It might be tempting to wear an armored vest to family gatherings—to protect yourself from your mother’s jeering jabs, your sister’s retorts, and your second cousin’s prickly observations.
But there’s another way to achieve self-preservation, says licensed marriage and family therapist Angela Sitka: setting boundaries. These are “like a promise you make to yourself to take care of your own needs while interacting in your relationships,” she says. “It’s a standard you’re setting to describe how you want to be treated—and you can respect that promise by taking action any time there's a violation and your well-being is at risk.” Almost anyone can benefit from setting boundaries—especially those who have spent years entangled in a toxic family dynamic.
“Boundaries” has recently become a buzzword, and in some cases, experts say, people misunderstand and misuse it. You might recall high-profile instances of people reportedly weaponizing “therapy speak,” including boundaries, to create a power dynamic within their relationships. When that happens, the concept is typically being employed incorrectly and treated as a way to control someone’s behavior or make unfair demands.
Healthy boundaries, on the other hand, are beneficial for both the person setting them and whoever’s on the receiving end. They can boost self-esteem and help people feel safe, reducing conflict and even bringing family members closer together. “It really helps develop the kinds of relationships where you can enjoy people’s presence more and be present in the moment with them,” says Sitka, who’s based in Santa Rosa, Calif. “A lot of us have these events where we see family—and we either don’t want to or can’t cut them off—so at least we can enjoy it a bit more if we feel in control of the situation.” Boundaries don’t have to be fair or accommodating, she says; they’re meant to acknowledge your own needs, and in some cases—especially if someone is emotionally abusive or mocking or stonewalling you—the boundary needs to be firm. But in many circumstances, there’s room for some negotiation and grace if someone doesn’t fulfill their end of the bargain.
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Sitka’s clients frequently create boundaries around things like time spent with relatives, unsolicited advice and criticism, and finances. Say your mother is constantly enraged that you don’t spend enough time with your extended family during the holidays. You could set a boundary and inform her: “We’re going to stop by the family holiday party for one hour, but we’re not going to spend the night at Uncle Bill’s until he gets sober,” she says. “It’s really speaking up for yourself in a way where you’re taking responsibility for your own feelings and actions, but you're also clearly communicating what you want from the other person.”
Here, four family therapists explain how to go about setting boundaries with your relatives.
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Spend time reflecting
There are important steps you can take prior to even approaching your family, says Elizabeth Campbell, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Spokane, Wash. The first is to increase your self-awareness. “Spend time journaling and talking with other people to identify what your needs, limits, and values are,” she says. It can also be helpful to reflect on what your physical reaction is to different scenarios—if your heart starts racing or you break into a sweat every time you’re around your parents, for example, consider it a strong hint that you might benefit from setting a boundary.
Communicate your boundaries calmly and clearly
Once you’ve figured out what your boundaries are, you need to articulate them. Laurie Carmichael, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Marino, Calif., suggests following this basic conversation template: “If you say or do X again, I will need to do Y.” For example, she notes, you might say to a parent: “If you comment about my clothes again, I’ll need to excuse myself from the dinner table.” Or: “I feel disrespected when you address my partner with that nickname you've given him. If you continue to do so, we won't be able to attend family dinners anymore.”
“It’s very clearly naming what it is and saying what’s going to happen,” she says. “That’s different from a request, because you’re not saying, ‘Stop talking about my weight.’” Rather, you’re simply making clear what you will and will not tolerate. Unlike when you ask someone to do something—the outcome of which is out of your control—boundaries are enforceable.
Above all, Carmichael instructs, be brief and direct—this is not the time for vagueness. “There’s no need for fluff or apologizing,” she says. “Just get to the point in a clear, kind way.”
If someone violates your boundary, give them a chance to course correct
There’s no guidebook for exactly what to do when someone violates your boundaries—it’s tough, therapists agree. But while there are situations where you shouldn’t compromise and really need to extract yourself to safeguard your well-being, there are others where more communication can be necessary and helpful. You could start with a reminder that clearly reiterates a consequence that fits the specific situation. For example, Campbell suggests this wording: “I’m not OK being talked to in that way, and if you continue to yell, I’ll need to leave.” (Or hang up the phone or go to a different room, depending on where you’re having this conversation.) Then follow through.
You could also initiate a “values conversation,” she notes. Let’s say you’re frustrated because your mom is pushing food on you—which you’ve set a boundary around. If she persists no matter how many times you say no, try offering a values-based reason for declining: “I love that food, and I enjoyed the small amount I had. I’m focusing on my health right now, and what makes me feel really good is having just a little bit.” That way, Campbell says, you’re explaining what your values are, rather than simply saying, “I don’t want it.” Then ask your mom about her values: “I hear you repeatedly asking me to eat this. What is it that my eating it would communicate to you?” Perhaps she’ll say she wants you to relax and enjoy your time at home—at which point you can tell her exactly what helps you feel that way.
Prioritize your own self-care
If you decide it’s not OK for your family members to criticize you or call you names, make sure you’re treating yourself with the same respect. You could even set boundaries that are just for you, says Bryana Kappadakunnel, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Santa Monica, Calif. For example: “I’m not going to allow myself to be invested in how my parents react to me—how they react is all about them and says nothing about who I am as a person.”
During the holiday season, in particular, Kappadakunnel sees lots of mothers who give, give, and give, and then feel resentful when they don’t get much in return. “Sometimes an important boundary for yourself is, ‘I will take as much as I give,’” she says.
Respect your family members’ boundaries
Sometimes you might be on the receiving end of a new boundary. If that’s the case, take it in stride—assuming it’s healthy and not, for example, a statement like: “I’ll leave you if you don’t do exactly what I ask”—and respect it. “It doesn’t mean you suck as a human,” Carmichael says. “It’s somebody putting their heart on the line and saying, ‘I care about you enough that I want to bring this to you.’”
Boundaries, she adds, are inherently hard, both for the person setting them and whoever’s on the other side. But ultimately, “they’re an act of connection” that can strengthen fragile bonds.
Know that it’s an ongoing process
Boundaries aren’t magically set and enforced and adhered to overnight—especially when you’re dealing with a long history of complicated family dynamics. “The whole family system will have to shift,” Sitka says. “We have to be prepared that it’s likely going to be an ongoing process. It might take several conversations and different strategies, and you might have to adjust the boundary.” At some point, she adds, you might even want to ask for feedback from the person you’re setting boundaries with—the next time the problem arises, get their opinion on what would help you both stay calm. (If the person is shaming you or rude to you, however, Sitka notes that you won’t want to engage in as much back-and-forth.)
It’s important to keep in mind “that it’s going to take time to teach others how we want to be treated,” she says. “At first, it’s kind of exhausting, but it does get easier over time.” And as much as possible, be fluid: The boundaries you set today might need to change in a month or in a year or two. No matter how they evolve, their core function—protecting your well-being so you can have stronger, healthier relationships with your family members—remains the same.
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