When I got sober, I had no idea what a boundary was — other than the dividing line between states or countries. My relationships were so strained because of my inability to identify or express appropriate boundaries—emotionally, mentally, sexually, materially and physically. I was totally unaware how my lack of boundaries revealed my codependency. I had assumed the responsibility of other’s welfare and made taking care of them my job. I abandoned myself in the process, fearing 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 interpersonal relationships worked. I was really offended at my then sponsor’s suggestion that I might need to work on my boundaries. I thought I had a strong sense of right and wrong and the utmost respect for others. I hadn’t realized that I rarely knew what my boundaries were and that 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 internal barometer of what feels comfortable or safe in your behavior toward others and theirs toward you. In my active addiction and 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 people my items, saying yes to lending books or 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 than considering if my body was ready or if I actually wanted it.
  • Physical boundaries — I would let people get too close to me, even though it made me feel really uncomfortable.
  • Emotional boundaries — I would overshare my emotional stress with others, and assume responsibility for others’ welfare. I accepted responsibility for others’ bad behavior and made it my job to fix the situation.

I had lost myself for years in my addiction and codependency. 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 codependency that led to my inability to express any boundaries. 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 was so fearful of losing relationships by speaking up that I kept my mouth shut.

It became increasingly apparent that I was swimming in uncomfortable feelings: anger, distrust and tension in the pit of my stomach. I had no idea that sometimes an uncomfortable feeling was my instinct telling me that a boundary had been crossed.

I slowly learned 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 the outcome. After all, boundaries aren’t there to punish; they are there for my well-being and protection.

Throughout my recovery, I have painstakingly felt these uncomfortable feelings and worked backward 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 the time or 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 do too much and get overtired. 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. 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. 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 canceled 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 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 by myself.

These realizations were life changing. I used up so much energy caring about what others thought of me, fearing rejection and assuming responsibility for others. I was drained! I became aware that if I didn’t express my boundaries, I would become unhappy, angry and resentful, dishonoring myself and lowering my self-esteem. I didn’t need to feel guilt, shame or anger in asking for my boundaries to be met.

Recovery is about building confidence, esteem and worthiness. I gained a new sense of freedom by maintaining my boundaries and expressing myself. My self-confidence soared and I was measurably happier and more content.

It is not an easy change. Expressing your boundaries may feel alien at first, but it does become easier.