When I got sober, I had no idea what a boundary was—other than a state line, or the dividing line of a country. My relationships were so strained because of my inability to either identify, or express, appropriate boundaries—emotionally, mentally, sexually, materially, and physically. I was totally unaware how my lack of boundaries revealed my co-dependency. I had assumed the responsibility of other’s welfare, I made care-taking my job. I abandoned myself in the process in fear of being disliked, or rejected, because my self-esteem was so desperately low.

I’d spent the majority of my life with zero comprehension of how inter-personal relationships worked. Yet, I was really offended at the suggestion of my then sponsor that I might need to work on my boundaries—I thought I had a strong sense of right and wrong and I thought I had the utmost respect for others. What I didn’t know was that I rarely knew what my boundaries were, and I was incapable of expressing uncomfortable feelings or asking for my needs to be met. I hadn’t honored myself, or others, for years.

Getting sober opened my eyes emotionally and mentally. I learned that boundaries are principles, rules, or limits that you live by—your sort of internal barometer of what feels comfortable, or safe in your behavior toward others and theirs toward you. In my active addiction, and in early recovery, I would often abandon my boundaries in the following ways:

  • Mental boundaries—I would say yes to events, out of fear of letting people down, rather than giving myself some much needed alone time. I struggled to express my views, because I wanted to be accepted.
  • Material boundaries—I would often give items of mine, say yes to lending books or items of clothing, when I knew I wouldn’t get them back.
  • Sexual boundaries—I would have sex with the first person who looked at me, rather considering if my body was ready for that, or if I actually wanted it.
  • Physical boundaries—I would let people too close to me, even though it made me feel really uncomfortable.
  • Emotional boundaries—I would overshare my emotional stress onto others. I would assume the responsibility for others welfare. I accepted responsibility for others bad behavior and made it my job to fix the situation.

How I Define My Boundaries and Develop Self-Esteem

I had lost myself for years in my addiction and co-dependency that I didn’t really know who I was—I felt like I lacked identity. A big part of my recovery has been discovering that. I realized it was my co-dependency that led to my inability to express any boundaries. My self-esteem was desperately low. I found it so hard to speak up for my needs because I was so used to obsessing about others—what they needed, problems I needed to fix, and where they needed my help (despite them not asking for it). I also was so fearful of losing relationships by speaking up, that I kept my mouth shut.

On the one hand, it was becoming increasingly apparent that while I felt a lack of identity, I was swimming in uncomfortable feelings: anger, distrust,  and tension in the pit of my stomach. I had no idea that sometimes uncomfortable feelings were my instincts telling me that a boundary had been crossed.

I slowly began to learn that I had every right to express boundaries, that they are just as valid as anyone else’s, and it would be okay to speak up no matter what the outcome. After all, boundaries aren’t there to punish, they are there for my well-being and protection.

Over the course of my recovery, I have painstakingly felt these uncomfortable feelings and sort of worked backwards to identify my boundaries. Here are some examples of the boundaries I have expressed:

  • I can say no to sex.
  • I do not need my mother’s approval or validation for my decisions and choices in my life.
  • I don’t have to answer the phone if I don’t feel like talking, and I don’t need to feel guilty.
  • It is okay to tell a friend that you don’t have time or the space to deal with a particular issue.
  • Just because someone expresses an opinion about me doesn’t mean that I need to take it on, or that it is true.
  • I neglect my physical boundaries when I get overtired by doing too much. It was okay to not go to a meeting every night.
  • Other people’s welfare is not my responsibility. Their choices in life are their own, and I do not need to influence them, or try and fix what I consider to be broken.
  • I can tell someone their behavior has upset me.
  • I can tell anyone that I don’t want to talk about a particular subject: money, relationships etc—and that I don’t have to feel bad about saying that.
  • I do not have to explain my choices to others.
  • I can refuse a request to borrow something of mine.
  • I can tell a friend I am disappointed that they cancelled on me at the last minute.
  • I can tell someone it is not okay to lie to me.
  • I don’t have to repeatedly wait for someone who is always late, and I can tell them that I think that this behavior upsets me.
  • I can ask people I live with to clean up their own mess and not expect me to do it.
  • I can say no to social engagements when I want to spend the night to myself.

These realizations were life changing. I generated so much energy in caring about what others thought of me, fearing rejection, and assuming responsibility for others, that I was drained! I began to feel free by maintaining my boundaries and expressing myself. My self-confidence soared and I was measurably happier and more content.

It isn’t easy. In fact, it feels alien at first. But, it does becomes easier. I was reminded by friends that I don’t need to feel guilt, shame, or anger in asking for my boundaries to be met. So long as I was friendly, firm, but calm, it would be effective. I became aware that if I didn’t express them, I would become unhappy, angry, and resentful—that is dishonoring myself and feeding my low self-esteem. Recovery is about building confidence, esteem, and worthiness.