Why Healthy Boundaries are Essential In RecoverySetting boundaries is an important life skill, especially for people in recovery from addiction. We all have interpersonal boundaries, and they vary from person to person. What may be appropriate behavior vis-à-vis your romantic partner could be way out of line when interacting with a stranger. These rules of appropriate behavior also vary from culture to culture and are usually acquired during childhood.
Boundaries Fade During Active AddictionBoundaries allow you to take care of yourself and live a value-based life. In the realm of addiction, these established rules of engagement are frequently ignored or willfully broken. The priority of addicted people is the continuation of substance use, not respecting other people’s boundaries—or their own for that matter. Addiction is often defined as compulsive substance use despite negative consequences. When addiction takes over, users frequently don’t care about a value-based life or taking care of themselves. They will lie and manipulate, and sometimes even commit crimes to obtain more of the substance to which they are addicted. They might trade sexual favors for drugs, which is another serious boundary violation. All their activities are focused on acquiring the next drink or dose of their drug of choice. People with severe substance use disorders not only disregard the boundaries of fellow humans but also don’t care about their own boundaries. This pathological lack of boundaries is often based on low self-esteem. “We see people in rehab who don’t respect themselves enough to think that they deserve to set boundaries with other people, that they’re not allowed to ask for what they want because they’ve done so many things to other people in their lives,” says Dino Liverano, the clinical manager of the men’s facility at Lakeview Health. Many are deeply ashamed of what they have become, yet they don’t know how to live without drugs and alcohol. A lack of healthy boundaries could also be the result of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Growing up in a household with an abusive or addicted parent is certainly not conducive to learning healthy boundaries or cultivating self-esteem. “Studies of drug addicts repeatedly find extraordinarily high percentages of childhood trauma of various sorts, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” writes Canadian addiction expert Gabor Maté in his seminal study In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. If the parents of a child with a substance use problem are not abusive or addicted themselves, different boundary violations frequently ensue. In their frantic attempts to stop the substance abuse, they often react with threats and punishments. But lecturing people in active addiction about negative consequences frequently fails as the addicted brain tends to downplay negative outcomes. Another reaction might be to protect the addicted person from the natural consequences of his behavior. Instead of confronting the disease, family members try to hide it from outsiders, making excuses for the addict’s behavior or bailing her out of trouble. Enabling behavior usually involves boundary violations by both sides. The addicted person manipulates the loved one by dishonestly promising “not to do again, if you help me just one more time.” To cover for the addicted person, the enabler often has to break their own moral code, for example, by not telling the truth. In any case, the family members of the addicted person will be severely affected by the disease of their loved one. The longer the problem is left untreated, the worse it gets.
Reacquiring Healthy BoundariesEffective addiction treatment should include rebuilding healthy boundaries—for all parties involved. The family has a central role to play in the treatment of substance use disorders. Parents and life partners have to help addicted loved ones by being compassionate supporters, ideally within the framework of professional addiction treatment. At Lakeview Health, they can participate in a three-day family workshop with family members of other patients. “Sometimes, they hadn’t realized that they can contribute to the solution,” explains Lakeview family therapist Ken Wynn, “or that they should cease to do things that contribute to the problem.” Workshop participants will leave equipped with recovery resources, information, and knowledge that will support the continued recovery of the patient. This includes instruction about boundaries. “A lot of the boundaries we’re teaching are about respecting each other. That means being honest with one another but also being assertive about your own needs,” says Sarah Franklin, the clinical manager of the women’s program, The Rose of Lakeview.
At Lakeview all treatment across the entire continuum of care is infused with three core values:
- Clear and honest communication
- Respect and trust of self and others
- Accountability for self and willingness to hold others accountable