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Establishing Boundaries

Establishing Boundaries


establishing boundaries-line in sand

What Are Boundaries?

Establishing boundaries is an important task for those with substance use disorders and their families.  Boundaries are limits people set in order to create a healthy sense of personal space. Boundaries can be physical or emotional in nature, and they help distinguish the desires, needs, and preferences of one person from another.  In other words, a boundary tells another person what I’m willing to accept of their behavior.  Learning how to set healthy boundaries is a frequent focus of individual counseling.  If you would like to schedule an appointment, click here

Why Are Boundaries Important?

Healthy boundaries serve the important function of allowing people to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Having well-developed boundaries can lead to healthier relationships.

An individual’s boundaries can help them to determine who to let into their lives and to what extent. Boundaries also serve to help an individual establish and maintain their own identity by creating a clear distinction between the self and others. When a person has weak boundaries, it may be more difficult to separate their own feelings from those of others.

How Can Weak Boundaries Affect My Mental Health?

Weak interpersonal boundaries often result in an individual feeling emotionally drained, used, or even violated. For example, if an individual feels responsible for helping a friend regardless of what that friend asks of them that person may feel manipulated and even resentful. Weak boundaries can leave an individual open to being manipulated and taken advantage of.

Examples of weak boundaries might include feeling incomplete without another person.  A person may  feel unable to express one’s own wishes and preferences.  They may engage in acts of physical intimacy even when they are uncomfortable or don’t feel right.  

Four Rules for Setting Boundaries

When establishing boundaries, remember to follow these four simple rules.

  1. The boundary must be clear and definable.  For example, “Don’t use drugs in my house”
  2. All of the parties involved must know of the boundary and the consequence for violating it.  It’s not fair to penalize someone when they didn’t know the rules of the game.  However, being aware of the boundary is not the same as agreeing with it.  Remember, this is your statement of what behavior you are willing to accept into your life.
  3. There must be a consequence for violating the boundary.  This is usually the point where people struggle.  Do not set a boundary that you are unwilling to enforce.  If the consequence for bringing drugs into your home is that I will be asked to leave, you need to be willing to accept that as a result I may be homeless or have to go to a shelter.  
  4. The fourth rule is perhaps the most important one.  If you are unwilling to do Rule #3, don’t bother with Rule #1 or Rule #2.  In other words, if you are unwilling to enforce the consequence, don’t bother setting the boundary.  Essentially, the first time I violate your boundary and you fail to enforce the consequence you have essentially given me permission to do it again.

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