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Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

“Boundaries” is a word you might hear a lot in recovery from an addiction - but what exactly are healthy boundaries, and why are they so important for our ongoing addiction recovery?

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are limits we set to keep ourselves safe, and to let others know what we expect and are comfortable with when in relationship with them. Boundaries can be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Personal boundaries are kind of like a the fence that runs around the outside of our house - it’s there to keep the people and things we care about safe inside, and it also keeps people and things we don’t want safely outside. Everyone’s boundaries are different, based on their lessons from childhood, past experiences, beliefs, values and opinions.

Why are boundaries important for addiction recovery and every day life?

Boundaries are important for keeping us safe, and for letting others know what we will and won’t accept or tolerate. Boundaries operate in two directions - incoming and outgoing. Another way of looking at them is that they protect us, and they contain us. A protective boundary might be “Please don’t stand any closer to me” and a containment boundary might be “I don’t want to talk about that subject”. Boundaries are especially important if you are in recovery from an addiction; they help you look after yourself and keep yourself safe from relapse.

What’s the difference between a boundary and a rule?

A boundary is about ourselves - we set and maintain boundaries for our own good. A rule is something imposed on us by someone else. For example, a boundary might be “I'm going to go to bed early this evening because I'm so worn out” and a rule might be “In our house, children have to be in bed by 10pm so they get enough sleep to function well”.

What’s your style of boundary?

There’s 4 styles of boundaries - we can all move between the different styles depending on the situation, context or mood we’re in - but usually we lean towards one style. The styles are;

Soft or thin boundaries

Can be “leaky” - can share too much information about themselves or others

Can act “needy” at times

Can find it very difficult to say no

Can accidentally breach other people’s boundaries without realising

May find themselves being taken advantage of

Merges with others and loses independence (co-dependent behaviours)

May attempt to “save” or “fix” other people frequently

“Everything gets out, everything gets in”

“No filter”

Rigid or thick boundaries

Walled off or shut down to ensure no one gets too close, physically or emotionally

Find it hard to trust

Don’t share a lot about themselves

Can act “needless” at times

Can tend to cut people out easily and frequently (anti-dependent behaviours)

Have firm ideas about how they and other people should act

“Nothing gets out, nothing gets in”

“Blocked filter”

Spongy or porous boundaries

Unsure what to let in and what to keep out

Can feel “hijacked” easily

Can have very clear boundaries which become “trampled on” or dropped easily

Can swing between acting “needy” and “needless”

Swings between soft and rigid boundaries

May have a moment of letting too much in or out (soft), then feels embarrassment or guilt, and shuts down or shuts people out (rigid)

“What gets in and what gets out changes all the time”

“Patchy filter”

Flexible or healthy boundaries

Can say no when necessary, and tolerate being told no by others

Takes responsibility for getting their needs met in appropriate, mature ways

Asks for help when needed, but can be independent as well

Can clearly and moderately express their limits

Is comfortable saying “I’m not sure about that - let me think and get back to you”

“I control what gets in and what gets out in a moderate, considered way”

“Effective filter”

How to set healthy boundaries

So, if you’ve identified which boundary-style you lean towards and you think you'd benefit from some change - how do you begin to start setting and maintaining healthy boundaries?

Start tuning in to your inner-self more often with mindfulness activities. This will help you begin to better understand what your boundaries are, and when they are being violated by yourself or others. Click here for some ideas about mindfulness and addictions.

Prioritise self-care. Spend time alone looking after your basic needs, such as eating well, getting enough sleep and organising your life.

Prioritise self-exploration. What are the people, places and things that test or push your boundaries? What are some creative ways to protect yourself while remaining open?

Reserve the right to say “I’m not sure” or “I’ll have to get back to you”. Let others know that you’ll need time to think before making decisions.

Talk to a counsellor about boundaries. Talking to someone objective who can help you reflect on your boundaries and where they might cause difficulties for you can be hugely helpful.

As you can see, boundaries are vital for your safety and wellbeing. If you'd like more information and support with setting and maintaining boundaries, please be in touch and I'd be happy to help.

Until next time,



The content of this blog is based on our counsellors' academic and clinical experience, but does not constitute therapeutic advice. This blog is intended as general information about counselling, psychotherapy, addictions and mental health issues only. For specific treatment related to you or someone you know, please contact us here to discuss your needs.


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