Sonya Thomas lcsw

Setting Boundaries with Difficult Family Members

I recently read this very helpful article in the New York Times on how to set boundaries with difficult family members.  This is an issue that shows up frequently in my office.  Most of us can claim at least one member of our family who is extremely challenging, draining, exploitative, and in general, their own personalities or mental health struggles create problems for others.  Many of us are conditioned to believe that because if it is family, we must indulge them.  We are taught that it is an act of selfishness or betrayal to take care of ourselves in the face of their issues.  I see the fallout from this faulty conditioning all the time ~ burn out, overwhelm, anger, resentment, self abdication, drained resources, encroachment, and on and on.  You owe it to yourself to KNOW that it is ok to protect your energy, time, resources and your own mental health.  The way to do this is by learning that it is not only ok, but necessary to set boutndaities with difficult people, even if they are family members.  An acronym that you might find helpful when setting a boundary is BIFF:

  • B is for brief.  Do not over explain or justify your boundary.
  • I is for informative.  State what you are willing or unwilling to do.
  • F is Firm.  This is key, or else you will get rolled.
  • F is for Friendly.  It is not necessary to be cruel or cold when setting a boundary.  Deliver it in a friendly tone and spirit.

And remember two key things when it comes to setting boundaries; first, if others are not used to you being a person with healthy limits, and they in some way benefit because of your giving, passive, enmeshed or codependent behavior, DO NOT expect them to thank you when you begin to start showing up in a healthier way for yourself.  Second, remember that boundaries are about what YOU are willing to tolerate, expose yourself to, or no longer collude or put up with.  They are not about controlling what another person does or does not do.  You WILL be called to take action for yourself when others continue to try to push past your boundaries.  Expect that they will do so.  It will take time for others to adjust to your new way of being.

Until next time, peace.