Emotional HealthHealingRecovery 7 minutes to read

I was recently reviewing material for a workshop I am creating when I came across this quote from one of my classes: “There is more to life than sobriety.”

This may be a crazy idea for anyone struggling with giving up an addiction or coping behavior. In my experience, it was not so hard getting sober, rather it was hard staying sober. Living out recovery was about denying myself in order to be addiction-free. Staying free is more difficult. It requires paying close attention to what we are thinking and feeling so we can react appropriately.

This got me thinking beyond just managing my sobriety and onto diving into some inner work. It involved looking at what I was missing when it came to being a functional adult and responding in accordance to my values and equal self-esteem with others.

I took a fresh look at my Sobriety Plan and made the concept of “maintaining your sobriety” more accessible to all my recovery efforts, whether it was my addiction, coping behavior (anger), or my hurt from betrayals. 

Looking at the Sobriety Plan, I first replaced the word “sobriety” with “my recovery.” I know sobriety implies addiction, but I flipped it here, because even if you are on the receiving end of another’s addictive behaviors, you are in “recovery.” The efforts you put into your work from trauma are your recovery.

I then replaced the word “maintain” with the word “protect.” So now I have a “Plan to Protect my Recovery.” This feels more empowering to me. It conveys that I am in charge of my own recovery. I have the ability to set the limits I need to protect my efforts to live a life free of addiction or unhealthy coping behaviors, or to restore safety in a relationship.

As many of you know, I talk a lot about boundaries. It is the number one thing I first talk about in counseling. Boundaries are self-imposed limits I set for myself to protect my recovery efforts and to protect my self-esteem. These boundaries define my personal space, my sexuality, and my internal wellbeing. Boundaries let me be me: my authentic self.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Keep reading…

The word “boundaries” is discussed a lot in recovery, but what exactly does it mean to have boundaries? In counseling, some people tell me that they don’t have boundaries. This may be true for them, but I believe we all have boundaries. We just don’t have the confidence to use or speak them. Nor do we have the self-esteem to enforce them.

As I said, boundaries are self-imposed limits we set and enforce that protect our self-esteem and values. One of the first words you most likely utilized around the age of two, the word “no,” was a boundary indicating that you had an opposition to what was going on around you. Momma was impeding your enjoyment of running through the house naked, so you ran away yelling “no” when she tried to corral you. Eventually you learned Mom’s limit (or boundary to your “rebellion”) by her firm hand. Then with love and belonging your relationship got back to normal.

Two Types of Boundary Systems

There are two types of boundary systems: external and internal. These two systems serve to contain and protect. Both systems govern what we take in from others and what we give out to others.

External Boundary System

The external system governs our physical and sexual space. When it comes to protection, you have the right to control how close someone gets to you and who can touch you. This extends to your personal property (i.e., purse, wallet, phone, computer, drawers, etc.). You also have the right to rescind that access if you no longer feel safe or comfortable with that person. With regard to sexual space, you have the right to control with whom, when, and how you are going to be sexual. For containing, you are responsible for how you approach others for physical or sexual contact. These boundaries apply to others too and you are responsible to honor this.

Internal Boundary System

Like the external system, our internal boundary system serves to protect and contain our values and self-esteem. We do this by setting limits on what we think and feel thus helping us contain how we speak to others about our needs. Internal boundaries act as a filter that sorts through what others are saying and screens out messages coming in and going out to and from the world or people. We want to filter out what is not true about us and block any false assessment that may have affected our values or self-esteem. We protect our self-esteem and values by how we listen. We also contain our expression of feelings, needs, and wants by how we talk to others.  

Hopefully, you’re still with me.  

Boundary work is by far the most labor intensive work I have done. It is like learning a new language and is best done in childhood. Boundaries are a form of self-care after we have a built a self-esteem that says I am not “less than you,” nor am I “better than you.” We are all equal in our relationships. In other words, we respect each other’s feelings and point of view. Once your self-esteem is established, you can then go about boundary work in relationships.  

In keeping with the format of the Sobriety Plan, here is what a “Plan to Protect my Recovery” might look like. 

Physical

Let’s say hugs at church are uncomfortable for you. Your boundary might be I do not hug anyone except my spouse or kids. (It’s Covid safe anyway.) So, when someone reaches out for a hug, you step back and express an external boundary like this: “I’m sorry; I only hug my husband and kids.” Period. No need to explain or defend.

Sexual

Let’s say you struggle with sexual images in movies or TV shows. Your boundary may be I do not watch R-rated movies, unless I have first investigated to see why it has this rating. I will discuss it with my accountability partner before I watch it.

Mental

Let’s say you struggle with anxiety and have a lot of intrusive thoughts about the betrayal by your spouse. Your mind runs through many scenarios which elevates your anger or fear. Your boundary may need to be When I catch myself running through negative thoughts, I will stop and redirect my thoughts to ___________________. Anxious thoughts are one of the most difficult mental boundaries to set. Fear sees danger. Anxiety imagines danger. You will need to discern the reality of the threat.

Emotional

Let’s say you struggle with anger. You will need a boundary that contains how you respond when feeling angry: When I feel my ire rising, I will stop, take a deep breath, and take a time out to calm down. When I have calmed down, I will return to the conversation. Repeat if necessary. Can you identify the internal boundary and the expression of the external boundary?

Spiritual

If God seems distant from you, if you feel God is mad or disappointed in you, you may need to filter out what you were trained to believe about Him. A boundary might be, In order to protect my spiritual recovery, I will take the time to research, examine the scriptures, and meditate on God’s Word to discover for myself how God truly feels about me or what His thoughts are toward me.


By now you may have formed a defense against some of the boundary statements I have made. You may be asking, “What if…?” This is why the internal boundary system is difficult to rewire. It is a language system easier learned when you are young. It is the language of living safe in a world full of hurting, wounded people that hurt others. As an adult, your emotional coding is pretty set in place, but you can rewire it.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Romans 12:2 (NIV)

It is possible to rewire and renew your neuropathways.

Practicing boundary work is a lifelong process. I encourage you to find a friend to practice your boundary work with. It will not be perfect because you will need to let go of feeling responsible for what others think and feel. Assuming you are diplomatic with your containing boundary, you do not need to tiptoe around another person’s feelings. We are responsible for our own “stuff.” 

Boundary work is how you learn to feel safe within your perimeter and it will help you develop resiliency to the hurt and harm of this life.


This is a summarized adaptation of protect and contain boundary functions that is adapted from Pia Mellody’s Post Induction Therapy training (1992, Pia Mellody). You can read more about boundaries in The Intimacy Factor: The Ground Rules for Overcoming the Obstacles to Truth, Respect, and Lasting Love, by Pia Mellody and Lawrence S. Freundlich.

Debby Flanagan

Debby is a Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional for Pure Desire. She has a heart for bringing healing to men and women who are broken due to sexual and emotional issues. Debby has a Bachelor's from Corban University and has an Advanced Certification through International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). She contributed to Unraveled: Managing Love, Sex, and Relationships.

2 Comments

  1. Drew Hofler

    Good blog, Debbie!

    1. Debby Flanagan

      Thank you

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