Setting Boundaries: How to Prioritize Yourself in a Dysfunctional Family

With the holiday season upon us, it is extra important to keep a close eye on mental health. The holidays are the mental health crisis season: days are shorter, weather cools, additional financial expenses pile up, and there is societal expectation for contact with family.

While time with family is rewarding for some, for others it can cause a ripple of negative feelings and interactions. If you come from a dysfunctional family then you may already know how painful it can be to live with poor boundaries. In your family you may never even have been exposed to effective boundary setting.

In this blog we’ll explore how to set and maintain boundaries. Healthy boundaries allow us to pursue a life worth living. They’re self-preservation, not selfishness. Boundaries allow us to enjoy the holiday season as we see fit and minimize unnecessary stress.

Setting Boundaries with Family 101

There exists a powerful, deeply-rooted myth that biological family is exempt from boundaries. This myth is referred to when people say things like, “family is everything”, “you should forgive and forget”, and “if you don’t change your mind now, you’ll regret it when they’re gone”. Folks, I’m here today that from a mental health perspective, this issue is not so clear cut. Unfortunately our society encourages us to accept things from biological family that we would not accept from anyone else, because it is family. In my professional opinion biology is not a pass to cause harm, either emotional or physical. When managed well boundaries facilitate close loving relationships, protect us from harm, and enable us to pursue a life worth living. To set effective boundaries requires skills. Said another way, boundary-setting is a behavioral practice. The skills to set effective boundaries with family takes time and repetition. The road may not always be easy, but the results are worth the struggle.

Step 1: Recognize that it’s okay to set boundaries.

You are not morally bad for choosing to live life your own way. As I often tell clients, “you are the CEO of your life”. You have the right to protect your emotional health and wellbeing.

Step 2: Breakdown the Intensity

Your first step in setting boundaries is to break down the situation on an intensity scale of 0 to 10. A 0 is a situation so small, and the relationship is so good, that it’s not worth mentioning any potential conflict. For example, your best friend chose pizza for your lunch date when you really wanted sushi, and you don’t even mention it. Maybe you picked lunch last time so you accept a pizza date because in general this relationship is solid. If it feels like a very small issue then it’s “low intensity”. We can dial the intensity all the way up to a 10, which I describe as “relationship destroying”. This is when the situation and relationship are both so bad that if you saw the person coming you would lock the door and call the police. That is, your boundaries would be very physical in nature for your own protection. Most situations are somewhere between a 0 and a 10 and require a nuanced response. You need to assess the intensity before developing an action plan.

Step 3: Use Assertive Communication to Set Boundaries

After you’ve determined a need for boundaries and assessed intensity, it’s time to use your assertive communication skills. Speaking directly to someone about needed boundaries can be awkward or even painful. But we cannot be certain someone knows what we want unless we tell them directly. Use this guide to get started:

Share how your feelings are related to facts. Outline the negative impact the person and their behavior is having on your relationship. Be very direct about your feelings and identify specifically what is bothering you. For example, “when you talk about how much you want a new iPhone over family dinner, I feel worried you might be mad at me for setting a price limit on Secret Santa. Then it’s hard for me to stay focused on the conversation.”

Ask for what you want. Tell the other person what you need to rectify this feeling or situation. “Instead of talking about our wish lists over family dinner, maybe we can talk about our goals for the New Year.”

Give time for request. Humans take time to learn. Even people with the best of intentions to change their behavior will slip up. The length of time you determine to grant is up to you and the intensity of the situation.

Outline next steps. If the behavior continues outline the steps you will take as a result. In the above example, the person speaking may choose not to attend family dinners going forward if his or her request cannot be met.

Let’s look at another example of assertive communication in action:

You have a sister who calls you regularly to ask for money. You love your sister and you want to have a relationship with her. However, you have your own financial needs to consider and if you continue to give her money at the rate she’s asking, you’re going to be in trouble yourself. Her calls have gotten so frequent that when you see her name on the caller ID a swell of stress overwhelms you.

Share your feelings: Talk to your sister about how her frequent calls and requests have been stressing you out. “I know you’re going through a hard time right now. But when you ask me for money I start to feel frustrated. I think that you don’t care about my own bills, or that you think my life is so easy compared to yours.”

Ask for what you want: “I do want to be a supportive listener for you, and I love that you trust me with your stress. But when you call please don’t ask me for money.”

Give time for request. Even when others are willing to accept our boundaries, it may take them a while to remember the parameters if they are new to the relationship. Give more time for less intense situations and less time for more intense ones.

Outline next steps. “If you can’t respect my boundary on this, I will not be able to accept your calls.” It is very important to remember that boundaries are not about what other people do. Rather, your boundaries are about what you do. In this example, the sister may or may not continue to call and ask for money. But the other sibling is entirely in control of whether or not they pick up the phone.

Step 5: Weathering the Storm

When you make the decision to set boundaries, especially with family, it’s challenging. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for others to feel disappointment, sadness, and anger when we set limits with them. Any emotional pain you may experience setting boundaries with family is very real and can feel unbearable. But the key to remember is that it’s temporary. The storm you’re in will pass and on the other side is peacefulness, joy, self-love, and respect. It is your life worth living. Let me say that again, it is your life worth living.

Setting boundaries is no easy task. It’s natural to be concerned about what others think of you for putting yourself first. If you’re setting boundaries with family, it can be even harder. The feelings that arise can be challenging to manage. Ask for help from a mental health professional. They will help you navigate your situation and equip you with healthy coping strategies.

Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to be applied to situations where you are consistently emotionally or physically unsafe. If you are in an unsafe environment, seek help immediately.

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