seems a bit selfish?’, and ‘I want to be kind to people’. But boundaries help us help ourselves:

  • ‘No’ is okay: You need to give yourself permission to use the word no. It is not necessarily a destructive or negative word, and it allows us to feel confident in our own choices.
  • Understanding yourself: In becoming more aware of yourself and the motivations behind what you do, an inner strength can be found to make positive change.
  • Don’t anticipate: We have become used to carrying out an action with a goal in mind – to gain a reaction or achieve an outcome. In setting boundaries, we need to appreciate that how others react is none of our business and is most certainly out of our control.
  • Be Assertive: Our personal boundaries are exactly that – personal. They don’t need to be justified or explained to anyone for any reason. If something doesn’t work for you, nobody should be able to tell you otherwise.

At Camino, we look at the underlying causes and behaviours that lead to (or are the results of) addiction.

We use a diverse range of therapeutic modalities that address, encourage and support change, and ultimately, that help us set positive boundaries and overcome our addictions. To find out more about Camino, be sure to read our blog

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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