Setting effective boundaries is a crucial part of the recovery process. Not only can setting clear boundaries help those in recovery feel safer through their difficult transition to a sober lifestyle, but supports can also learn to set and respect effective boundaries to maintain their own mental health and self-care practices. However, boundaries can take a number of different forms and are more than providing someone with physical space during the recovery process. Understanding the purpose behind setting boundaries, talking about consequences for breaking them, and creating a clear understanding of the various types of boundaries can help those in recovery and their supports continue to focus on creating a unified front for a healthy, sober lifestyle.
How Do Boundaries Help Those in Recovery?
Boundaries are helpful in many ways to those in recovery programs. Setting clear boundaries can help an individual focus on themselves, or further shield themselves from outside stressors that may impact their recovery. Clear boundaries for one’s work-life can help mitigate the stresses of the workforce, while personal boundaries can allow an individual to continue to prioritize self-care without feeling as if they have to justify their actions, allowing each person to practice their coping skills and exploring newfound hobbies and interests.
For support systems, these boundaries can feel difficult to acknowledge. It is common that supports will want to do everything they can to help an individual maintain their sobriety. However, maintaining a certain level of distance also has its advantages. Without setting and respecting these boundaries, one’s assistance can quickly feel overbearing, and can even lead to a degree of resentment where an individual may not want one’s support if they feel it is becoming oppressive or invasive to one’s personal space.
Various Types of Boundaries
There are several different kinds of boundaries that can be set, and it is important to openly discuss each type of boundary to continue moving forward through the recovery process alongside understanding, unified supports. The types of boundaries that can be set are:
Physical: This boundary is the most common type of boundary discussed and involves addressing one’s personal space. For some, this can mean having a safe space all to their own, such as a bedroom, where they can safely and privately engage in self-care practices, and even have a degree of agency over the environment by choosing decor and resources included. Setting physical boundaries can mean retaining this agency as well as asking that one not be disturbed if they are in this space. However, physical boundaries can also be more interpersonal, such as an individual not wishing to hug another upon meeting and instead opting for a handshake or a simple verbal greeting, maintaining one’s personal space bubble in a respectful but clear way. Lastly, these physical boundaries can be more material and can include certain objects of personal importance, such as one’s phone, car, photo album, and especially a journal or art supplies or other private outlets.
Conversational: These boundaries can help define relationships. There may be certain subjects that those in recovery may not wish to talk about, or that may prompt unnecessary additional stresses, and it may be best to avoid discussing politics or other controversial subjects for the sake of this stress. Respecting these boundaries means finding new topics of conversation without prying into why an individual may not want to speak about certain subjects. If an individual is setting these conversational boundaries and is met with responses like, “Why do you want to change topics? Don’t you agree?” relationships can become stifled and even feel hostile.
Emotional: Emotional boundaries mean that there is often a time or place to talk about one’s progress in recovery. While supports may want to consistently check in on their loved ones, constant questions about one’s progress or emotions can feel exhausting. Emotional boundaries mean that talking about their recovery, anxiety, depression, or any other emotional state isn’t something that can happen around the clock. Those in recovery will also want to talk about dinner, a movie, or lighthearted interests or hobbies. Respecting emotional boundaries means understanding that there can be a set time or place for these emotionally-charged discussions and that these times can be agreed upon in order to formally separate one’s time discussing these difficult topics. Scheduled weekly meetings or family therapy sessions can help structure these emotional boundaries, and their implementation can add an air of safety to those in recovery.
Time: Setting boundaries around time means respecting that an individual in recovery may not want to join in activities, or may want some time for self-care. In practice, turning down invitations to go out or spend time with family and friends is something that needs to be respected. Time boundaries also mean that an individual may agree to certain activities, but might want to only stay for an hour or two, or that they have their own plans. Understanding that those in recovery have agency over their time is essential. While scheduling weekly meetings and family times together can help mitigate this issue, it is still important to respect another’s time even if they seem otherwise free. An individual shouldn’t be expected to overcommit or exhaust themselves and they may want to use their time to get some rest or self-care, all of which is just as important as any other activity.