Make a referral

Building Healthier Boundaries in Sobriety

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!

Concerned about a loved one?​

Download our free guide about how to better support a loved one with substance use disorder.

What's your goal?

Join the 23k+ members who treated addiction via their phone

In this article

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 often equate to effectively no boundaries. And I thought, “Healthy boundaries are for the other idiots who don’t realize that you don’t need boundaries, right?!”

Except you do. I do. We all do.

Not only do we need them, but to deny that we need them is as equally dangerous as it is intellectually dishonest. Denying our 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?”


“Well, I do. Here goes. Wheee!”


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 against 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.

Sometimes it can be easier to spot unhealthy boundaries

It’s pretty easy to see what unhealthy boundaries look like. Have you ever seen (or done) these warning signs of unhealthy boundaries?

  • Going against personal values to please others
  • Allowing others to define you
  • Feeling bad or guilty when you say no and going the distance to make sure everyone knows you’re the one who says yes
  • Not speaking up when you’re treated badly
  • Giving as much as you can so that others will 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 want or feel comfortable with
  • Calling someone you just met to dump your life on them

So what do healthy boundaries look like?

At first glance, healthy boundaries can look like walls by comparison. Especially if you don’t really want to say no to a person, because they’re really nice and you want to be liked … at first, setting an appropriate personal boundary can feel like you’re blocking this person out and 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 really much like walls at all. Instead, they’re a well-paved road to maintain your sanity, your sense of self-identity, and most importantly, your sobriety. They define and protect your path without blocking you in.

Here’s a short list of healthy personal boundaries.

  • Standing by your values and personal integrity.
  • Accepting touch that you want and that feels comfortable, and rejecting touch that is uncomfortable.
  • Turning down requests that you know will take up your time, money, or energy that you need or want to preserve for other things.
  • Saying yes to keeping your recovery commitments that you know will help you stay sober and focused.
  • Recognizing that you can’t manage other people’s emotions for them.
  • Speaking up when someone hurts you—not so that you can browbeat them, but so they know that what they did crossed a line.

And so I need them . . . why?

Often people struggling with addiction discover that having no boundaries has been their norm. It’s one of the reasons many of us started using 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 substance use is that it seems to bring life into focus. 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 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, keep you safe, and keep you well. It’s just like when you were a kid, and 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.

A problem for people with substance use disorders is that when addictive chemicals hijack a brain, our sense of what’s okay and what isn’t goes out the window. Part of learning to stay sober is defining for ourselves 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. To be clear, I don’t blame them at all. It just is. I want to make people happy and make them like me.

But part of the problem of continually saying yes to everyone—doing whatever they want instead of figuring out what I want—is that in doing so, I let them define me and say who I am. But they don’t get to do that!

The only person who can say who I am is me. Period. The only person who can say who you are is you. Realize 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.

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.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. Workit Health, Inc. and its affiliated professional entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.

This site uses cookies to improve your experience. By using this site, you consent to our use of cookies.