Boundaries: What Are They and How to Use Them

Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.
— Brene Brown

Boundaries.  You hear that word all the time, especially in therapy and recovery settings.   When we start thinking we need them, it usually means some difficulties are brewing. And those are times when we are reaching for information, support, and coping skills.  Boundaries are often needed to be the “go to” tool of the tool box. But what are they?  And how, when, and why do you use them?  When you think of boundaries, think of the rules and principles you live by, what you will or will not allow, and what you will or will not do.

Here are 3 tips to help you start managing and setting boundaries in your life:   

1.    Domains:  When we consider the areas or domains of our life that may need boundaries, we should think about the following:  

a.    Our Physical Health and Wellbeing:  Self care is essential for healthy boundaries.  Ask yourself: What kind of internal and external rules do we set for ourselves?  What about our sleep time, eating habits, exercise, following our doctor’s orders and taking our medications and supplements as directed?  

Next we have to consider from whom are we getting our advice in this particular domain.  We should make sure that ourdirection and support comes from someone with expertise in this Domain.  Example: I trust my life to my physician, but I would not give her access to my checking account.

b.    Emotional Health:  Protecting our emotional domain takes some work as well.  We should consider what kinds of emotional boundaries do we need to set?  Do the people in our lives have positive or negative influence on us and on our mood? Do we pay attention to self-care by taking time for quiet reflection, meditation, or prayer?   Not allowing others to take advantage of us or to use or misuse us is the goal in this domain.

c.     Financial Health:  Are we good stewards of our money?  Do we have a plan for our future?  Are we getting advice from people who have knowledge and skill in this area?  Example: My accountant knows all about my financial health, but I would not get medical advice from her.

d.    Recovery Work:  My sponsor is to help and direct me in my recovery work, aid me in the working of Steps, and support my attendance at recovery meetings and activities. One principle of AA and other 12 step programs is to take what you need and leave the rest.  

e.    Relationships:  This domain is perhaps the most obvious, although sometimes the most difficult one in which to set boundaries.  So many of us say YES when we really mean NO, because we think it will be easier, because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or we want to avoid a disagreement. Learning to say NO sounds easy, but can be very difficult.  

2.    Don’t focus on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.  This is a great tool to help you start small and get some traction.  When it is time to set boundaries, it usually means things are tough, relationships and situations are strained, and everyone is trying to cope as best he/she can.  In short, it can be an overwhelming time and the mountain can seem insurmountable.  So, focus on what you can do.  First, take care of YOU.  Start with the basics of eating, sleeping, and getting support.  Then, in regard to boundaries with others, if you aren’t ready to do the big things, start with the small ones.  For example,  If you can’t do the big thing, like cut an active addict off financially, then focus on what you can do, like let them know you are seeing a therapist to discuss healthy changes, or that you will be paying for their rent and phone and giving them a grocery gift card instead of money…things like that.  

3.   You are not telling the other person what to do, you are saying what you are going to do.  Getting this concept is a game changer.  The typical desire is to tell the other person what to do.  For example, you can’t talk to me that way, or I don’t want you to drink anymore.  But that doesn’t work.  So shift the conversation.  Try this: “ IF you decide to talk to me that way, I am going to end the conversation.”  Or “IF you decide to drink, I am going to leave the event/vacation, etc, or IF you decide to use, I will stop paying for your phone and rent.” 

Boundaries are paradoxical in nature.  You think they limit you and your relationships.  But they actually give them expanse.  Once you know where you stand, and what you will or won't do, you can step back, give people the dignity to live their own lives, make their own decisions (even and especially if you don't agree with them) and enjoy the relationship!

Susan Blank, MD specializes in addiction, recovery, and comprehensive wellness.  She is the Chief Medical Officer of Atlanta Healing Center, President of Georgia Society for Addiction Medicine, and has a weekly radio show, Detailing Addiction, Tuesdays at 4:00.  More information about her credentials, Atlanta Healing Center, and the radio show can be found at

Alyce E. Wellons, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Atlanta.  She specializes in addiction and recovery, and treats individuals and couples for short and long term psychotherapy.  She also teaches internationally on how to use mindfulness, meditation and yoga for mood management, in psychotherapy, and for your health.   For more information and upcoming trainings and events, check out her website: