Getting married last year was a refresher course in boundaries. If our families had got their way, we’d have been trussed up like something out of Coming To America or even My Big Fat Gipsy Wedding, with five hundred guests – all of them ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ don’t you know – ‘Sexual Chocolate’ for a performer, and my stepfather seated at the back instead of standing at my side….
There’s nothing like family to bring out the people pleaser in you. They know how to strum on every guilt nerve you have because you share the longest history and to make matters worse, you make a rod for your own back by projecting your fears and assuming roles that don’t serve you.
Even if your family doesn’t actually treat you that well and they are in fact, incredibly dysfunctional, you can still end up near losing your mind about how to fit in, tow the line, and get their approval. Despite not growing up around them, my extended family love bandying around the term ‘family’ and there’s this expectation that you ‘should’ do certain things. “Family do this…. Family do that….”. There’s a fear of crossing the familia. As I said to my father when the great bust-up happened, “Who do you all think you are? The Sopranos?”
We can build family up in our mind to be some almighty force and as long as we decide that they or certain members have all of the power and we ‘must’ do this and we ‘should’ do that, we take a lesser role and end up being treated like a child.
You’re not being disrespectful to your family by 1) choosing to be the adult you are with your own life and 2) having boundaries. It’s an unrealistic expectation whether you or they have it, to be expected to base your identity, worth and happiness around whether you’re pleasing a group of people.
Boundaries are something you learn through trial and error and there’s something that I know with certainty: You can and are allowed to have boundaries with your family. It’s not “wrong” so cancel your guilt account.
Boundaries don’t mean that you don’t love or care about them or that you will lose approval or even lose them out of your life completely, and if the latter is the case, that’s a very insecure existence that you cannot sustain.
You ‘growing up’ and having your own life that includes them shouldn’t be something that threatens your family but yes, sometimes it’s how they feel. Being a doormat is only going to make you miserable and continue the dysfunction.
I get so many people asking me how I deal with family trying to bust boundaries and I get just as many declaring that boundaries are “impossible” with family, which just isn’t true. Granted, there are some people, family or not, who will try to get their way by hook or by crook because they’re at the abusive end of the spectrum and just like you don’t negotiate with terrorists, I wouldn’t negotiate with your emotional health. It is painful to have to distance or even completely opt out for your safety, but if doing so allows you to live your life without torment, take it. If you’re thinking you can people please to create a tipping point of change, you’re making the mistake of seeing you as an extension of these people which is co-dependency.
It’s critical not to confuse your discomfort or their reaction to you not kow-towing to their rules or allowing them to direct you, with the validity of boundaries.
Boundaries are for you. You’re not doing it to influence or even control the behaviour of others; you say no, you have boundaries and you set limits because you know what does and doesn’t work for you and you want to be happy. It’s not about you working out guidelines for others; it’s about deciding how you want to live and living it.
They’re going to respond however they’re going to respond and experience has taught me that it’s best not to go around with your fancy-pants boundaries expecting people to be rewarding you, praising you, or even telling them about how you want things to be. Just get on with it.
It’s been a process of trial and error and it will be a process of trial and error for you. Learn as you go, don’t expect to get it ‘right’ first time or even the fifth or fifteenth time but do realise that you will gradually see progress over time although you might not recognise it at the time.
It’s best to start off with known factors – it’s amazing how many people act ‘surprised’ about stuff that’s been going on for ages. You know exactly where, which and how family members tend to jump or rattle your fence – work out the best alternative response for you.
I worked out several years ago after a stern talking to from my acupuncturist about holding myself hostage on phone calls, that I didn’t need to say “My boundary is that I don’t want to spend two hours on the phone with you draining the sh*t out of me each day”; I just needed to show it by having shorter calls, having opt out reasons ready, and saying something as simple as “I can’t talk right now”. The sky did not fall down.
Some people if given an inch will take a mile. Or they’ll at least try. Just because someone takes the chance and asks, doesn’t mean that asking equals you must acquiesce.
They can and will try the guilt card but it’s best to stick to the facts. I appreciate that I came out of my mother’s womb or that somebody else did something for me, but that doesn’t mean that I owe boundary busts.
Do stuff because you want to and would do it without expecting something back. Don’t do it for approval or to put an IOU in the system.
Stop trying to control outcomes. Let the chips fall where they may. I learned this the hard way with the wedding, the being ganged upon (apparently it’s called ‘family’) and going through a grieving process of sorts – people are going to say what they’re going to say, think what they’re going to think and do what they’re going to do, so it’s best to get on with the business of being you.
It did not matter whether I compromised or didn’t compromise, I would still have been talked about and there would still have been a fallout, and actually, it all needed to happen.
If you want to do a favour and can do it, plus it doesn’t involve you eroding your self-esteem, knock yourself out. I like doing things for my mother for instance; what I don’t like is being harangued or guilted into something by anybody including myself. If you’re being asked to do something that goes against your own values or is even illegal, decline and don’t feel guilty about it. Yes of course you can go and rob a shop if asked but does it mean you should say yes?
Family doesn’t equal being contracted do criminal work.
If you’re being asked to compromise on something that’s about you or your arrangement, decide what works for you and then let them know. It might not be exactly what they wanted but it’s your compromise so they also have to compromise. My family didn’t want my stepfather walking me down the aisle but I said both could or only he would so they had to suck it up.
If you’re the only one being expected to compromise, that’s not compromising; it’s losing.
Don’t be wishy-washy and passive. I know it’s easy to agree now, backtrack later or to make disagreeing noises or vague protestations without actually saying ‘No’ or whatever it is you’re being indirect about, but when you hint, that means no direct message and opening you up to negotiation. I offered to do something, they then asked for something else, I did say no but then I also sort of intimated that I might be able to do the other. This morning I said, “This is what I’m doing [the original offer]” and they accepted it. Be direct and firm.
If you show fear to family members who know how to play you, they know your ‘tell’ or even your Achilles heel, so look at how you can neutralise your tell (it could be as simple as not biting the bait when they create conflict) or addressing the vulnerability.
Nobody can use something against you that you’re not using against you.
Always remember that a lot of how people react to you not jumping to their beat as you used to, is about their discomfort in their comfort zone but it’s not up to you to manage that so get on with managing your own comfort…with boundaries.
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