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How I Learned to Set Boundaries That Bring Me Peace and Wellbeing

Freedom - Arms extended

Part 2 of a 2 part series (read Part 1 here)

"We can say what we need to say. We can gently, but assertively, speak our mind.
We do not need to be judgmental, tactless, blaming or cruel when we speak our truths."

~ Melody Beattie

As I have written previously, I am not a professional and I would never presume to understand each individual or family situation. All I can do is share with my readers what I have learned in my long and complex journey.

The disease of Substance Use Disorder (SUD) was the chaos and despair that exposed how flawed I was at setting boundaries, but it was also what forced me to examine and improve on those flaws.

Through this learning process I have found an inner strength and calmness. My newly found skill of setting boundaries with quiet conviction has also spread into all aspects of my interactions and relationships with others, not just my Loved One with SUD. I have seen improved communications and relationships with everyone I am connected to.


Here is what I have learned about setting effective boundaries in my own life:

  1.  Pay attention to the motivation behind your boundary.

The goal of a limit should be based on your needs and not on the expectation of a particular behavior from the individual the limit was conceived for. Early on, I found this concept daunting and difficult to adhere to. I still struggle with it but, once I understood it, I found a lot more success in setting appropriate boundaries.

I learned to question my motivation for a limit: am I trying to get someone to do something (manipulating)? Or, am I simply keeping my own values and morals in place? Is the boundary solely for me?

An example of setting a boundary based on personal ethics is refusing to give my Loved One cash because I don’t want the money to be used for drugs. Not to prevent my Loved One from using. The result may be that my Loved One has less access to drugs, but that is not the motivation behind the boundary. By doing this, the boundary setter takes ownership of the limit. It defines the boundary setter’s actions not the Loved One’s.

There is always hope that the person receiving the limit will behave in a particular manner, but the boundary is still effective even if the person does not. In the example above, of course I may hope my Loved One has less access to drugs, but even if they do still find drugs, my boundary is still intact because it was not my money that was used.

  1. When setting boundaries, make sure they are realistic.

Again, this is another guideline that took a lot of work on my part to get better at. So many times, in the heat of a moment, I would declare extreme rules that with careful thought, I might not have. Examples include, “You can never come back here, EVER!” or “If you take off again, I won’t pay for your phone.” Because these rushed emotional rules were not reasonable, I was less than likely to enforce them.

The limits became very destructive and had the opposite effect I was hoping for. These empty threats basically said to my Loved One, “I am angry, I’m frustrated, but don’t worry, I will settle down and you will be able to do what you want without consequences.” What incentive does my Loved One have to change? Really, I am teaching my Loved One to manipulate me!

Conversely, when I implement well-thought-out limits that I am more capable of sticking to, I inspire change in the response to my boundaries, and I get better results.

Alternatives to the above threats could be: “I feel sad and it hurts me when you are using, so you cannot be here when you are high. We can talk again when you sober up.” In the second example I would leave the phone completely out of it. I might let them leave so we could both calm down. Honestly, in the past I wanted to keep the lines of communication open, so taking away the phone was an empty threat.

When we do not follow through with the boundaries we have established, there is a second underlying negative message sent to the receiver. We are implying our Loved One is not capable of respecting the boundary. We are basically saying, “I don’t think you can do it.” And, if they are incapable, then they have to depend on us to take care of them and their problems. This could result in the lowering of their self-view. Instead of empowering our Loved Ones and letting them know we believe in them, we are acting as a barrier to their progress.


  1. Boundaries are fluid. They are YOUR boundaries!

What keeps me safe and helps me hold to my ethics, beliefs and morals changes overtime. So, my boundaries are also going to change overtime. I had to learn to give myself permission to change my boundaries.

Many families I have talked to have laid out a boundary for their Loved One but found it was not working. They worried that they were bound to the original limit and would almost be breaching a contract by changing it. I suspect there are two reasons for this: 1) they don’t believe they have the right to change it and 2) they are afraid of conflict with their Loved One.

YOU DO HAVE THE RIGHT TO CHANGE A BOUNDARY! They are your boundaries, you can do whatever you want with them. If they are not working, change them, get rid of them, or firm them up. If you had a business and needed to change a policy to make your business more productive, you would change it, wouldn’t you?

If we avoid changing an ineffective limit for fear of conflict and pushback (it is going to happen with SUD), we are not allowing natural consequences to occur. Dodging the chaos is a momentary protective mechanism for us but, in the long run, we are actually just prolonging the inevitable. I am guilty of this offense and had to work hard to change this about myself. I still struggle with my feelings and my need to avert friction. I find it helpful, when this happens, to start practicing other skills—outside of boundary setting—I have been working on.


4. Boundaries should not be created out of FEAR.

I am going to have to be open and raw about boundaries and fear because it is only through facing fear that I was able to improve on boundary setting. Anytime I created a boundary out of fear—and with SUD we are talking the Ultimate Fear—I was manipulating and trying to get my Loved One to behave in a particular way.

When I created rules out of despair and angst, I was placing the responsibility for relieving my feelings onto my Loved One. Their actions determined my feelings. Then I learned that taking care of my feelings is actually my responsibility. Depending on others to soothe my feelings leaves me out of control and helpless.

This is where facing the fear became an important part of my process to becoming a healthy person. A pivotal understanding for me was that awful consequences including death are possible, whether I've set boundaries or I haven't.

This new awareness, combined with realizing my boundaries were weak and inadequate, prompted a need for change. Nothing changes if nothing changes.

I might as well try to create a safer environment for myself. If I want to feel better I am going to have to go and do the work. By creating self-protective boundaries, I was also creating an environment for my Loved One where I was sending the message: "I believe in you," (even when I waivered in those thoughts). Both my Loved One and I reap the benefits of my healthy boundaries.


5. The best boundaries are those unspoken.

I found that if I could set a boundary down without stating it to my Loved One, then usually I was following all of the above guidelines.

For example, if I observe an argument between my Loved One and another person, I may want to jump in to lessen the chaos. Maybe I'm hoping that intervening will “help” or teach them a better way to communicate. After all, I have experience and know what is best, right?

However, I choose to stay out of it. By not interfering, the action of the boundary is mine. I own the limit. I do not expect any particular behavior from my Loved One and at the same time I send the message that even without my interference, they can find a solution to the problem. I am handing off the baton and letting my Loved One know I believe they are capable of handling it. I move out of the way of their learning. I allow them to take ownership of the problem and the solution.

Many boundaries cannot be unspoken but I've learned to use the fewest words possible while still being clear about what I require. For some strange reason I have found that the fewer words I use, the more my Loved One knows I mean what I say. I am sure you have heard, “'No' is a complete sentence."

Let me be clear: setting healthy boundaries and confidently following through is not easy!

Not for me, not for anyone.

It requires a lot of reflection, work and practice. I had to start with just a single change at a time. I was patient and forgiving with myself and had to practice frequently. I still make mistakes and it is most likely to fall apart during moments of crisis. At least now I have a few more strategies to lean on in difficult times. I hope my thoughts and new understandings of boundaries will help others in a similar situation. If just one person takes away a small portion of my thoughts and it improves their life a little, it is worth it. Remember, you are not alone.

Laurie is a former math teacher, residing​ in Dartmouth, MA, and extremely active in the recovery community. She currently devotes most of her energy to REST, a non-traditional support group that offers land and online video meetings, access to training in the CRAFT method, and a crisis toolkit helping families create their own individualized crisis plan. ​Her work is guided by a desire to improve the community’s response and end the​ stigma associated with Substance Use Disorder. Laurie loves skiing and ice hockey, and is at her happiest when spending time with her husband and three children. Read her articles on our blog or tune in to the podcast she co-hosts for Allies in Recovery: Coming Up for Air.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. As is often the case, I re-read a post here and find a new angle on my thinking. Laurie says, “1. Pay attention to the motivation behind your boundary.” Simple enough on the outside but this time I really had to think about my boundary setting motivations. Some of them have been more manipulative than I would like. I still need to work on detachment in order to restructure my motivation. I need to keep it honest and make sure the boundary is for my own self care.
    Thanks for all this food for thought. I find new gems with every visit.

  2. I really like the idea of being clear and direct by using as few words as possible. This is something I know I can do, so I’ll definitely try this approach.
    Thank you so much!

    1. Hi LauraW,
      Being clear and specific is something I struggled with until I talked to Dominique. Way too often I was very general in my statements. Sounds like this may be something you have a leg up on!
      Stay with it,

  3. Thanks for sharing Laurie! You have so much value that makes your sharing and being who you are worthwhile. I listened to all the Coming up for AIR podcasts yet I need to download the most recent ones and I think I will walk around the block and listen to one right after posting this thanks and sharing my resonance with your share.

    I think the heart of the matter is pretty close to this discussion probably. People like us, really make room for others to learn to be trustworthy, and this trust we extend is very difficult, yet begins by knowing who I am so that others, and my LOs, can do the same. When we are confused it makes it even more difficult for a LO with a SUD to be in our presence, as I’ve come to learn in my experience and refine so neatly here at AIR and in the battle of everyday. I trust that if I create room for my LO to breath, yet they are still in my heart and even in my house, yet room for them to find their own way, to become trustworthy to their spiritual selves and to others around them, they have the best shot to succeed, improve, and face the consequences and make them right with the highest morale/spiritual awakening.

    My LOs “room to breath” gets cluttered by lack of boundaries that scatter our thoughts, feelings, actions & conduct. That “room to breath” gets pristine and pure as our definition of ourselves does. I trust that a pristine “room to breath”, whether it is at home, or away in a sober living, or simply “away”, exists only if I have a clear boundary that defines “my mess” in order that my LO can feel loved without the burden of my fear, and my recovery, from my mess, on his/her shoulders in addition to their own mess.

    Morale doesn’t think that room to breath is a guarantee, yet that with morale and room to breath we have the ingredients necessary to become trustworthy of our greatest gift in life. I will give a love similar to the love my Higher Power extends to me: room to breath, access to wisdom to get things right in their life(not thrown at them yet available read or from sponsor or maybe even me if I get any), relatively(to others I don’t want them to escape to) freewill(trust) where they can attempt to choose good when opportunities are present; a better tomorrow.

    “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” ~ Henry Cloud

    I think boundaries go for material things in our lives as well. A bag of chips, tin of peanuts, jar of jelly beans. A box of cereal and carton of milk before me. “As long as we ARE what’s thrown at us, we’re just a rudderless boat winging to the whims of an angry ocean we can’t control.”—Mordy Gelfand

    I am convinced that we all have a blessed gift and energy meant to control and yet first we must learn things we can control in order to focus on controlling the controllable. I think simply thinking we can’t control anything is stupid. If I hear a noise at an intersection and think it might be my car, I turn my car off, if the sound goes away, it wasn’t me. I’ve learned to shut off my fear by taking depth breaths and holding them (aka quick meditation) and this turns off that part of my brain, and helps me identify the source of fear and negative thoughts. If I can’t find the source then at least I managed to turn of the negativity within me. Its a reset button I can apply anytime with what’s right under my nose.

    I think boundaries always begin by identifying where I end and others begin. Self-doubt is not an intrinsic trait of anyone yet “taking on” the insecurities of others around me. Its important to create a boundary that identifies with the highest spirit of morale possible inside me; that is truly me. THEN, I can be of value by first coming from that place of ultimate value and identical essence of the highest power inside my morale. I can then say to my LO, “no matter the outcome let’s commit to morale in this process and focus on the task of lifting each others morale; together”. My mantra when I feel all alone? I am lovable. I am worth things working out as they should. I am important enough for my HP to partner with me in this worthwhile endeavor.

    Thanks Laurie

  4. This is such an important post and I find myself reading and rereading it. Thank you for sharing your insight and experience. I relate to every one of the challenges of boundary setting, and as I’m learning more about CRAFT, I’m starting to understand boundaries much better.

    However, I feel like I’ve been at a standstill for a couple of weeks – just coasting and keeping the chaos at bay (for the most part), while my son continues to use and not experience any natural consequences. I’m trying to define what my boundaries are, but I’m struggling. The boundaries we’ve set so far are: we won’t support him in getting his license, we don’t do his laundry, won’t give him rides to friends houses who he uses with, don’t wake him up to go to school, and we step away when he uses. But, he has a warm home and bed, food, and we give him rides to and from work or band practice as needed, he sleeps in until the afternoon, he hasn’t been to school in a week because he oversleeps, doesn’t help around the house, comes and goes as he pleases, hasn’t made curfew for over a week, his sketchy friend is back in the picture (my heart sunk when I found out), and he continues to use every day.

    A few weeks ago, he was invited to play drums with a local band that has a few gigs scheduled in the next month. This is a really exciting opportunity for him. The last couple of weeks, a lot of his time has been filled practicing with the band, so at least while he’s made productive use of his time and likely did not use (which would be a reduction in use). Some boys are his age and others are a year older – the parents are all involved – so this could be a good development. We watched him play last night at his first concert with this band and I was filled with pride. Then, he went out with one of the boys after the band and didn’t get home until 2am – drunk and stoned. I am so disheartened. Needless to say he’s been in bed all day and will go out tonight and repeat.

    Before CRAFT, I would have responded in a typical punishment way – taking his phone, grounding, etc. Of course none of them worked because here we are today. Learning about boundaries has helped me realize what I can and can’t control. Could you or others provide more examples of other boundaries you set? I’m wondering what I’m overlooking. I’m not comfortable with kicking him out of the house at this age, but at this age would it be appropriate to tell him not to come home if he’s stoned/drunk? For now, we pay for his phone service because it keeps us connected – my fear is losing track of him. I could overcome that fear as I understand more how this is his struggle and not mine. I just feel so used because while he carries on as usual, things haven’t really changed for him – for now. I’m confused with how to move forward. My husband and I have decided we won’t pay for college until he shows us he’s serious about it – he hasn’t even finished his application. If he doesn’t meet the application deadline, we know that’s a consequence he’ll have to live with. I need to get better at using the “I feel” statements, and not just tell him I don’t like it when he’s used, so I really appreciate the examples of “I feel” statements. I’m having trouble seeing how he’ll ever realize the connection his use has to the negative impact it has on his life.

    1. Hopefulin2018,

      My heart feels compassion for you and yours. I will give you the one advice I give myself each moment and that is to keep up the morale we have here in AIR and you extend to your LOs and family. I am writing this because it helps me sort through my current learning. I am totally, “all in”, in the process of learning to be a better person to people that want to be better. I think if I am good to others and truly generate love for them then they can want to be good for me. I’m not sure this makes as much since in me writing it.

      I remember in high school there was one kid, always seemed high or disinterested, awkward, wouldn’t “dress out” for gym class and the coach would give him a failing grade. After college I saw his name in a famous rock band and then it all made sense yet to late to get to know the guy since we all keep our distance and avoided him like the plague.

      I’m not saying that every one acting out their spirits in awkward and unusual ways in on the path to stardom, or even if they get there they won’t flame out in a sea of drugs, yet that I could have seen past the awkward behavior to the true person inside. I could have ferreted out the insides of the struggle or unique journey this person was on.

      I’m learning to consider that I should never try to mold a person in my values and yet try to understand and encourage theirs. Young people, creative people, if told what to do won’t do it. I try to achieve morale. I define morale as a “shared spirit” between two or more people where we admit the going is tough and we are searching for our way in life and yet at least we have one another.

      We can be there beside LOs as we search our highest spirit in our hearts to find our true selves and value within us so the future will give us the opportunity to present ourselves fully, “as I am”–intrinsic value, self-worth, self-esteem, love–shared by two or more people as “morale”. With young people this is their “angst”. They struggle and we have forgotten our struggle at their age at times and even if we do we are different. A person just learning skills being judged in a world that doesn’t judge intrinsic worth yet seems(to the young) to only see value in salable skills. I need to know what I can speak to in order to not speak my mind without a filter to what is positive for morale and what is negative.

      We can speak of the value in the struggle. We can speak of placing self-worth, self-esteem, morale, not on our position in life, our skillset, our abilities, our physical traits, and yet on learning, on being the “learner”. Then we can enjoy the process. Then we can be patient with the process while working energetically, spiritually, even urgently(as we learn to appreciate the value of our time), and yet realize it isn’t the outcome yet the process that gives up our morale.

      1. 228 thank you for sharing your experience and insights. It means a lot to know there is a community of caring and thoughtful people who want us and our LOs to succeed.
        When you state, “I’m learning to consider that I should never try to mold a person in my values and yet try to understand and encourage theirs”, it reflects one of the big things I’ve learned from AIR – that this is not about me. My son has never been one to be forced into anything, and I’m coming to grips that he is his own person and to some extent, that person is on a track I would have never picked for him. On the other hand, I keep in mind that the core of who his is is everything I want him to be – kind, thoughtful, sweet, sensitive.

    2. You’ve started reacting differently to your son when he uses… “we won’t support him in getting his license, we don’t do his laundry, won’t give him rides to friend’s houses who he uses with, don’t wake him up to go to school, and we step away when he uses.”

      The CRAFT approach was designed for what to do in the moment. When he looks high, pull away, remove rewards, allow natural consequences. If he looks straight, step in, and reward.

      Over the years we’ve learned to apply CRAFT to the larger issues that surround the individual: college, cars, housing (go to the topics list on the right for these and other topics).

      The family has influence and can create the immediate environment most conducive to lowering use and asking for help with addiction. It doesn’t, however, MAKE them stop or MAKE them see the light. Read my full response here:

  5. Thank you for this excellent post! I have already read it multiple times, trying to reflect on and absorb the wise advice you have articulated so well. I have a 21 year old son with SUD who is 4 months clean, living in a sober house, who had been using opioids for five years. It has been a harrowing journey, but as you mention, the skills I have had to learn to obtain some peace, have improved all my relationships, I am so grateful for that. It was a major switch to go from trying to take care of and control my son, to taking taking care of myself and my emotions. It is indeed work, but I am glad to do it because where I was before, a state of constant worry, was a living hell. Also, my struggle to keep my head on straight reminds me to be patient with my son’s struggles with sobriety. Agian, thank you.

    1. Thank you Momdog,
      I am so happy to hear that my experiences and sharing are helping someone. It is so hard to see clearly,when you are in the midst of chaos, how taking care of yourself changes the situation in a positive way for both you and your Loved One! I also found, with my new skills, that other relationships improved. I really was able to appreciate the good I had in my life. I was less likely to take things for granted. I like your comment on the work it takes to keep your head on straight, reminds you of the struggle your Loved One goes through just to stay sober. Our Loved Ones are also in a whirlwind of trying to make sense of their world and we tend to forget that. Thank you for inspiring even more thought on the topic of boundary setting and also, thank you for comment on my blog!