In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic requires those of us in recovery from substance use disorder to stay especially vigilant about our boundaries around our sobriety as well as our changing relationships to ourselves, others, and our physical surroundings. A call to strengthen recovery boundaries may sound like a paradox in a time where restrictions are aplenty, but restrictions denote a sense of deprivation whereas holding and maintaining boundaries — another important addition for your sober toolbox in a pandemic — can usher in a sense of space, abundance, and spiritual growth towards your recovery.
Definition of a Boundary
Boundaries aren’t walls. They are non-negotiable feelings, thoughts, needs and preferences that are unique to you explaining what you will or will not do, accept, or tolerate. Boundaries demonstrate where we end and someone else begins.
For those of us also in recovery from codependency, people-pleasing may be familiar to us and lead us to numerous incidents of self-abandonment. While being in active addiction is a very obvious form of self-abandonment, saying “yes” when you mean “no” or “no” when you mean “yes,” are other examples of violating your own emotional boundaries. Codependents use external stimuli and signals to define and regulate themselves emotionally. If this pandemic renders you without employment or a reduction in other opportunities or experiences you were looking forward to and that affects your sense of self-worth or intrinsic value, that is a sign that you may be too-closely identifying with your externals to determine your sense of self.
Virtual Meeting Boundaries
As we connect virtually more than ever and less in person, it’s essential to know our limits in the realm of electronic communication. On virtual recovery meetings, give yourself permission to attend late and leave early if that enables you to get basic needs met first, like meals and rest. Try practicing a boundary of refraining from multi-tasking while others are sharing. Regarding “fellowship” after a meeting, try not to pressure yourself to stay if you really don’t want to, even if you don’t have any plans after the meeting. Sometimes the most healing action after a meeting is to dissect in solitude what came up for you; on other days you may feel like hanging around and “getting current.” In-person fellowship allows multiple conversations to occur simultaneously, but virtual meetings only allow one conversation at once (highlighting the speaker) which has its pros and cons. If you choose to participate via audio only, you don’t owe anyone any explanation as to why your video option is off.
One pattern I noticed in myself was attending multiple virtual recovery meetings in a day, even four on one day without having even planned it. Instead of shaming myself for trying to “meeting” my feelings away, I joked about it on a meeting for recovering workaholics and made sure to set a boundary of no more than one to two meetings a day. Some days it feels easier to hide behind meetings than to take responsibility for other areas of my life. As a recovering codependent I also noticed how I would often to look to others on a video meeting for permission to do certain things, like eating on the side or even lying down on a couch, as opposed to giving myself permission to show up exactly as I needed to that day. If someone has an issue with you snacking on video, for example, they can choose not to look at your video and work on their own boundaries.
Some emotional boundaries I’ve needed to strengthen include how I take in external stimuli, which includes (social) media consumption and interactions with friends and family.
(Social) Media Consumption
While I am a large advocate of “digital detoxes,” or taking breaks from electronic communication and media, I know for others this isn’t realistic or even desirable. I deactivated my social media accounts over the course of the last two months, prioritizing reaching out on an individual basis or on recovery group chats, but this may not work for you. At times I experience some discomfort over not keeping apprised of what my friends and acquaintances are thinking about and up to (in terms of what they choose to share on social media), but that guilt quickly dissipates when I think about how much of my own bandwidth I have been able to reclaim. The seemingly innocuous tick of constantly checking my phone is detrimental in terms of my ability to focus or draw my energy inward. I typically sleep with my phone on airplane mode, but I recently started experimenting with using a digital alarm clock so as not to deep-dive into my phone first thing in the morning. Just because we’re experiencing a pandemic, it doesn’t mean that you need to keep abreast of everyone and everything.
At the beginning of quarantine, I had a knee-jerk “yes” reaction to others asking if I wanted to go on walks, fearing that I would otherwise isolate, but that has shifted over the last two months. I’m discerning about who I spend time with, whether in the flesh or on the phone, practicing the art of “under-scheduling.” I recently heard, “You can always do one less thing than you think you can,” and that resonated quite a bit. When negotiating internal boundaries, you may need to course correct anytime your inner critic gets really loud (e.g. “You’re not doing enough!”) and it’s always ok to do less. If your family holds Zoom meetings, check in with whether those feel good for you and give yourself permission to sit them out if they don’t feel in alignment with where you’re at.
Besides following protocol regarding physical distancing, remember to maintain material boundaries around lending items and what feels comfortable for you around sanitation and hygiene. Instead of food shopping a few times a week, try going once a week (with your mask, of course) and disposable gloves if and when you can. Regarding living space, if you’re quarantined with roommates or family members, try practicing external boundaries around topics of conversation and shared space. If you find yourself getting dragged into toxic, fear-based conversations around the pandemic, you can excuse yourself and say something like “I’m going to hang with myself for a bit” or say that you’re not available for conversations around ____ (fill in the blank). You are not a vessel within which others can emotionally dump their own baggage onto you. Call a recovery fellow or sponsor instead and share about what is going on. I’ve had some “relapse dreams” and I’m committing to sharing about them when I can.
Responses to Boundaries
You are not responsible for someone else’s reaction to your boundaries or your truth. Get ready to upset people and feel uncomfortable as you pursue the road of “healthy selfishness.” It’s a muscle that will strengthen over time as you feel less guilt for stating your needs and coming into contact with your true desires. You’ll move out of over-giving into connection & contact with the most important person in your life: you. You have the right to whatever you feel. If you find yourself justifying a feeling in response to someone asking why you’re in that state, it’s likely that both your and the other person’s boundaries are blurred and possibly even enmeshed.
In a time when feelings of powerlessness and restrictions may leave you feeling disempowered in your recovery, it’s more crucial than ever to assert your emotional, physical, and mental boundaries. You’re only as helpless as you choose to be. Attend meetings, reach out when you have the space to, and keep practicing “boundaried relationships” with yourself and others so your recovery doesn’t take the hit.