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How to Set Boundaries with Family Members in Recovery

Addiction doesn’t just affect the person struggling with drugs or alcohol. Addiction impacts entire family systems and communities. If you or someone you love has struggled with addiction, you’ll know that it can have harrowing consequences for everyone.

As someone transitions from active addiction to recovery, the family system has to repair itself over time. Part of being in recovery means working towards restoring and rebuilding familial connections. As the holidays approach and families around the world come together to celebrate, it’s a good reminder to discuss why boundaries are an essential step in the recovery process.

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are the limitations you put on yourself and others to protect yourself and your wellness. This could include protecting your physical space, mental capacity, emotions, and more. Boundaries are your lines in the sand that you will not cross, nor will you allow others to push or challenge.

Everybody has boundaries. Some have firm boundaries, while others have much looser and more flexible ones. However, pretty much every single person around the world has behavior they will not accept from others. Knowing what these boundaries are is incredibly important to protecting yourself and your peace.

Boundaries are not about forcing other people to abide by behavior. You cannot control others. Boundaries, instead, are how you’ll respond if they engage in behaviors that you have decided are unacceptable. How will you react? Will you leave the situation, take a break from the person, or no longer engage with them for the foreseeable future? Boundaries are essential. However, they are not about controlling others but instead are about mindfully deciding how you will protect your peace and sobriety regardless of how others act.

How Boundaries Break Down in Addiction

Addiction is often chaotic. One of the first things to erode when someone is in active addiction is a sense of boundaries with themselves and with the family system at large. Because drugs and alcohol can make a person volatile or unpredictable, they might ignore the boundaries of others. And because families often want the best for their loved ones struggling with addiction, they may loosen or disregard their own limitations to keep that person safe.

Because every family system is unique, the boundary breakdown will look very different from one family to another and from one addicted individual to another. However, because of how family systems function, what happens to one family member will shape and impact everyone else and the family at large. Some families might even feel like they become stronger as they attempt to rally around and protect the person in active addiction. This can create codependence between family members or the entire family system.

Another common problem that many family members experience when they are grappling with addiction is enabling the addiction. Despite their best efforts, many family members will provide money, support, and an environment that keeps the person safe, but delving deeper and deeper into their habits. Most family members mean well and don’t intend to enable addictive behaviors. Their support comes from a place of love and fear. But enabling happens all the same.

Why Are Boundaries Important for Those in Recovery?

When someone enters recovery, they must take back ownership of their life from the drug, from the using culture, and from the decisions they made to stay embroiled in the addiction. This requires establishing solid and firm boundaries with themselves and those around them, including well-meaning but potentially overbearing or enabling family members.

If you are in recovery, boundaries are challenging and often require time to establish and practice. You may struggle to implement boundaries, have hard conversations, and stick to yourlimits consistently (at least at first). It does get easier over time and with practice.

Helpful tips for setting and sticking to boundaries if you are in recovery:

  • Write them down. It’s much easier to remember and stick to boundaries if they are on paper.
  • Share them with your sober support network.
  • Ask someone you trust for feedback about whether your boundaries are helpful, strong enough, or enforceable.
  • Decide what will happen beforehand if your boundaries are violated. This can even include cutting people out of your life who threaten or impede your sobriety.

Why Are Boundaries Important for Families of Those in Recovery?

Likewise, if you have a loved one or family member who is in recovery from drugs and alcohol, odds are you want the best for them and want to see them healing. You must abide by and set your own boundaries, too. When family and friends practice and model good boundaries, it also allows the recovering person to feel safe to do so as well.

Your boundaries are distinctly your own. Groups like Al-Anon stress the importance of understanding and setting boundaries with your recovering loved one. Unfortunately, boundaries can often feel cruel when you know that your loved one is in active addiction. That being said, they are still crucial for protecting yourself, your mental health, as well as their recovery.

Helpful tips for setting boundaries if you have a family member in addiction or recovery:

  • Self-care is not selfish. You have to protect your peace before you can support others.
  • Family gatherings, like holidays, will look different with the implementation of solid boundaries. Plan ahead of time for possible boundary breakdowns.
  • Taking care of someone feels like the best thing to do when they’re struggling, but enabling can often do more harm than good.
  • It’s okay to encourage and support your loved one to seek mentorship and counseling outside the family. Someone with training and experience in addiction counseling can often provide more objective help and support.
  • Family counseling is fantastic for rebuilding and repairing a family system damaged by substance abuse and addiction.

Steps to Take to Establish Boundaries

You don’t have to heal your whole family system alone. The debilitating impact of addiction on individuals and families can be a lot to navigate. Holidays are often a good reminder of this breakdown. But holidays can also be a fantastic catalyst to start making the important steps towards getting support and healing the family system. There is help for addiction available everywhere.

If you’d like to speak with a trained and empathetic substance abuse counselor about healing your family system from the impacts of addiction, you can try the 24/7 SAMHSA national hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman is a high-profile expert on addiction and recovery, making frequent public and media appearances for the last 40 years.  He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic, and the Founder and CEO of Confidential Recovery, a San Diego substance abuse treatment center specializing in helping Veterans and First Responders get and stay sober.

Scott H. Silverman

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