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How to set boundaries with family

Managing family relationships and keeping yourself emotionally safe is particularly pertinent at Christmas time, but the guidance here is relevant to any time of year.

It's vital to remember that creating and maintaining healthy boundaries is an ongoing practice and often not easy to do, so be kind to yourself as you do this work. The guidance here is general and not a replacement for individual therapy or a quick fix. Lasting, sustainable change takes time... and you can start now.

Before we dive in, a quick intro to the topic: boundaries are essentially what is and is not OK. Everyone's boundaries can be different; that's why it's important to communicate them. They are not a way of keeping people 'shut out' but actually how we keep ourselves safe and happy within a relationship; respecting each other's boundaries helps build trust and mutual respect.

Start with cultivating self-worth

It's pretty difficult to communicate your needs and boundaries to others if you don't feel like you really deserve to. Whilst you don't need to have nailed this to 100% (who has?) it's important to remind yourself that how you feel matters. Setting healthy boundaries is a positive cycle; the more you do it, the more you cultivate self worth and the easier it is to set those boundaries.

Affirmation: I am allowed to prioritise my own wellbeing.

Practice self-awareness

Know what your triggers are and how to tell if you are starting to get annoyed/upset. What does this feel like in your body? Dealing with the situation when you are still relatively calm will be a lot easier for both parties than if something is allowed to build up and you become flooded with emotion. If this does happen, know how to calm yourself before you have a conversation, if possible. Removing yourself briefly from the situation and taking some steady breaths is a simple way of giving yourself a pause between stimulus and response.

Prepare in advance

If you are feeling anxious in advance of a family get together because you know from past experience that there are boundary issues, use this knowledge to help you prepare for the meeting.

What are you worried they might do/say that crosses a boundary for you? Have a think/journal about/talk with a friend or therapist about options for handling that situation so you have decided in advance how you are going to deal with it if it comes up.

People aren't psychic! It's a good idea to let people know in advance if there are things you want to do differently this year. It might be blatantly obvious to you what you need but other people might be unaware or simply forget. This part of the communication is your responsibility - say what you need, clearly, to give others the best chance of meeting your needs and swerving difficult moments altogether.

E.g. You could say, in advance of the meeting. "I'm looking forward to seeing you and wanted to let you know I'm not comfortable/ready to talk about X. I hope you understand".

Things you can say/do to communicate your boundary.

My advice here is to keep it simple. You don't have to explain yourself, however, it can be helpful for the relationship to do so. You can decide whether you want to give an explanation or not.

Some ideas:

"I don't want to talk about that right now (optional: because it makes me feel....)"

"I don't like it when you say/do that (optional: because....)"

"Please don't make disrespectful comments about ...X..."

"I'm not comfortable talking about/doing ...Y..."

"I won't be joining in with ...Z..."

"I am going going for a walk/nap/bit of quiet time now."

And there is always the simple "no" or "stop".

The consequences

Probably the number one reason my clients say they struggle setting boundaries is because they fear the other person's reaction. This is understandable; it's natural to want to avoid upsetting others, however, when you stay silent to 'keep the peace', you create a conflict inside yourself. Often we imagine the consequences to be far worse than they actually are, so be mindful of catastrophising. And if someone is unhappy with you because you set a boundary they don't like, well, that's OK. Maybe they're disappointed you don't want to join in a certain game, or they're defensive because you wouldn't participate in a toxic diet culture conversation, or they are obnoxious about the fact you don't want another drink... it's not pleasant. There's no two ways around that. And you can tolerate it. They are allowed to have their reaction and you can see it as an expression of their experience. You do not have to internalise it, soothe it or change yourself because of it. Sitting through this discomfort now may well mean you don't have to communicate that boundary again in future.

When someone ignores your boundary

Ideally, you'll communicate your boundary and people will respect it, even if they don't really like it or fully understand it. Unfortunately it doesn't always go down like that so let's think about what you can do if that happens:

- repeat yourself: possibly they have forgotten your request or didn't think you really meant it

- explain the consequences, as calmly as possible, of what you will need to do if they continue to ignore your boundary e.g. leave the room, reduce the amount of time you spend with them. Make sure this is something you really mean and will follow through on, otherwise you risk undermining your own message

- worst case scenario, have an exit plan in place if it's no longer safe or bearable for you to stay in the situation. This could be temporary - going for a long walk/drive - or an end to the gathering. Do give fair warning for this so people have a chance to amend their behaviour, people don't always get it right straight away and change can take time.

Lastly, remember to be respectful of other people's boundaries too and let compassion be your guiding value - for yourself and others - when you're in a difficult situation.

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