Having healthy boundaries is self-care 101. It’s about setting limits and rules for how interpersonal relationships work best for you and sticking to them.
While that’s easy enough in some situations, it can get tricky when dealing with challenging family members — as we midlife folk often must do with growing kids and aging parents.
But just because you’re in the sandwich generation doesn’t mean you have to be a hero. As relationship expert and author Nedra Glover Tawwab reminds us:
As a child, relationships are put on you, but as an adult, you get to choose who you want to be in relationships with and how — even with family.
Or, perhaps, especially with family, as emotions run extra high when dealing with someone who’s in your life, for better or worse. It’s worth taking steps to ensure it’s the former, not the latter.
A Bit About Boundaries
First, the best-ever boundary advice from writer Anne Lamott:
‘No’ is a complete sentence.
Ah, if it could only be so easy. One of the most common misconceptions about setting boundaries is that you’re being mean or hurtful. Actually, you’re doing something kind and loving if you understand the essential characteristics:
- Clear yet reasonable limits
- Your needs and others’ needs are equally valued
- Authenticity is paramount (vs. pleasing or being a victim)
- Not a result of shame, guilt, worry, or fear
- Appropriate channeling of anger and frustration (vs. shutting down or aggression)
- Based on reality
Now, onward to how to set limits with those you love (and/or are related to).
Relatively Simple Boundary-Setting
Start by deciding what a “successful” relationship looks like to you. Clarify the dynamics of your exchanges, and take them into account as you redefine what’s optimal — and realistic.
Relatedly, consider what you can (and can’t) control. This assessment is central to Tawwab’s advice on how to hold your boundaries.
When the solution to the problem is ‘they need to change,’ the problem will never go away. You can only control your side of the street.
You also must become more comfortable with discomfort. Stating your limits can be uncomfortable, especially if you were raised in a family with unhealthy boundaries(🙋♀️). You might be met with negative pushback, so be ready for that.
Sometimes, the best way to have a relationship with a difficult relative is by keeping your distance. No need to cut off completely, but consider limiting conversations, staying in a hotel when you visit, and avoiding triggering topics.
How hard this process will be is all relative. But if you can hold your boundaries with challenging family members, you can do so with everyone else. And that means your dream of leading a happier, more peaceful life is no longer out of bounds.
How to Set Boundaries With a Difficult Family Member (New York Times)
Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships by Nedra Glover Tawwab (Amazon)