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How Boundaries Collapse in Outpatient Treatment


It’s the drive home from outpatient. You had a good session today: participated in group, got acknowledgement from your counselor for being on track, and turned in a full meeting card. Life is solid. But as you make your way home, an all-too-familiar thought beckons. “I’ll be passing my old liquor store on the way home. They haven’t tested me as much in outpatient, I can probably get away with it…”  And with each mile placed between yourself and that IOP building, the will to stay sober begins to waver. Relapse beckons with an innocuous left turn into a parking lot. After all that work put into treatment, how did you find yourself here again? How did you fail to maintain boundaries in recovery?

Physical Boundaries in Inpatient Create Complacency

Although it’s initially a difficult choice to make, there is a certain safety in going to rehab. Dedicated facilities offer a homey environment where you can wake up, go through your day, and lay your head to sleep without once facing an opportunity to relapse. The dilemmas of recovery are delayed while you can focus on learning the tools to face them. But eventually, you need to return to the real world. And that world is riddled with old habits that have yet to be reckoned with.

Building a bridge from inpatient to outpatient requires a strong handling of boundaries learned through therapy in rehab. Recovering alcoholics and addicts stay on track by taking these boundaries seriously, and deprioritizing them is all too easy with the freedom of outpatient.

Failure to Plan: Trusting Yourself with Too Much Freedom

The lessons of rehab only work if you put them into action. A basic tenet of recovery is to (1) identify your triggers and potentially dangerous situations, and (2) plan how you’ll avoid these triggers in early recovery.

While these boundaries seem simple enough while you’re working through inpatient treatment, putting them into action isn’t so straightforward. Rules become less defined with a higher degree of separation. Focus shifts toward things like school and work rather than recovery. It’s quite easy to fall into justification mode where small steps eventually lead toward a full-blown relapse.

It’s wise to plan for strong boundaries in outpatient. Freedom to establish yourself as an independent person is important, but staying sober should always reign in some of those freedoms. Sober living homes are an excellent example of setting up strong boundaries, as you are accountable for your sobriety as a condition of the environment. It also surrounds you with like-minded people who are less likely to be toxic to your recovery.

Focus on the Basics: People, Places, & Things

Sober living homes also help to extend the lessons of rehab through group meetings. You can focus on identifying and avoiding the basic factors that lead to relapse: namely, people, places, and things. While rehab should teach the gravity of how old associations with use can read to relapse, sometimes we lose sight of how we run into those old associations to begin with.


Clear out your phone contacts and avoid reaching out to people who do not support your lifestyle of recovery. Associating with toxic people is a common cause of relapse.


A change of scenery goes a long way in outpatient rehab. Frequenting old hangout spots is a quick way to fall back into old habits. The associations with use are just too strong.


“Things” is a broad category–it can include events, objects, and even forms of entertainment. Anything you associate with past drug use should be avoided as much as possible.

Upholding Boundaries in Recovery

Maintaining healthy boundaries does not come naturally to most people in recovery. While the physical dependency on your drug of choice may be gone, the psychological reliance lingers. Years of using creates pathways in the brain that causes many recovering addicts to default toward behaviors that end in relapse.

It’s a constant battle to reform those pathways in the brain. That’s why rehab teaches the tools necessary to build an environment for sobriety. Eventually, those boundaries can run on autopilot. But the hurdle of those first six months, year, and so on in outpatient present the greatest danger. It’s important to not let those hard-earned boundaries in recovery collapse.

If you or a loved one is seeking treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, our counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-997-4702

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