Maintaining healthy boundaries with family members is crucial for one’s mental and emotional well-being. As much as we love our families, it is important to recognize that we are all individuals with our own lives, goals, and dreams. Setting boundaries helps us to protect our personal space and maintain healthy relationships with our loved ones.
Here are some tips for establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries with family:
Know your location
Here “location” refers to the ethnic, religious, political, social, cultural, generational, and other ways that you relate. There’s no instruction manual that can capture all of the intersections of your particular family history and experience, and to try and capture something as “boundary setting” in a universal way is impossible. This would be like writing a step-by-step manual on “how to fall in love.” Consider what it is that means, feels, is experienced for you as “safety” — bodily, in the somatic, as well as psychological, at the level of attachment, “I can get my needs met,” and “I know where I begin and where I end.”
For some, loud voices and lots of people talking over each other feels like a warm, inviting, womb-like experience of home. For others, that same experience can feel activating, dangerous, a “walking on egg shells experience.” Pressing questions about sex and politics may create a felt sense of “I feel connected in a wonderful, safe way” or otherwise “I am in danger and I need to escape.” The particular emotional content, the meaning of these interactions is something worth exploring in therapy, especially for those who are finding themselves journeying away from “normal” (e.g. “just the way it is in my childhood”) into a new way of engaging with the world (e.g. “my partner and don’t want that ‘normal’ to be ‘normal’ for our kids”).
Therapy can also be helpful in scaffolding the boundary setting process, as some families struggle to stay healthily connected — boundaries can be perceived as threatening, blaming, disrupting the way of things. “The nail (standing out) gets the hammer,” to roughly paraphrase, is a saying in some communities. The added support, skill and resource development that comes from a therapeutic alliance can be necessary when setting boundaries with past (or current) abusers, family members active in their addiction, and other challenging relations. This can take the form of recognizing the role or position one played in the family. The scapegoat, the golden child, the exile, “the bi atheist in the conservative religious family,” and so on. The value of articulating, putting language to these systems and one’s role within them can help inform the boundary setting process — for the “black sheep” to maintain connection with family, as well as a real sense of safety, lends itself to neurosurgery more than a trip to the grocery store.
Know what’s important for you
It’s essential to know your limits and understand what you can and cannot tolerate from your family members. This is further complicated for those who are in an intimate partnership or marriage, and who have children. Many times, clients will report the “dual process” experience, where they notice behavior that they once accepted started to register as inappropriate when their children, significant other, new addition to the family member entered the picture. It may have been “normal” to grow up around “that behavior,” and deciding to set a limit, consequence, expectation on “that behavior” can be difficult. Think about the behaviors or actions that make you feel uncomfortable, stressed, or anxious. This could be anything from unsolicited advice to being constantly criticized or belittled. Knowing your limits, values, needs will help you establish boundaries that are clear and effective. Ultimately, developing a felt sense of “safety” will guide your development of these boundaries.
Once you have identified your limits, it’s important to communicate them clearly to your family members. Be direct and assertive but also respectful. This is contingent upon what the social, cultural rules are in one’s family. You may be in a family where “setting boundaries” is outside of the norm, some alien thing, or risky. The way that you do this may require some research, collaborating with others who have similar backgrounds and experience, and some curiosity around the whole family system. The goal is to let your family members know what behaviors or actions you are not comfortable with and why.
Starbucks, as an example, gives feedback in roughly the form of “What, what, why,” or “here’s what you did, here’s what you may do instead, and here’s why you will do it that way.” This is an example of very clear, concrete, tangible expectation setting.
It’s important to express your feelings without blaming or attacking. The hopeful outcome of these kinds of conversations is that all will leave with a clear road map for shared safety, connection. Use “I” statements to avoid sounding accusatory, and make sure your tone is calm and respectful. For example, you could say, “I feel uncomfortable when you show up unannounced at my house. In the future, please call or text me before coming over.”
A couple of other examples from recent history and common social concerns.
“I understand (restate their views related to pandemic protocols), and if you’re going to be around our family, I expect you to wear a mask.”
“I will ask you to leave if you drink any alcohol at my house.”
“I am not looking for feedback or advice on (insert decision, plan, etc).”
“I am hoping we can have this conversation when I feel less activated, and (insert conditions that support mutual connection and safety).”
“I want you to come over, I love having you around, I just ask that you take your shoes off and don’t feed my dog any food from the table.”
Stick to your boundaries
Setting boundaries is not enough; you also need to stick to them. If you allow your family members to violate your boundaries, they may not take them seriously. It’s important to be firm and assertive when communicating boundaries to a family member who violates them. For some who gravitate towards a soft, or easy going approach, this can be challenging. There are a few ways to do it — the “matter of fact” approach can sometimes be a more manageable middle way for those who are at either end of the aggressive, passive polarities. Don’t apologize for setting boundaries or make excuses for why they are necessary. As much as you are able, indicate your desire to connect, your need for safety, and stick to the facts. Simply state your expectations and stick to them. For example, if a family member repeatedly interrupts you when you’re speaking, you could say, “I’m sorry, but I need to finish what I’m saying. Please let me speak and then you can share your thoughts.”
As life changes, so may your boundaries. It’s important to re-evaluate your boundaries periodically and adjust them as needed. Your family members may also change their behaviors, and you may need to modify your boundaries accordingly. Communicating boundaries to a family member can be stressful, so it’s important to seek support from other family members, friends, or a therapist if necessary. They can offer advice, encouragement, and perspective. Remember that setting boundaries with family members can be difficult, but it’s important for your well-being. Stay calm, firm, and consistent, and don’t be afraid to seek support if needed. With time and practice, you can establish healthy boundaries that improve your relationships with your family members.
Part of the re-evaluation includes some pragmatic questions. Am I safer now that I’ve established these boundaries? Am I connecting, and connected in the way I want to be? For some entering the counseling office, the boundary setting process is a story of attempts and failures to connect safely — there may be too much toxicity in the system, or too much trauma history to safely connect. Effective boundary setting in an unhealthy family system can sometimes lead to further rupture and conflict. Then, the re-evaluation can take the form of asking, was it worth it? On this note, I’ll refer back to a few essential concepts here: connection, safety, and values. Healing internally means, in part, an introspective experience that is contained (in the therapeutic sense) in safety. Relationships work the same — healing in relationships requires a shared sense of safety as we connect. This isn’t a microwave-speed experience, it’s the end result of effort, intent, communication, rupture and repair, failure and trying again until the effect is felt through the whole system. Boundary setting can be a means to manifest safety in the spaces between, where we connect, and ultimately the aim is connection in safety.
Does this sound like a journey you want to start? You may have found yourself thrust onto this journey by nature of being dropped into your life, your family, your community — you’re already doing it, trying to figure it out.
Reach out, there’s help available, and healing is within reach.