Setting Boundaries YOU Can Live With

Last week I wrote a post on setting boundaries with addicted family members and touched on why we keep moving our boundaries and what a person can do to prepare themselves to set and stick to the boundaries they need/want to set. (To re-read that post, click here).

This post goes further to give you tools on how to set boundaries that YOU can live with, in other words, how to set “healthy” boundaries. Every time you set a boundary YOU can’t live with, you move it. And every time you move it, you lose another piece of yourself. By this I mean, you are either disappointed, angry, saddened, frustrated at having settled for less or giving in, lashing out, afraid of the other shoe dropping and generally falling back to that awful place, If you loved me, you’d stop.

Think and Speak Only to/of the Behavior When Setting Boundaries

There are many reasons we excuse drinking or drug use behaviors (also covered in the previous post linked above). We can make some of the most horrific behaviors somehow OK and with some of the craziest excuses, too.

As a way to counter this tendency of excusing drinking | drugging behaviors (easier to do if you’ve done the prep work covered in Setting Boundaries With Addicted Family Members), I suggest you reframe the situation in the context of drinking water. If your loved one had consumed 4 or 8 or 12 glasses of water last night (and NO alcohol or drugs), would you be saying things like,

Where were you last night? You said you were going to stop by your mom’s on your way over, but I checked and you didn’t. She hadn’t seen you for days! You didn’t answer your phone or my texts. What were you doing?! What!? You went out drinking with Bob – well why didn’t you call me!

What do you mean, ‘You don’t remember!?’ How do you not remember sleeping with that girl and what were you doing at that party, anyway. I thought you were going with Todd to the City.

I am so sorry about the way Sheila went off on Karen last night. That’s just not like her, you know. It’s just that she hadn’t eaten much all day and then had several of those Lemon Drop Martinis. You know she didn’t mean it.

So when you’re mulling over what you’re going to do about your loved one’s drinking or drugging behaviors, remind yourself, “Would I be tolerating this if they’d been drinking water?”

But What if It’s Not Addiction and What if It Is – Does It Matter?

We often get sideways in our boundary setting because we’re afraid they’ll think we’re calling them a drug addict or an alcoholic or that anything short of that shouldn’t be of concern. But either way – abuse or addiction – it’s the behaviors that are of concern. Nonetheless, answering the questions, “How much is too much?” “Addiction or abuse, what’s the difference?,” can help with your determination to set a boundary that works for YOU. Consider these links:

NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website

NIDA’s Resource Guide: Screening for Drug Use in General Medical Settings

NIDA’s Drugs of Abuse.

SingleQMark.iStock_000013963468XSmallAnd an additional question you’ll want to ask and understand, is what key risk factors for developing addiction does your loved one have? These risk factors include: genetics, mental illness, childhood trauma, early use and social environment. They are important to understand because they are either brain changers, in and of themselves, or contribute to why a person uses. Thus your loved one’s ability to successfully change his/her drug or alcohol use patterns will depend on their addressing and treating their risk factors, as well, which may be an important component in your boundary setting. Check out Co-Occurring Disorders Require Co-Occurring Treatments.

When To Take Action

This is always the dilemma, and it’s here we get stuck in setting unhealthy boundaries. Because we’re not certain (and we’re not even sure what we should be certain about), we tiptoe or we lambast or we ignore or we __________ in order to believe in our loved one’s truthfulness, integrity, desire to change, etc. But here’s the rub. They want the same thing, but they typically want to be able to do it while drinking or using in “moderation.” And depending on where they are on the continuum of developing the disease of addiction, they may or may not be able to use or drink, period. Contrary to popular belief, a person DOES NOT HAVE TO HIT BOTTOM before they get help, and a big part of “wanting” to get that help will be the healthy boundaries you set. So don’t wait until you have all the answers to have a conversation.

I suggest the first step is once you’re solid in your beliefs about the information shared so far and in the previous post, ask for a quiet moment with your loved one and say something like:

As you know, we’ve been fighting about your drinking or drug use and it’s getting us nowhere. So I’ve been doing some research and have found a wealth of information about drinking and drug use and its impacts on the brain – much of it only learned in the last 10-15 years – and I’d like you to read ________________ and then we can talk about it on ______________ .

If they baulk, ask them to think about it this way.

If you had cancer, we would be scouring the internet, meeting with experts, exploring everything we can find about the diagnosis and treatments. I can’t say for sure what it is we’re dealing with, but the behaviors you exhibit when you misuse drugs or alcohol are awful and the way we’ve been talking about and dealing with them is not working.

Follow Your Boundary Thread All The Way Through to Implementation Before You Set It

This is CRITICAL. Threatening to take the kids and leave if h/she comes home drunk again isn’t practical unless you’re really willing to leave your home. Instead, you want to think through where you’ll go or whether h/she should be the one to go, and if h/she goes, where to and how will it be paid for, etc. This is where having someone (such as a therapist specializing in addiction or a certified addiction recovery coach) you can talk with can help. These two books can also help: A Guide for Families, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change and Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening.

This way of boundary setting may sound tedious and crazy-long. But remember how tedious and crazy-long your arguments and deal makings have been thus far. So whatever you want to have happen if the behaviors surface, again, you’ll want to think all the way through so that you can actually stick to the boundary you set.

Get YOUR Brain Healthy

As described in this post, The Fight or Flight Stress Response System – Secondhand Drinking Connection, coping with a loved one’s drinking or drugging behaviors changes your own brain’s health. Getting your brain back to health will go a long ways to helping you set and stick to your boundaries because you will be able to “think” instead of “react.”

This is where getting help for yourself comes in. For me, help included three years of cognitive behavioral therapy with a therapist who specialized in working with family members of addicted loved ones. I also attended Al-Anon, a 12-step program for family members whose loved one drinks too much. I worked hard to eat nutritious meals, exercise daily, engage in mindfulness practices and get adequate, restful sleep (all work to heal the brain, by the way). And I read and I researched and I practiced and I learned to forgive myself when I slipped by reminding myself, “Well, now, I know that doesn’t work so I’ll either make a sincere amends for my behavior and/or I’ll admit to myself, ‘I made a mistake.'”

Bottom Line

This is a lot to take in, so if you have questions, feel free to call 650-362-3026 or email

© 2015 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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  1. Great information here, Lisa about boundaries. Thank you for sharing this line,
    “Contrary to popular belief, a person DOES NOT HAVE TO HIT BOTTOM before they get help, and a big part of “wanting” to get that help will be the healthy boundaries you set.”

    Family members do need to educate themselves on drug/alcohol abuse and take care of themselves, so that they can make better decisions and honestly keep their sanity. Boundary setting is a key component of that self care.

    • It’s always helpful to talk with you, Cathy, about your work in helping parents set boundaries – each person does it differently, as you well know, but there are common things to consider, most importantly, what you can live with.

  2. You’ve done it once more, Lisa. A ready-to-print guide to get the job handled. Period. And that’s so strong, because many can understand the theory behind why they should act in a certain manner, but they get hung-up on just how to do it. You solve that dilemma (very considerate, actually).

    Boundaries, the concept often made to come off cliche’, are huge. And you get that point across. I especially like “…ask for a quiet moment with your loved one and say something like: …So I’ve been doing some research and have found a wealth of information about drinking and drug use and its impacts on the brain…” This is a great approach because it depersonalizes the issue, fostering the idea that it isn’t about the loved one as an individual, as much as it is about brain goings-on h/she can’t help.

    Great and helpful material, as always, Lisa. And thank you…

    • Why thank you, Bill! And hopefully understanding more about this brain disease and the behavioral outcomes of substance use disorders will give them that calm – they’ll be able to believe it really isn’t “them” doing it to “them.” I always appreciate your insights and comments!