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Why are Healthy Boundaries so Important in Addiction Recovery?

Written on June 24, 2021
Why are Healthy Boundaries so Important in Addiction Recovery?

Learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries is a common part of early addiction recovery, and a key in maintaining a healthy, thriving long-term sober life. It is common for those struggling with addiction to develop unhealthy boundaries.

How do we develop unhealthy boundaries?

Unhealthy boundaries are most often a learned response stemming in early childhood. We inherit our style of setting boundaries (or lack thereof) from the experiences we have with our primary caregivers. Some parents have little to no boundaries with their children. They may be too permissive or be negligent in their supervision of their children, failing to teach them to say “no” when something is too much, dangerous, or inappropriate. In cases of abuse, a child’s boundaries are tragically violated, sending her the message that her boundaries don’t matter. Parents can also be too rigid or strict, which also fails to teach children to be flexible, listen to their intuition, and set healthy boundaries. When we develop unhealthy boundaries, it can impede our ability to take care of ourselves, ask for help, or form healthy relationships.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Boundaries

Some examples of unhealthy boundaries may include:

  • Impulsivity
  • Continuing behaviors (such as using drugs or alcohol) despite negative consequences
  • Doing things you don’t really want to do/don’t feel good about because you feel you can’t say “no”
  • Ignoring personal needs/beliefs to make others happy
  • Feeling guilty about saying “no”
  • Feeling angry, upset, or rejected when others say “no” to you
  • Having an unsure sense of self/ trying to fit into what others want you to be
  • Taking on others problems as your own, or taking them personally as “your fault”
  • Difficulty asking for help
  • Trying to force your views on others, or otherwise disrespecting the boundaries of others

Some examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Saying “no” to people or situations without guilt
  • Ability to notice how a person/situation may affect you, and articulating this clearly and unapologetically
  • Staying aligned to personal needs/values, regardless of what others think
  • Respecting when others say “no” to you, trusting that this is not an attack or rejection
  • Having a strong sense of identity
  • Security that other people’s problems are not your fault.
  • Ability to ask for help
  • Tolerance and respect for the boundaries of others

How does trauma affect boundaries?

One analogy to the affect childhood and other trauma can affect our boundaries is to think of literal red flags. A red flag will stick out to a person with healthy boundaries, alerting them to the need to be cautious or state their needs. Someone who has survived trauma or has been taught an unhealthy boundary style may see everything as a red flag (hypervigilance), being fearful, shutting down, and maintaining rigid boundaries excessively. On the other hand, they could see everything as a grey flag (hypovigilance), being too permissive and passive because they are numb to danger. Either way, they are missing which flags are true red flags, and are unable to set appropriate boundaries accordingly.

Drug and alcohol addiction can intensify both of these scenarios. Paranoia is a common symptom of cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana abuse. “Numbing out” and losing awareness of one’s surroundings are common while using alcohol, heroin, or prescription medications such as opioids or benzodiazepines. One of the primary reasons a trauma survivor may turn to drug or alcohol abuse is to cope with the stress of living in a world that feels completely and utterly unsafe. They may have been led to believe that boundaries don’t matter, they don’t work, or setting them puts them at risk for even greater danger. Rather than acknowledge the lack of safety they feel, someone may find that drug or alcohol abuse to escape the anxiety and fear that comes with feeling so utterly unsafe.

Drug and alcohol addiction further disconnects people with their boundaries

Drug and alcohol addiction is almost always rooted in trauma and/or mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. When an ability to set healthy boundaries has been disrupted, the risk of addiction only intensifies. When we feel unable to set boundaries, or when we feel that we can’t have boundaries, it makes us vulnerable to abusing drugs or alcohol in a number of ways. We may succumb to peer pressure to use or ignore the danger of risky situations while using or pursuing drugs or alcohol. In addiction, saying “no” may dissolve all together—no to that next drink because we are starting to feel sick, no to driving while intoxicated, no to using when it may interfere with the rest of our daily functioning. Addiction knows no limits.

How we develop healthy boundaries in recovery

At Flatirons Recovery, learning to develop and set healthy boundaries is an integral part of addiction recovery. One of the main cornerstones of our program is our trauma-informed approach to addiction treatment. We consider it to be of utter importance to address any trauma that may be the root cause of the substance abuse, which can include being raised in a family where unhealthy boundaries are the norm. When we identify how our unhealthy boundaries developed in the first place, it makes it possible to heal these wounds and redevelop boundaries that feel good to us. Using EMDR and other therapies, we help clients address the events and relational patterns that have hurt them and stifled their ability to listen to, and speak up for, their own needs and inner voice.

By using a strengths-based model of recovery, we guide clients in connecting with their inner strength and wisdom. It is here that they find the boundaries that feel good to them, rather than the ones we think they ought to have. Helping identify thought patterns with treatment modalities such as DBT, healing familial wounds in family therapy, fostering a sense of healthy community, building practical life skills, and developing a mindfulness practice all help a client build back healthy boundaries.

Mindfulness and Healthy Boundaries

Mindfulness, or the practice of noticing your present-moment experience without judgement, is a particularly potent tool to help reconnect with healthy boundaries in recovery. When we listen to our inner experience, we are able to attune to how we feel about a certain situation. For example, if through your mindfulness practice, you notice you feel a tightening in your chest or distracting thoughts every time you are around a certain person, you may be able to ask yourself if they may have a negative impact on your wellbeing. This information can be used to set a boundary that takes your personal needs into account. Maybe you don’t spend time with this person, or limit your time and energy with them in order to take care of yourself. This is crucial in recovery, when saying “no” to the people, places, and situations that are triggers for relapse is of utmost importance in maintaining sobriety.