When Enough is Enough: How to Set Boundaries With Toxic Family Members!
Do you struggle to get along with emotionally needy parents, interfering in-laws, mean-spirited siblings, or intrusive friends? Where do you draw the line when it comes to charity or being used as a doormat?
Some of us have difficulty defining healthy boundaries as adults when our boundaries were varied and ill-formed in childhood. It is in growing up that we develop our different attachment styles, and sometimes due to these attachment styles, we develop relationships with unhealthy boundaries. The ones with family are often the most difficult.
A healthy relationship should be defined by good boundaries.
Where do you draw the line?
Of course, we should help people in need. In particular, your family members, and it is best not to alienate them. But that does not mean we have to engage with them in conversations or participate in activities with them if they fail regarding mutual respect, honest dialogue, receptivity, and understanding. Where these are lacking, we can and should set proper limits on that relationship.
How to Set Appropriate Boundaries:
Ask yourself, "How close can I be with this person, how much time can I spend with them, and in what context can I associate with them without becoming uncomfortable, used, or manipulated." Your dignity demands it!
You do not have to cut people entirely out of your life. You can set partial healthy limits. By setting partial limits with people you are becoming overwhelmed by, you can decide where and how that relationship will be going forward. Too often, we allow these people to dictate these relationships, and they become manipulative; they become the victim. Setting partial limits lets you select the boundaries of the relationship, refusing to put up with certain kinds of treatment. If they refuse these boundaries, they are the ones alienating themselves. You can always leave the door open for the return of that relationship, provided they respect certain limitations, such as no longer "playing the victim" or manipulation, and they can demonstrate significant change.
Helping clients set appropriate boundaries comes up quite often, and each client's situation is unique in and of itself. What this usually looks like in therapy is helping them know whether the person needs to be written completely off and, if not, how to enforce these limits in the relationship. It is a continual process with no immediate change in the relationship other than having drawn a line in the sand for your own sanity.
I will tell my client they do not have to avoid the person altogether (we could explore this if necessary). You can even iterate that you want them in your life, provided they respect you and your wishes (keeping in mind they can be disagreeable as long as they are charitable). But as soon as they say or do something grievous, gather your things and leave. Be done with them for the day. Don't let it stop you from seeing or talking to them the following day, but cut it off for now. You do not need an excuse; your silence will say it all. If it is at your own home and you would rather not ask them to leave, to save the peace, go to another room. Refuse to entertain them. If you are on the phone with them and they are playing the victim card, "you don't care about me anymore," and making you feel like the devil incarnate, make up an excuse to get off the phone. Pretend to lose signal; I don't care. You have tried arguing and convincing them differently for years, and it does not work. They will not change. In truth, this has been the most taxing and emotionally draining part of your relationship with them. It is important to remain charitable yourself but it is time to stop trying to make things better by changing the person and time to set some healthy boundaries. Part of setting those boundaries is for you to draw the line where you will not let conversations and the relationship go any further. With your actions, you're conveying a message that respect is key to having a meaningful relationship with you.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.