Maintaining Boundaries in Recovery

Author: IAFF Center of Excellence Staff

September 1, 2020

Life in recovery can be daunting. Outside of the therapeutic, distraction-free environment of a treatment center, you may face potentially triggering situations: a well-meaning friend may invite you for drinks as usual or a crewmate might ask intrusive questions. 

Establishing and maintaining boundaries is an important step in helping firefighters and emergency service personnel in recovery navigate these challenges and avoid relapse. Proactive communication can help you get the support you want from your crew and family. 

Six steps to take to maintain healthy boundaries and keep you on track:
  1. Communicate boundaries early on. Depending on how involved your family and crew are in your early recovery, they may or may not know how to approach their relationship with you. What is okay to talk about and what is not helpful? How open about your experience do you want to be? What can they do to help? Letting them know early on clears up confusion and gives them the best chance to be supportive.  
  2. Identify triggering situations. Take time to think about what may trigger you, and which situations or events you may want to modify or skip. Discussing these with your crew and loved ones candidly can help you avoid uncomfortable invitations while finding new ways to spend time together. Approaching individual crew members privately may be easier than addressing the shift as a whole. 
  3. Schedule time for you. It may be tempting to give all your time to your crew, spouse or kids since you’ve been away for a while. However, it’s up to you to prioritize your self-care and set a boundary around that time. You can exercise, reflect in a journal, or destress with an enjoyable hobby. Whatever it is, maintaining scheduled, uninterrupted time for yourself shows your family and team you are dedicated to your own well-being.  
  4. Practice what you’ll say. No matter how well you’ve communicated your boundaries, there is still the possibility someone may cross them. Take time to rehearse your responses to these situations, so you aren’t grasping for what to say. If possible, enlist a spouse or trusted friend to help you practice. 
  5. Be ready to leave when necessary. Sometimes, a potentially triggering event is unavoidable, making it more difficult to navigate your boundaries. Before you encounter these moments, decide where your limit is and have a game plan for how to exit the situation. Have a partner go with you who understands the game plan. You can also discuss it with the host prior to the event.  
  6. Let go of others’ issues. There may be people in your life who are not ready to respect your boundaries and support you in your recovery. They may still be using drugs or alcohol themselves, carry resentment for past grievances or have a hard time understanding your boundaries. In the end, it is not up to you to change them. Accepting that you can only control your own actions can free you, allowing you to focus on your recovery and a healthier, more fulfilling life.
Clearly communicating boundaries can be the start of a new, healthier stage in your relationship with others and help smooth over uncomfortable situations, protect your mental health and avoid relapse. 

Putting others before yourself is deeply ingrained in fire service culture, so self-sacrifice to keep the peace or make others happy may seem natural. However, maintaining strict boundaries lets you to maintain your recovery and work towards the best version of yourself as a crewmate, spouse, parent or friend.  

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, the first step is to ask for help. The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery is exclusively for IAFF members struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complicated grief, substance abuse and other co-occurring behavioral health problems. To determine what level of treatment may be right for you, call today for a free, no-obligation and confidential screening.

We can help. Call 855-900-8437 or

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