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How to Master Boundaries in Recovery

Those with an addiction—and their loved ones—must establish shared expectations.

Key points

  • Returning home from a treatment program can be incredibly difficult without healthy boundary-setting, an essential sober skill.
  • Upon completing addiction treatment, people must set physical, mental, and emotional boundaries with their loved ones.
  • Boundaries can range from keeping alcohol out of sight at home to cutting off contact with others who do not support a new, sober lifestyle.
  • Family members may need to set their own boundaries at home with loved ones returning from addiction treatment.
Parents lend support to their son.
Source: Motortion/iStock

“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who benefited from you having none.” —Unknown

Boundaries are a necessary concept to evaluate and reevaluate throughout any stage in one’s life to maintain healthy and safe relationships. When someone is just getting out of substance abuse treatment, boundaries are arguably one of the most critical practices to master, other than physically not using drugs or alcohol.

The term “boundary” is defined by Lexico as both “a limit of something abstract, especially a subject or sphere of activity” and “a line which marks the limit of an area; a dividing line.” When discussing boundaries, both definitions are essential and relevant, as they each define different types of boundaries; one refers to emotional and mental boundaries and the other defines physical boundaries. While the concept of boundaries is fairly well known, this article will look at how people recently out of treatment can set boundaries and how their loved ones can do the same during their own parallel process of recovery.

Going to treatment for substance use disorder can be one of the hardest and scariest decisions someone must make. What people often don’t realize is leaving treatment is generally the most intimidating part. Understanding what those boundaries are and what boundaries need to be set can give someone a leg up in their transition back to “the new normal." Below are just a few boundaries that are key to highlight.

Physical Boundaries

1. Home Life: When someone leaves treatment, they are often faced with returning to a home that may not have had the best living conditions for someone in early recovery. Therefore, it is important for one to establish what their physical home life will look like post-treatment. Will they be okay with others having alcohol or unlocked prescription medications in the home? Did living alone prior to treatment cause them to feel isolated and alone, triggering them to use substances as a result? If so, they may need to search for sober living environments or find a roommate to help avoid that trigger.

2. Health: Listening to one’s body is an example of a physical boundary. Understanding when the body needs to eat, drink water, or rest is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle, which is key for early recovery. Overworking, not getting enough rest, or being dehydrated can all be reasons for one to not feel well and experience a break in routine. Therefore, one must identify their physical boundaries so they can properly communicate them to their family, friends, and even employer to manage expectations of boundaries upfront.

Mental/Emotional Boundaries

1. Communication: When someone is in treatment, they are not accessible 24/7 to everyone in their life. As soon as the person leaves, that changes with cell phones, texting, emailing, and social media at their disposal outside of the treatment “bubble." However, being accessible 24/7 can be exhausting and take a toll on anyone’s mental health.

To set boundaries, a person leaving treatment should ask themselves the following questions: “At what point will I no longer respond to a text message?” “What social media platforms will I continue using?” “Which people will I block or cut ties with who no longer serve my journey of recovery?” It is also imperative that these boundaries are communicated with friends, loved ones, and co-workers in order to manage expectations. If people are unable to honor these boundaries, it might be time to look at whether they are conducive to this new lifestyle.

2. Relationships: Being able to identify what one will and will not accept in a relationship (familial, romantic, or friendship) is important to identify prior to leaving treatment. First, the person completing treatment should identify which people they want to continue to have in their life. Next, they should understand the difference between their problem and someone else’s and establish the line between the two. This is often the most challenging of boundaries to identify and set because it changes depending on each person in one’s life and what feelings are associated with them.

No matter what boundaries are established, no one should be manipulated, taken advantage of, have their time wasted, or allow someone to speak disrespectfully to them. No matter how much guilt a person in recovery may have about their actions during active use, they do not need to make up for the past by acting as a punching bag for others upon leaving treatment. It is key to identify whose boundaries to respect and whose are not as meaningful in their new life, as not everyone can be pleased, and trying to accommodate everyone will only be a trigger.

Boundaries for Families

While it is imperative for someone leaving treatment to know their own boundaries, at the same time, they should consider that prior to receiving treatment, there were most likely boundaries broken and relationships compromised when they were active in their substance use disorder. Families, loved ones, and co-workers may set boundaries when one returns from treatment, and that’s okay. Trust will most likely need to be regained and because of that, boundaries should be set by all.

A successful recovery from addiction is often dependent on establishing and prioritizing healthy boundaries during and post-treatment. This holds true for the person receiving treatment along with the family and friends of that person. Shared expectations and mutual respect form the foundation of any satisfying relationship, which is paramount for a fulfilling life.


Lexico. (n.d.). Boundary. In dictionary. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from