boundary-fence

Boundaries Are the Gift That Keeps on Giving

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As a man in long-term recovery, I find myself incredibly grateful at the end of the holidays for the gift of boundaries. 

In the blah days of January, way after whatever holiday sparkle we were able to muster up has gone, what are we left with? Usually a bunch of stuff we don’t use or gifts we thought we wanted but aren’t as thrilled about in reality. Maybe this year left us with a deep sense of sadness about trying to celebrate in a world that currently feels broken. Or maybe, as people trying to get or stay sober, we felt relieved that we made it through a season without having to drink or use. That’s no small feat, particularly in the pandemic era. But personally, as a man in long-term recovery, I also find myself incredibly grateful at the end of the holidays for the gift of boundaries. 

COVID highlights the power of boundaries

Boundaries are wonderful things going into the holidays. You can feel free to turn down invites from toxic people, triggering booze-filled work parties, and high-pressure gift exchanges. Likewise, it’s great to have boundaries when dealing with family or coworkers who would highjack your whole holiday season if you let them. This year COVID did sober people a solid by canceling travel and in-person events. We could suddenly say “Gee, I’d love to come but you know—THE PANDEMIC.” People would nod their nods and understand. It’s sad that it took global devastation for us to collectively realize that it’s okay to say no. It’s okay to ask for what we want, and to protect our own mental and physical health. Once I got sober, I realized a huge part of my problem is my lack of boundaries.

While drinking, I always said yes to things I didn’t want to do. I was riddled with fear that if I said how I actually felt, I would be abandoned. I realized I was entirely overinvested in other people’s happiness. I had this crazy-ass feeling that I was solely responsible for them achieving said happiness. Likewise, I didn’t have any respect for the schedules and lives of others. I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t drop whatever they were doing to just hang out with me.

Poor boundaries look like agreeing with people you actually disagree with, constantly feeling taken for granted, acting passive-aggressive and manipulative, and a debilitating fear of what others think about you. I’m guilty of all of those things. Just like how I used drugs, my excessive poor boundaries were on display all at the same time. Towards the end of my use, I wanted to not drink or use drugs but my desire for love and acceptance mixed with a fear of being unwanted made me agree, time and time again, with disastrous results. 

It’s sad that it took global devastation for us to collectively realize that it’s okay to say no, to ask for what we want, and to protect our own mental and physical health.

Building better boundaries in recovery

When I got sober in 2009, I realized I needed some boundaries with the people in my life in order to stay sober. First on my list was saying no to and limiting contact with people I use to drink and use with. It was hard at first and incredibly lonely. There were about ten people I saw and drank with regularly. All of a sudden, the thing we had in common disappeared, and I felt alone. But I tried to not drink while hanging out with them and it never worked.

The next boundary I had to have was letting go of the obsession with how other people thought of me. This is a lifelong journey still even 12 years later. But in those early days, I couldn’t listen to people who wanted to tell me that I wasn’t going to stay sober or that wanted to give me unwanted advice. A lot of their opinions spawned out of fear or anger or their own issues. I didn’t have time for any of that crap. I was just trying not to drink or use, one day at a time. The last boundary I started focusing on what asking myself honestly what I wanted to do. From buying my own groceries and picking out my own movies to watch, I was taking tiny steps in being able to later ask for what I wanted in romantic relationships, my career, and in my friendships. 

Start by saying no

Yet how do we achieve these mythical magical things called better boundaries? First off, have some self-compassion if you’re newly sober or trying to get sober and you have poor boundaries. When we’re using, our whole life is out of control, so naturally, our relationship and boundaries would be too.

That’s why an easy place to start to practice better boundaries is by saying no. Next time someone asks you to do something or asks for a favor, take a pause. Inside this pause ask yourself what you actually want. Does the request feel reasonable or is it something destined to cause you discomfort? If it’s the latter, feel free to say no. In fact, you have my permission to say no. But you don’t need it. Your wants and your own personal bandwidth are important too. Saying no to something you don’t want to do now might cause feelings for the person who made the request but that’s okay. No, really! It is. Their feelings aren’t super important here. Your own recovery and mental health, however? That’s priceless and should be protected at all costs. No, for being a negative word, sure can provide you with a lot of freedom and you deserve that. 

Also, turn off your work phone on your weekends, compliment yourself instead of waiting for someone to do it, and respectfully disagree with ideas that don’t currently gel with who you are becoming. These small acts will help the gift of boundaries keep growing and one you’ll be eager to pass on to others.

Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.

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