9 Ways to Set Boundaries With Your Family Without Getting Into a Full-Blown Argument
It's okay to live a life that fulfills you, even if your family doesn't understand.
When it comes to boundaries, social media is swarming with posts and memes dedicated to the matter. While some of them make total sense, others feel like a ploy to avoid reality and holding oneself accountable. Because of the popularity of (and polar opposite views on) boundaries—especially at a time when the nation feels so divided on so many things—we can't help but wonder: What's the best way to set boundaries with family? After all, while drawing lines with friends and significant others can feel rather black and white, putting your hand up and saying "enough" to a toxic family member can be anything but easy.
Nevertheless, according to Dr. Nicole Beurkens, a holistic child psychologist, boundaries are critical in creating healthy relationships and, more importantly, in taking care of ourselves. So, while children may have a certain set of rules to follow in their household, once you're an adult, it's imperative that you learn how to establish your boundaries as well as how to respect those of others—whether it's in regards to your parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or even children.
What are boundaries?
By definition, boundaries are "lines that mark the limits of an area." While that definition is largely used in reference to land, it holds true for interpersonal boundaries as well. That's because, as South Florida licensed marital and family therapist Sofia Robirosa puts it, "Boundaries are a means to create limits or rules in relationships that guide others on how to be treated and how one will respond back when the boundary is not followed."
How to tell if you have healthy or unhealthy boundaries:
Whether or not your boundaries are healthy or not largely comes down to the reason behind your boundaries and the way in which you execute them. As Robirosa succinctly says, "Healthy boundaries take into consideration one's personal needs, values, and wants while respecting others. Unhealthy boundaries are those that disregard your own and other's values, needs, wants, and limits."
So what does this look like? According to Beurkens, a healthy boundary is one that is clearly stated and consistently enforced. It's not an unspoken cut-off used as a means of avoidance—whether it's avoiding opposing views or nagging comments about weight, your love life, or anything in between.
That's where boundaries are regularly misunderstood. Many folks believe that setting boundaries means they're above whatever it is they're blocking themselves from and that there's no need to communicate. In reality, Beurkens says that the process of setting healthy boundaries requires communication and, as a result, an openness to discomfort.
"It can be very uncomfortable to be forthright and honest about something, especially when you know the other person feels differently," she says. "Healthy boundaries require stating the need or expectation, and then consistently enforcing it and calling it out when the other person oversteps the boundary you've put in place." Because of this "it takes two" mentality, Beurkens admits that healthy boundary-setting is a process and typically is not something that you communicate once and then never have to address again.
On the other end of the spectrum, Beurkens says that unhealthy boundaries occur when they're used as an excuse for total and complete avoidance of another person's thoughts and feelings. "Unhealthy boundaries blur the lines between one person's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and the other person's," she says. "They do not clearly differentiate one person from the other and often involve one person taking responsibility for the other person's emotions or behaviors. This can look like someone changing their emotions, opinions, or behavior to appease another person, which means they sacrifice themselves in the process."
How to set healthy boundaries:
If you're wondering how to set healthy boundaries with toxic family members so as to not lose yourself, we're here to help. Below, find nine ways to stand up for yourself and your mental health.
1. It's okay not to engage in family gossip.
We've all done it, but if talking about other people makes you regularly feel bad, know that you don't have to do this with your mom, dad, or sister if they're trying to talk about someone else in your family. "You can set a boundary around not participating in those conversations and not being a go-between for sharing information about others in the family," Beurkens says.
2. It's okay to ask for time alone.
Robirosa says you can request to have time by yourself, even if you're a guest in a family member's home or vice versa. Just clearly state that you need alone time so you don't make them wonder why you're absent.
3. It's okay to not pick up the phone or reply to that text.
You don't have to be perpetually available, and you don't have to disclose your whereabouts at every turn. "Let them know the hours you are available to respond to calls or texts, and don't engage at the early or late hours of the day if you've said they're off-limits," Beurkens suggests.
4. It's okay to ask them to respect your privacy.
Robirosa says it's not your responsibility to tell your family member every single detail of your life—it's a choice. So if you're uncomfortable disclosing something, don't feel pressured into sharing.
5. It's okay to live a life that fulfills you, even if it's not understood by your family.
All you can do is ask them to respect it, says Robirosa. And if they can't, know that that says more about them then it does about you—so long as what you're asking them to respect is, in fact, a healthy choice (not, for example, expecting your family to stay silent if you're struggling with drugs, are suicidal, or something equally as concerning, which is not a healthy boundary).
6. It's okay to leave a family event or gathering if you're not feeling respected or feeling well.
Just because you've been invited somewhere and were looking forward to it doesn't mean you have to stay if your feelings change. Part of creating healthy boundaries with parents and extended family members is knowing when to exit if you feel that your peace is being disturbed.
7. It's okay to ask a family member to define what kind of relationship they want to have.
If a relationship with your parents, siblings, or extended family feels particularly strained, Robirosa says it's beneficial to directly ask them what type of relationship they want to have. Asking such a question will get the ball rolling in terms of which boundaries need to be in place so you can maintain a relationship. Just know that sometimes, when having such discussions, you or the person you're talking with may feel defensive, especially if emotions start to run high. So remember: The goal is to breathe and remain calm while hearing each other out and making your needs known.
8. It's okay to block that toxic relative on social media.
If continued conversations of boundaries seem to get you nowhere, Beurkens says it's totally acceptable to block your family member on social media. (Think: If they're using it as a means to keep tabs on you at an unhealthy rate or to disseminate hateful political rhetoric that you'll simply never agree with.) While they may feel enraged or hurt by such an act, at the end of the day, you have to protect your own peace.
9. It's okay to end a relationship with a family member if boundaries are not respected.
Blocking a toxic family member on social media is one thing, but fully cutting them out of your life is something else entirely. That said, if you feel like limiting their exposure to you in the real and social worlds is still not enough, removing them from your life may be your best bet. Just make sure that you've clearly communicated your boundaries and how you feel knowing that they continually cross them. After all, healthy boundaries are ones that have been clearly stated; otherwise, someone might not even know that they're doing something offensive or over the line.
A final word
It's natural to want to be understood. Heck, it's probably a goal for most people. However, according to Beurkens, part of setting healthy boundaries is sticking to them, even when you're misunderstood. "A critical part of healthy boundaries is being able to communicate clearly and abide by [your boundaries], even when you don't agree or understand the other person's position," she says.
Put another way, thanks to a brilliant therapist referenced on Instagram: "Sometimes to take care of yourself, you have to be misunderstood." This is all to say: Don't feel the need to explain yourself for the millionth time or to get caught up in a family dispute solely to make your view seen. Sometimes it's best to just take a deep breath and walk away from the situation. That, in and of itself, is a boundary.