Boundaries in Recovery – The Freedom of Setting Limits

boundaries in recovery beach fence

Look at boundaries with your loved one as if he is your neighbor …

From the presentation “Establishing Healthy Boundaries in Recovery” – Families Against Narcotics (FAN) Washtenaw County Family Forum, May 11, 2020 by Rae Green, JD, LPC, CAADC and Ellen M. Sork, LLMSW.


What are boundaries in recovery? “Boundary” is a word that has found its way into our everyday vocabulary and popular media. The concept of setting boundaries is casually tossed out to draw attention to behaviors in every corner of life. And when it comes to setting boundaries with a loved one in recovery, it can be particularly tricky.  Because setting limits means we have to address the suspicion, guilt, anger, etc. born of living with a person with a substance use disorder (SUD).


Boundaries in Recovery

boundary: noun, plural noun: boundaries 1.) a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.

The boundaries we most frequently talk about are the boundaries that set limits on others. In reality, setting limits on others is a misnomer. What we are actually doing is setting limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly. In other words, if you feel anxious, disregarded or hurt, it’s safe to assume your boundaries have been violated.


Natural boundaries are found all over the earth …

Look at boundaries with your loved one as if he is your neighbor, a neighbor who never waters their lawn. But whenever you turn on your sprinkler system, your water falls on his lawn and your own grass is turning brown and dying. He looks at his green grass and feels like his yard is doing fine. With a lack of boundaries, this is likely how your loved one’s life is. He doesn’t need to take responsibility or plan, or work, and yet has a nice place to live, as if he is doing his part.

If you define the property lines a little better, fix the sprinkler system so that the water falls on your own lawn, his lawn will start to turn burn and die and he might not like that after a while. A little boundary clarification might do the trick in having him take some responsibility.

This simple illustration about boundaries helps us distinguish our property so that we can take care of it, reduce the harm and nurture what is inside our own fences.

Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr John Townsend from Boundaries



There are a lot of parallels between the the COVID-19 pandemic and boundaries in recovery. The state governors are taking a lot of heat for setting stringent rules and trying to keep their constituents well. And when the limits are within reason, citizens live with them in order to stay healthy. COVID-19 is like an opioid overdose, while stay at home orders save lives.



boundaries in recovery fence

Boundaries help us nurture what is inside our own fences.


Characteristics of Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are rooted in the understanding that addiction is a brain disease. And the re-wiring of the addicted brain benefits from the adherence to defined boundaries.

People suffering from SUDs have a compromised ability to make decisions or commitments and follow through with them.

The ability to make sound choices is compromised or disrupted, often accompanied by heightened stress sensitivity.

Boundaries help establish a clear, fundamental point of acceptable behavior.


If what you are hearing from your loved one with an SUD doesn’t make sense, it’s likely the disease talking. If it doesn’t make sense, regardless of the rationale or justification it’s dressed in, it probably just doesn’t make sense. When boundaries begin to slip, it can often be a warning of relapse. Ellen Sork, LLMSW 


Boundaries exist to protect us, heal relationships,  and protect everyone’s safety.

And boundaries involve the re-building of trust.

No boundary is ever comfortable, it it’s too comfortable then no work is going into it.

The very nature of boundaries is designed to reduce the likelihood of enabling behaviors, because we are setting limits.

A lack of boundaries leads to trying to fix other people’s problems.

The common understanding of enabling, is when we take responsibility for another person’s harmful conduct. This prevents the negative consequences that motivates a person with an SUD to accept help. We are in fact protecting the addiction.

Ask yourself, are my boundaries enabling addiction or enabling recovery?

Boundaries can change and evolve over time, they are not ironclad.

While they are not ironclad, it’s important to set boundaries ahead of time and never argue or negotiate once they are set.

If boundaries are weak or confused it can lead to blame. What is the purpose and limit intended to serve? It is natural for the purpose and limits to change, whether someone is regressing in their healing process or advancing on their recovery journey.


Boundary Myths

If I set boundaries, I’m being selfish.

If I begin setting boundaries, my loved one will be angry and withdraw or attack me.

Boundaries mean that I am angry. (Actually, anger tells us our boundaries have been violated and serves as an early warning system. Boundaries help decrease anger.)

Boundaries cause feelings of guilt. One of the major obstacles to setting boundaries is our feelings of obligation to others.


Some final thoughts on boundaries in recovery …

Boundaries are similar to putting on your oxygen mask in an airplane before assisting others. It might feel unnatural at first, but it’s the safe thing to do. Boundaries serve to regulate our relationships with loved ones, employers, and acquaintances, because they introduce compromise. And with compromise, no one gets 100% of what they want. No one finds the process of setting boundaries easy, but if you start from a place of love and understanding, the healing can begin.


Boundaries are life enhancing and relationship building, not destructive or isolating, and while boundaries don’t ensure overnight changes, you will begin to notice positive progress in yourself and all your relationships.




Rae Allyson Green, JD, MA, LPC, CAADC, is the Founder & President of Sanford Behavioral Health. After extensive experience working in residential treatment centers, Rae sought a new treatment approach for addiction and co-occurring disorders. Together with husband, David Green, she established Sanford Addiction Treatment Centers in 2015. Their mission was to elevate the effectiveness and availability of treatment for individuals diagnosed with substance use disorders (SUDs). Today, Sanford is an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving the state of Michigan and beyond.