Simply put, healthy boundaries means being willing to protect what matters to you while being willing to respect other people’s values and autonomy. Perhaps the most glaring characteristic of toxic and dysfunctional relationships is a lack of healthy boundaries.
One or both people in the relationship may be manipulative or abusive, disregarding the other person’s autonomy or feelings. Alternatively, a parent or spouse may be too distant, not providing the support the other person needs.
These kinds of troubled relationships are often at the root of substance use issues and long-term recovery entails improving or eliminating these relationships. This typically begins with your learning to set healthy boundaries and whether the relationship continues depends on the other person.
Healthy boundaries are a practical matter for recovery. Most people have friends and relatives who drink and most people in recovery have friends or relatives who use drugs too. Setting boundaries is necessary for all those situations in which friends and relatives might expect you to drink or use drugs.
Healthy boundaries aren’t just about resisting peer pressure. They’re also about respecting others. It’s not uncommon for people with substance use disorders to become manipulative, deceitful, or demanding when it comes to getting drugs and alcohol.
They often end up in codependent relationships, where one person is subservient to the other. For all of these reasons, learning to maintain healthy boundaries is a crucial part of recovery.
The first thing to keep in mind is that a boundary is not so much a shield as a negotiation. In other words, the goal is not only to keep people from infringing on your rights and autonomy but rather to create a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship.
That means, in addition to protecting your own values, it’s important to think about whether you are respecting other people’s values and whether you’re meeting their needs to the extent you feel comfortable with. We all need relationships just to get by and we certainly need relationships to thrive and stay sober. Good relationships involve give and take within a climate of mutual respect.
If you are going to defend your values, it helps to know what those values are. What’s so important to you that you are ready to defend it fiercely? Family? Justice? Compassion?
Taking some time to write about your values can give you clarity and increase your commitment to those values. There is even research that shows that writing about your values, an exercise called self-affirmation, can lead to a number of positive outcomes, such as making healthier choices and having better relationships.
Perhaps the most important skill for anyone in recovery is learning to say no. Although boundaries have two sides, it is often better to err on the side of protection, especially early on.
When friends want you to drink or use drugs or when someone close to you wants to put you in an uncomfortable position, saying no is your first line of defense. Unfortunately, this is harder than it sounds.
For some people, such as those in abusive relationships, there may be safety concerns. In other situations, tact is the greater challenge. Just because you don’t want to go along with something doesn’t necessarily mean you want to end the relationship. That means learning to say no in a firm but polite way.
As discussed above, boundaries have two sides and establishing boundaries is mainly about effective communication. The first step in improving your communication skills is to become a better listener. It’s important to understand the other person’s needs and motivations.
Start by giving the other person your full attention when they speak. Then, reflect back what they have told you, with statements like, “So, what you’re telling me is that—” When you make a sincere effort to understand the other person’s point of view, you are better able to know whether you are respecting their boundaries. And being willing to listen often makes the other person more willing to listen to you.
In addition to listening to the other person, listen to your gut. It’s not uncommon for people to become out of touch with their own needs and values.
The best way to re-establish that connection is to pay attention to emotional signals. If you’re feeling anxious, angry, or confused, it’s probably a sign your boundaries are being violated in some way. Use these feelings as an indication that you need to back off and think about a situation.
When communicating with others about your boundaries, it’s important to stick to describing the situation as you see it without attributing motives to others. So, for example, you might say to your spouse something like, “When you work late every night, I feel like you do it to avoid me.
I feel lonely and rejected,” as opposed to something like, “You don’t care about me; you’re probably seeing someone else when you say you’re working late.” Accusations tend to devolve into arguments rather than productive discussions.
Finally, when setting boundaries, it helps to have a strong sober network. This is especially true if you’re dealing with someone who is strong-willed or manipulative.
It can be hard to stand up to such people on your own. It helps to have validation and accountability from people you trust.
This support can come in many forms—a therapy group, a 12-Step group, a therapist, or supportive friends. A common tactic for manipulators is to keep you isolated and the antidote is to stay connected and lean on people you trust.
Healthy boundaries are crucial to a strong recovery from substance use. That means learning to stand up for yourself and say no when necessary and it also means listening and making sure you’re respecting others. This strengthens your relationships and keeps you out of bad situations.
At Hired Power, we can help you make the tricky transition back to regular life after treatment with recovery services such as case management, sober monitoring, and sober companions. For more information about these services and others, call us today at 714-559-3919.
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