What a Boundary is NOT

July 4, 2024

Boundaries are so important when it comes to living with an alcoholic, particularly for those living in the same home.

But boundaries can also be confusing and tricky, and a lot of times I see families setting what they think are boundaries, when really they’re setting up consequences and feeling disappointed. 

What is a boundary?

For starters, I’ll say what it is not. A boundary is not a punishment or consequence. It is not, “If you do/don’t do this, then this will happen.”

It is not an ultimatum: “Do/don’t do this or else.”

Punishments, consequences, and ultimatums don’t work with addiction. If they did, the first time your loved one lost their job, got a DUI, or went to jail for drinking/drugging, they would have stopped.

We now know that addiction is a brain disorder that hijacks the brain. The neural pathways of an addict’s brain are broken so that rational thinking is no longer accessible for them like it is for a nonalcoholic.

Punishments, consequences, and ultimatums are an attempt to rationalize with your loved one, but addiction cannot be rationalized with, and by expecting your loved one to rationalize, you are expecting them to do things their brain is not currently capable of doing.

A true boundary is not about your loved one. 

A boundary is a standard you set for yourself to protect yourself from harm and take your power back. It is about what you need to feel comfortable and safe.

Part of the reason you are so angry at your alcoholic is because you’ve been betraying yourself alongside them. You have been expecting them to be able to do things they are not able to do. They have been treating you in awful ways, but to a degree you’ve been allowing them to do it.

A boundary defines how you will allow yourself to be treated by others. And because you cannot change others and have no control over their actions (especially an alcoholic), an effective boundary has to be about the one thing you can control: YOU.

How do you create a boundary?

The most important thing to focus on when creating an effective boundary is to use “I” statements.

For every step I walk through below, remind yourself it is about you, not your loved one. Beginning each sentence with “I” helps to bring it back to you.

Here is the outline of an effective boundary:

  1. “When I…”
  2. “It makes me feel…”
  3. “Because of how I feel…”
  4. “I’m doing this because…”

As an example, I’ll use a scenario I see a lot from families, which is, “If you drink, leave the house until you are sober.”

The intention behind this is to not be around the drinking, but in its current form, it relies on the alcoholic to change their behavior. 

Here is how I would reframe this using the outline above:

  1. When I am around the drinking,
  2. It makes me feel betrayed, disappointed, terrified, angry, etc.
  3. Because of how I feel, I am going to remove myself from the situation (not reply, end the call, go for a walk, look for a new place to live, etc.)
  4. I am doing this because I need to protect my own well-being.

Notice the word “you” is nowhere in those four phrases. The entire boundary is about me. It is about my feelings and the action that I will take in order to protect my well-being. It in no way relies on the behavior of the other person.

This framework may bring up a lot for you.

You may be thinking, “Why do I have to leave/act/change? They’re the one with the problem.”

It’s okay to feel that way. I’m not saying you don’t have a right to feel angry, hurt, betrayed, and whatever else you feel in response to their behavior.

I am saying to stop having your well-being reliant on their actions.

You cannot control addiction. To try is like trying to stop the rain. You can pray for it to stop, but you can’t do anything to ensure that it will. 

You can, however, get an umbrella. And any time it rains, you can open that umbrella to keep yourself from getting wet.

That’s what a boundary is.

So really think about, “How am I allowing myself to be mistreated?” Then ask yourself, “What can I do to protect myself, regardless of what my loved one does?”

Would you like my help with boundaries, getting your voice back and offering healthy help to your loved one?  

I invite you to join us for Stop the Chaos Study Group beginning in just two days — July 10, 2024.

Join Us For Stop the Chaos

Over the 4-part Stop the Chaos training, I show you exactly what’s been standing between your loved one and their recovery and give you the steps to help get your entire family on a healthier path now.

And through the study group, you’ll get weekly LIVE support while you watch the trainings, offering you the immediate relief of finally being seen, of getting your voice back, and of being supported and understood by others who started exactly where you are and remain committed to walking this daily journey by your side.

The group sessions will run on Wednesdays from July 10th-31st at 12-1pm EST. Make sure to join us, as this is the last live study group we have planned in this format. Take advantage of it while you can. Register HERE, and be sure to check the box for the live study group to join us on July 10th.

Leave a Comment


  1. Glenda Watt

    How do you handle a situation where I have set a boundary of not wanting to be in contact with a relative who is an active drug user? I have set this boundary because it causes me anxiety to be around this person who is literally always under the influence. This person says disrespectful things to me when I am around him, or talks in ways that don’t even make sense.
    The addict and his mother have chosen to receive my boundary as a “consequence”. How does one explain to them that this is about self-preservation? Where does “if nothing changes, nothing changes” come into play? What is “changing” in my scenario, is I choose to no longer be around this person while he is actively using drugs. It should be my choice to take care of my mental health if I don’t want to be around this person at holidays or other family gatherings. Instead of honoring that, they have bullied me into thinking that I’m the one with a problem and am in the wrong.

    • Kate Duffy

      Hi Glenda, thanks for your comment. Understandably you’d like the person you set a boundary with to understand, agree with, and accept your needs. That’s not always the case as you see here and often with addiction, people will push back. Their pushing back is about them, not you. For me, I have had to work on being OK despite how others feel about my boundaries. Remember boundaries are for you and you alone. How they land with others is not our business. But what is your business is how their response makes you feel and that is something you can work on. Kudos to raising the bar for how you allow others to treat you. Recovery is a journey of self-love for sure. If you’re not in our Facebook group, you may like to join for more discussions like this. It’s called Friends of Tipping Point. Keep on recovering and learning about addiction. Often as you raise the bar for yourself, others will do the same. Recovery is contagious.

  2. Kristy

    Would it be beneficial for the alcoholic family member to attend this workshop along with the family?

    • Kate Duffy

      Hi Kristy, This program is to help the alcoholic person but it begins with just family. So it benefits them but starts with you!


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