Getting married last year was a refresher course in boundaries. If our families had their way, the wedding would have been very Coming To America. Or, yes, even My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. There would have been 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, toe the line, and get their approval.
Despite not growing up around them, my extended family love bandying around the term “family”. There’s this expectation that you should do certain things. “Family do this…. Family do that….”. There’s a fear of crossing la 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 minds to be some almighty force. As long as we decide that family or certain members have all of the power and we must do this and 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 family or that you will lose approval. Boundaries don’t mean losing family completely from your life. 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 family shouldn’t be something that threatens your family. Still, sometimes it’s how they feel. Being a doormat, though, is only going to make you miserable and continue the dysfunction.
I get so many people asking me how I deal with my 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’s painful to have to distance yourself or even completely opt out for your safety. It is. But if doing so allows you to live your life without torment, take it. If you think you can people-please to create a tipping point of change, you’re making the mistake of seeing yourself as an extension of these people. This is codependency.
It’s critical not to confuse your discomfort or their reaction to you not kowtowing to their rules or allowing them to direct you with the validity of boundaries.
Boundaries are for you. You’re not creating boundaries 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. Boundaries aren’t about you working out guidelines for others; they’re about deciding how you want to live and living it.
Family are going to respond however they’re going to respond. Experience has taught me that it’s best not to go around with your fancy-pants boundaries expecting people to reward or praise you. Don’t tell them about how you want things to be. Just get on with it.
It’s been a process of trial and error for me, and it will be for you too.
Learn as you go. Don’t expect to get it “right” the first time or even the fifth or fifteenth time. Do realise, though, that you will gradually see progress over time, although you might not recognise in the moment.
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.
Several years ago, after a stern talking-to from my acupuncturist about holding myself hostage on phone calls, I finally embraced the truth. 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” also helped. 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. That said, it 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 up on (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 to 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 make disagreeing noises or vague protestations without actually saying “No” or whatever you’re being indirect about. When you hint, though, that means no direct message and opening you up to negotiation. I recently offered to do something, and the person 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 address the vulnerability.
Nobody can use something against you that you’re not using against yourself.
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.
Are you ready to stop silencing and hiding yourself in an attempt to “please” or protect yourself from others? My new book, The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (HarperCollins/Harper Horizon), is out now.