I want to talk about shifting boundaries in sobriety. Getting sober is not for the faint-hearted if drinking has been part of your life for years. The first time I even considered that boundaries were part of my problem was during my sobriety. But first, a story for you.
I met a woman this year who lives in Maine, USA. We met online when she reached out for some coaching help. We had several Zoom meetings and she told me that she was drinking what she called “cocktails” most nights of the week. She drank with her husband. She worked for her husband too. They lived alone and their job was to renovate homes.
This woman (let’s call her Sylvie) started to feel uncomfortable with her drinking. She felt that she was changing and not coping anymore with the alcohol: she woke up in the mornings feeling groggy, hungover, and guilty. She did not want to drink every night, or even a few nights. She wanted to take a break.
Self-Discovery is the Start
And that is when the issue of boundaries arose. Sylvie’s husband encouraged her to drink. He also begged her to work for him. She stripped wallpaper, carried huge loads, moved building materials, and painted walls. Her household chores took a back seat. Her hobbies were put on the shelf. The dogs went without walks. And Sylvie’s discomfort increased. Until she started to look at her values and her personal history.
The big Aha moment for Sylvie was to discover that she was of value to herself and others, that she had so much value to offer the world. The second Aha moment for Sylvie was reminding herself from whence she came: a childhood filled with trauma where she was one of the middle kids in a family of 6 kids when her parents got divorced. She felt identity-less at the tender age of 10. It was a messy divorce and her mom had to bring up the 6 kids alone.
Sylvie married a man who was very controlling and narcissistic, and she divorced him to raise her own two kids alone. Then she met her second husband, whom she lives with in Maine, and her own kids are older now, with their own families to worry about.
Sylvie is an introvert, and her self-esteem took a huge dive. Why am I telling you this? Because Sylvie had never known that there are boundaries in life and in relationships. And boundaries have a huge say in who we are at the end of the day!
Boundaries keep us Safe and Authentic
I encouraged Sylvie to focus on HER values, HER needs, and HER benefits to those around her. I sent her articles to read about boundaries and exercises to do. The outcome? Sylvie stopped drinking. She drew up new and brave boundaries to boost her own self-esteem: she told her husband that she was not drinking with him. She told her husband that she was not working for him full time.
And she gave herself some gifts: 2 mornings off a week to journal and listen to podcasts, to walk the dogs, and to do her own things. She gave herself the gift of exercise in the form of pickleball and yoga and she organised some pottery lessons to enhance her creativity. When Sylvie went out socially, she managed very well with lemonade or a mocktail. Sylvie found a balance in her life, and she learned also how to say no to alcohol.
What is the moral of the story? YOU are important! YOU need your own space to get sober and to cope in your life. Let’s look closer now at what boundaries are and how we can set good boundaries to assist us in our recovery.
Did you know that all of us need to understand and establish clear and healthy boundaries if we want to live clear and healthy lives? Boundaries enhance your life vision which clear the path for you to attain all your personal goals. This applies to both your personal and working lives.
What is a Boundary?
This is the space between you and another person – that physical space which is also an emotional space. This is kind of like your aura – it is where you end, and another person begins. Have you ever got that feeling that you need to take a step backward when you are in a room and standing beside other people?
Sometimes there is the feeling that if someone steps over that boundary or space, there will be negative repercussions. Many of us have a boundary that keeps us who we are. When someone breaks that boundary, we turn into someone we don’t want to be! It is the emotional space where you can retreat to be who you are without the pressures of a social outside world.
I must say, I get really resentful when someone oversteps my boundaries. I only realised that I was allowed my boundaries until I stopped drinking. While drinking, I was able to let things go, to allow people to take advantage of me and my space. Then, when I started to live life in the raw, to see and to feel, without the wine, I got deeply resentful of people close to me who were violating my personal space!
Yes, our boundaries are that emotional and physical perimeter of our lives which are violated when we are abused either verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually. It hurts!
Self-Care Means Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are one of the main ingredients of self-care. Without this crucial ingredient, the cake will flop: the results are dangerous to our health. The effects of having no or weak boundaries are: burnout, stress, relationship problems, money problems, time issues, and dis-ease.
Setting boundaries is one part of self-care and self-care is all about making time for YOU: relaxing with a book, taking a walk, going to the gym, lying in a hot bath, going for a massage, journaling, studying something interesting, and eating healthy foods.
We can set different boundaries for different relationships at home, with partners, with friends and at work. What happens then, when we stop drinking after a life of drinking? As I mentioned earlier, when drinking, I ALLOWED people to walk all over me because I could hide behind the wine.
It is a fact that people who do too much of anything (drinking, taking drugs, eating sugar, exercising) tend to have weaker boundaries than a balanced individual who does everything in moderation. Remember that when you get sober, you are no longer that person who you were when drinking. You are learning and growing and realising so much about your own self-worth.
Threats to our Boundaries
Threats to our boundaries when we are in sobriety include those friends who will continue to convince you to have a drink come on! And those friends who pressurise you into doing those things you used to do when drinking or drunk. How will they react when you say no? Will they think that you are being rude or pushing you away? Or are you merely setting healthy boundaries to enable your sobriety to become an autonomous, happy individual?
According to Restoration Therapy, some people simply will never respect your boundaries. Those people may become your ex-friends. I lost a few friends along the way of my sober journey. And I had to push away family members too. Now, 6 years later, I am re-establishing those broken bonds and finding that we all come from a complex life, and we can all understand each other and our individual needs for personal boundaries!
Tips to Maintain Healthy Boundaries in Sobriety
- Hold onto your own beliefs and values: write a list of your values and beliefs. Stick them on your wall. If you really believe in yourself, you will not allow others to tread on these beliefs and values.
- Respect yourself. Give yourself lots of love and appreciation by using affirmations and practicing self-care.
- Say no when you mean no: saying yes when your gut says no is allowing people to step over your boundaries. A simple example in sobriety is to say no to an invitation that involves alcohol.
- Say how you feel: tell those who ask about your attitude why you are making such decisions. State clearly why you are behaving like this or making these choices. “I am sober now, I do not want to go to the party, thank you. I so prefer my book and a hot chocolate now!”
- You don’t need to talk about your past until you are ready. If you have stopped drinking, it is no one’s business but your own and you can share your story when you are ready.
- Say no to money offered from family to get you on your feet again – try to earn money alone if that is what you need to do.
- Ask people not to drink around you if that is what you need. The same goes for a cigarette smoker who must smoke outside: ask your partner not to drink at home if that is what you need to recover.
Do this exercise now:
Think of someone with whom you battle to set healthy boundaries. This could be your partner, your boss, your employee, a parent or your child. Ask yourself:
- Which boundaries are missing: physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, material or time?
- Are the boundaries healthy, inflexible, or full of holes?
- What specific actions can you take to improve these boundaries?
- How do you think the other person will react to these changes?
- How will your life change with these healthier boundaries?
If you are like this, your boundaries are weak:
- You force everyone to do the same thing and follow the rules. You force your family to do things without allowing them to be individuals with unique personalities
- You tend to blank out when things get emotional, and you just tell yourself that it does not matter. You try to ignore an event that impacts you emotionally and you tell yourself to just be strong. This kind of blanking out means that you just remove yourself from feeling your real feelings and then you may simply not remember what happened.
- You and your family detach completely from one another and there is no real emotion between anyone. There is a lack of desire to form unions or to come together lovingly to share. This is called excessive detachment, and everyone is over-independent. You fear the loss of identity, so you just carry on when you know that this is just not normal behaviour.
- Being a victim or a martyr is a common issue with people who let their boundaries fall. You see yourself as a victim and defend yourself in that role. You accept being a victim and a martyr and you want others to see that in you.
- You develop a huge chip on your shoulder – you have this aura that you dare people to get close to you and then you chase them away. You are still angry that your boundaries were previously violated, and you take this out on others.
- You try to be invisible by never sharing your feelings, being over-controlling towards yourself and others and no one ever knows your thoughts or feelings. You hide all your feelings and yourself so that your boundaries are never broken again.
- You become aloof and shy because you have always been ignored or under-valued. You have been rejected so now you reject others, and you rarely allow people into your space. You keep looking inward instead of outward.
- You become cold and distant because you have been hurt and you build huge walls around you. This is a defense mechanism to avoid pain and hurt.
- You find that some people try to smother you to try to help you, but this makes you even more retreating and uncomfortable and you even feel as if you are being strangled. You end up feeling violated or used or overwhelmed.
- When you feel that you do not have any privacy, that you have to tell everyone about your every movement and thought, you feel constrained and as if your space is always being controlled and invaded. You need to be you!
This is how you can strengthen those boundaries:
Say how you feel. State your needs. Set a boundary firmly, clearly, and respectfully. Use few, strong words. There is no need to feel anger or to have to justify these boundaries. If you apologise for setting boundaries, then you are sending mixed messages.
A sign that you need to set boundaries is the way you are feeling: resentment is a big one, anger, whining or complaining, being a victim. Listen to yourself, tune in to your needs. Find out what you need then state it assertively.
I love this advice from Positive Psychology:
Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. Set them in your own time frame, not when someone else tells you. Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic persons from your life—those who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you.
At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway and remind yourself you have a right to self-care. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety, fear or guilt prevent you from taking care of yourself.
Now you try! If you need support or help along the way in your sober journey, contact Tribe Sober today and become a member. Remember that connection is the antidote to addiction!