Building Healthier Boundaries in Sobriety

Walls? Nope. Just well-defined paths and gates.

If you’re like me, the gap between healthy boundaries and unhealthy boundaries isn’t at all difficult to measure. Unhealthy boundaries generally equates with no boundaries. And, well, healthy boundaries are for the other idiots who don’t realize that you don’t need boundaries!

Except you do.

Not only do you need them, but to deny that you need them is as equally dangerous as it is intellectually dishonest. Denying your need for boundaries is to deny the immutable law of gravity. Kind of like this . . .

“Hey, why don’t you jump off this skyscraper?”

“Good idea! I love that feeling of falling. Don’t you?”

“No.”

“Well I do. Here goes. Wheee!”

Splat.

Defining healthy personal boundaries is the way, metaphorically speaking, not to go splat. Personal boundaries allow you to respect yourself and to voice to others that you alone can define who you are—others don’t.

What’s more, setting healthy boundaries goes hand in hand with not just attaining sobriety, but also with the daily maintenance of self-respect and self-understanding. Translate: you’ll stay sober longer and with more fulfillment if you learn to preserve your integrity. Beyond that, you’ll see that life itself is more fulfilling. Lastly, establishing boundaries doesn’t necessarily mean putting up walls to the rest of the world—it just means that you respect yourself enough to know that relationships and life’s priorities don’t dictate your identity.

Remind me what healthy boundaries are.

It’s pretty easy to see what unhealthy boundaries look like. Have you ever seen these signs?

  • Going against personal values to please others

  • Allowing others define you

  • Feeling bad or guilty when you say no and going the distance to make sure everyone knows you’re one who says yes

  • Not speaking up when you’re abused, verbally, emotionally, or sexually

  • Giving as much as you can so that others like you

  • Falling "in love" with someone you barely know or who reaches out to you

  • Letting people make advances that you actually don’t feel comfortable with

  • Calling someone you just met to dump your life on them

Healthy boundaries, in comparison, often at first look like walls. You don’t really want to say no to this person, because, they’re really nice and you want to be liked. Setting a appropriate personal boundary feels like it’s blocking this person out and you’re just being a jerk.

But that’s not actually the case at all. You not only have the right to establish appropriate boundaries, you also truly owe it to yourself to define a path to self-respect. Healthy boundaries aren’t like walls. Instead, they’re a well-paved road to maintain your sanity, your sense of self-identity, and most importantly, your sobriety.

Here’s the short list of healthy personal boundaries.

  • Touch that feels uncomfortable, probably is. And you feel that way because someone crossed a line. It’s on them, not you, to respect yourself.

  • It’s on you to say, “Hey. That’s not okay.”

  • Saying no to requests that you know will take up your time and energy.

  • Saying yes to keeping your appointments that you know will keep you sober and focused.

  • Speaking up when someone has hurt you—not so that you can browbeat them, but so they know what they did crossed a line.

And so I need them . . . why?

Often people struggling with addiction find that having no boundaries is the norm. It’s one of the reasons we started abusing drugs or alcohol in the first place. Our sense of self-worth has been distorted and an appropriate sense of perspective has fallen out of whack. What’s devious about addictive drugs is that they seem to bring life into focus and we feel like we’ve got everything together, when actually, we’re letting an artificial chemical define who we are.

Amazingly, we often let other people define us, too. This happens often, and manifests itself in unhealthy addict-like behaviors. 

If you’re just beginning to find the golden path to real recovery, you need to understand that boundaries are there to keep you alive. It’s just like when you were a kid, your mom told you not to touch a hot stove. It wasn’t because she was mean; she didn’t want you to hurt yourself.

The problem with addicts is that when addictive chemicals hijack a brain, their sense of what’s okay and what’s not goes out the window. Part of learning to stay sober is learning that, in other parts of your life, you have established what’s okay and what isn’t.

Trusting and believing in the power of  “no”.

This last point maybe is the toughest for people who are like me. I’m a people-pleaser. I honestly believe that I got this way because I wanted to please my parents. I don’t blame them at all. It just is

But part of the problem of continually saying yes to everyone is letting them define you and say who you are. But they don’t get to do that!

The only person who can say who you are is you. Period. You may find it helpful to submit to a higher authority, whether that be God, or a healthy life path. Realize though that anyone who tries to you to fit into a box you don’t want to fit into isn’t an authority worth keeping in the first place.

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Daniel D. Maurer is a freelance writer, an award-winning Hazelden author, and a public speaker on recovery from addiction. He lives with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota.