How can I set boundaries with my family?

A version of this article was originally published by Supportiv.

When you grow up around unhealthy behaviors, it is normal to believe that this is just how families are and that you are destined to continue on this path. Two important steps to processing your emotions around your family and making better choices for your own mental wellness are:

1. Being able to notice/label dysfunctional behavior, and

2. Recognizing the stress, anxiety or other symptoms that behavior causes you.

It’s common for these traits to repeat themselves throughout generations. Your parents may have picked up on cues from their parents, which their parents picked up from their family [1].

Do not despair: It is possible to break this cycle. The most powerful tool for breaking dysfunctional patterns is your own awareness and willingness to self-examine.

Remember your needs are your own

Family members sometimes do not see their own dysfunction and the burden it causes others. They find it easier to accept toxic behavior in order to keep the family peace.

For example, a sibling might try to guilt you into visiting your aging parents, even if those parents were abusive to you. Your sibling may have also been abused, but views visiting as a duty—even if it causes them stress, anxiety and emotional pain.

You, on the other hand, might push against this. You know white-knuckling a family gathering helps nobody. And you see it’s not worth enduring the emotional pain.

Remember you’re not wrong, and resist the guilt. Different people have different value systems and ideas of family expectations. It is not your responsibility to live up to someone else’s ideals, especially when those ideals cause you direct emotional distress.

Setting boundaries with a dysfunctional family

Once you see that a family member’s guilt and anxiety is their own, it is easier to separate yourself from their expectations and just do what feels right to you. Setting your own boundaries becomes easier when you recognize that everyone’s boundaries can be different.

You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you do not take steps to ensure your own physical and mental wellbeing, you cannot adequately take care of others, no matter how much pressure is being put on you to do so.

What does it look like to set boundaries?

Brené Brown, an expert on shame and vulnerability, defines boundaries as “simply our lists of what’s okay and what’s not okay” [2].

Within a family setting, this might look like:

  • saying no to spending time with family members who make you uncomfortable
  • asking a substance-abusing relative to not use around you or your children, or
  • asking to finish speaking without being interrupted.

To be effective, boundaries must come with clear consequences. Let your family member know what the consequence will be if your boundary is crossed. (i.e. If you drink at my party, I will ask you to leave.) And follow through if they do cross your boundary.

Being honest with family is sometimes easier said than done. Here are some tips to help create boundaries with dysfunctional family:

Ways to create boundaries with dysfunctional family

Take a break.

Spending time away from certain family members can help you identify where your stress is coming from and what you need to adjust in that relationship going forward.

Write it out.

Journaling can be an extremely effective tool for processing your emotions, identifying patterns and planning your next steps. Allow yourself to think about what you want from that person in your life and your relationship.

If you have to interact with a family member who causes you stress, it may help to write a letter saying everything you want to say to them. You do not have to send it! Just writing it all down can be cathartic. It can also help you plan what to want to say if you choose to have a serious conversation with them in the future.

Role play.

If you have made a decision to create boundaries with a family member but are afraid to take the next step, ask a trusted friend to play the role of the other party so you can rehearse your words. Rehearsing can reduce stress and discomfort when you are in the real situation, give an opportunity to plan what you will say and prepare for their reactions.

Use “I” Statements.

Focus on how their actions make you feel, rather than the other person being wrong. This can help keep communication lines open and lessen the chance of the other person becoming defensive.

Share with others who understand.

Friends can be a wonderful resource for venting and getting advice, but they will not always be able to identify with your struggle. Consider seeking advice from organizations devoted to specific issues, like Al-Anon, a volunteer-led group therapy option for friends and family of alcoholics.

You can also seek out help from peers going through the same issue at Supportiv. Their supportive chats are instant, anonymous, and available 24/7.

Seek professional help.

Try going to family or individual counseling. A professional therapist can help you identify dysfunctional family patterns you might not yet see and help you to create tools to set boundaries and lift yourself out of the situation at hand.

If you think your family relationships are impacting your mental health, take a mental health test online and keep exploring this site to learn more about managing your mental health.

References

  1. Jaffee et al. (2013). Safe, Stable, Nurturing Relationships Break the Intergenerational Cycle of Abuse: A Prospective Nationally Representative Cohort of Children in the United Kingdom. Journal of Adolescent Health 53(4 0), S4-10. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4212819/
  2. Brown. (2015). Rising Strong. Random House Publishing Group.