By Ken Seeley, Founder, Mental Wellness by Ken Seeley
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Life in early recovery involves a lot of mopping up. Indeed, there are many aspects of life in need of restoration after a bout with substance addiction. Whether rebuilding life in recovery involves improving physical health, tending to mental health, fixing finances, or resurrecting a career, one of the most important acts in early recovery is laying down some boundaries.
When we speak of boundaries in recovery we do not refer to physical barriers that block one individual from having exposure to someone else. A boundary is a concept, an invisible and purposeful decision made to disconnect from people who are unhealthy to be around. The boundaries you construct act as a conscious act of safeguarding yourself from someone toxic in your life.
When this person is a family member it is that much harder to accomplish this important step. Regardless of the emotional difficulty, boundaries must be set if that family member is causing your recovery to be threatened. Over time, once healthy interactions have become established, it is possible the relationship can be restored and then redefined as a productive and healthy one. This takes time and hard work, but it is a possibility.
What Makes a Person Toxic?
It is not rare to form highly toxic relationships, even with family members, while in active addiction. As is often stated, addiction is a family disease. It warps relationships and sickens the whole family system. When you enter recovery, it is important to establish healthy boundaries, which can pertain to a specific family member.
Unhealthy relating behavior lies at the core of a toxic relationship, such as codependency and enabling. During active addiction, the family member may have honestly desired to help you and instead became enmeshed in the disease with you. The toxic family member ends up micromanaging every little aspect of the addict’s life, supporting them financially, and even putting out all the addiction-related fires for them. In essence, the codependent family member becomes as sick as the addict. While codependency can be toxic to both parties, once someone is in recovery, it is essential to set new boundaries with the codependent family member and to disengage from this dysfunctional give and take.
But codependency isn’t the only type of toxic family relationship. For example, a family member may be highly manipulative. Or, they may try to confuse or belittle you by using guilt tactics or shaming. They may be physically, verbally, or sexually abusive. Each of these would be considered toxic relationships, as they are all deeply harmful.
Why is it Important to Establish Boundaries?
In addiction treatment you likely spent a good deal of time examining the underlying emotional issues that might have been contributing to the substance abuse. In many cases, troubled family relationships are cited as factors that fueled the drug or alcohol use. As you explored these toxic relationships you came to realize during rehabilitation that if these relationships could not be made healthy and whole they could potentially undermine recovery efforts.
Unhealthy, toxic relationships with a family member are not always doomed to failure as long as both parties commit to making the needed changes. Boundaries offer new structure for the relationship while also limiting the chance the person could inflict further damage. Communicating what you will need in recovery will naturally lead to defining the boundaries for what is acceptable relating behavior going forward.
Identifying Toxic Relationships and Setting Boundaries
When a family member brings more strife or harm into your life than goodness this constitutes a toxic relationship. Playing along with this script while in active addiction may have served the desired purpose, which often involves manipulation. But once sober, it is time to draw a firm boundary between yourself and this toxic person. Generally, if someone continually makes you feel badly about yourself, then it is not a healthy relationship.
Setting boundaries, especially with a family member, is hard. It hurts. There is often a sense of fear, and of loss, to contend with. When laying down new boundaries with a family member you should expect pushback and/or anger. They may feel singled out and rejected, or they might be angry that you are no longer allowing them to abuse you. Expect this pushback.
How to Establish Healthy Boundaries in Recovery
Establishing boundaries is an actionable step taken to protect your recovery and your mental health. Consider it a type of self-care. But laying down new boundaries, especially with a family member who is accustomed to abusing or otherwise causing harm to you, is difficult. It is always best to enlist the expertise of a therapist to help guide the process of establishing new boundaries with a toxic family member.
Depending on how egregious the offending family member’s behavior has been, your boundaries will coincide accordingly. For instance, if it is codependency that is the problem, try sitting down with the family member and describing the new form the relationship will take going forward. Clearly articulate the acts that are no longer acceptable, and ensure that the person understands crossing those boundaries will not be tolerated. If, on the other hand, the toxic family member is an abusive, cruel person, it is appropriate to end that relationship entirely. In this case, removing this person from your life would be the correct boundary to draw.
First, you have to clearly articulate your newly defined boundaries for the person. For example, you may keep the family member at a safe distance by limiting interactions to very defined situations, such as to only see them at a family gathering, for example. This keeps them at bay for the majority of time, but still allows for occasional visits. Of course, if these occasional visits turn nasty then there may be no hope for this family relationship to move forward.
Expecting a family member to respect your boundaries is a test of their respect for you, just as much as maintaining the boundaries is a test of your own self-respect. In recovery, healthy boundaries provide the protection you need to limit negative, toxic relationships from threatening sobriety.
About the Author
Ken Seeley is an internationally acclaimed interventionist, having years of experience in this field. Certified as a Board Registered Interventionist-Level 2, Seeley has worked full-time in the business of recovery and intervention since 1989. He is a regular contributor to CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and ABC on the topics of addiction and intervention. He was one of three featured interventionists on the Emmy Award winning television series, Intervention, on A&E. He is also the author of “Face It and Fix It,” about overcoming the denial that leads to common addictions while bringing guidance to those struggling with addiction. Ken Seeley is the founder and C.E.O. of Mental Wellness by Ken Seeley, a dual diagnosis program located in Palm Springs, California.