If you haven’t read my piece on “How to Set Boundaries” here, you should. It’s basically an intro to this more complicated issue. Setting boundaries with draining/toxic/abusive relatives, friends, loved ones, etc. isn’t easy. Like I said in the intro piece, setting boundaries with loved ones can be hard, “especially if you are used to your boundaries being laughed at, ignored, pushed aside, or not even acknowledged (common in child emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, child neglect, intimate partner violence/domestic violence, etc.).” People in these situations learn to live with the fear that if they set boundaries, even really small ones (like needing alone time or a safe space), they will be punished for it. In the face of danger and/or fear, people mainly talk about fight and flight, but another common response is not resisting. The person begins to believe that no resistance = no pain. Boundaries are our protection and armor, but many people have grown used to going through life with little to no protection. Maybe you feel like there’s no point in having that armor up because nobody will respect it anyway. Maybe you feel like you’ve gotten this far, why do you need protection now? Again, give the intro to boundaries piece a read. Setting and maintaining firm boundaries is playing the long game with your physical and mental health and your life in general. And that all said, it’s one thing to know how to set boundaries, it’s a whole other beast to take this knowledge home. Learning new habits and breaking cycles is literally life changing work. Some of those dynamics in your family and with your friends/loved ones are YEARS in the making and feel hard to break/change after all this time. With this piece, I want to help y’all begin to apply the intro to boundaries information to your real-life, complicated situations. It’s time to start to taking your knowledge home and make some real life changes.
What Are Boundaries? – Level 201
Aight so boom, when we talked about boundaries back in August, we covered the importance of boundaries as a way to take care of your physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Having clear, firm boundaries is a kind of self care strategy. Self care is often stereotyped as drinking tea and having spa days, but self care is actually paying attention to what your body and mind need and taking steps to meet those needs. Mindfulness techniques (Here’s the intro piece I wrote about mindfulness) are very helpful in connecting with yourself to really get a sense of what your true needs are. I also wrote a intro piece here about self care if you need a deeper explanation of what self care is. Clear, strong boundaries are a sign that someone really knows themselves and knows how to take care of themselves. It’s like working out and knowing just what your body needs to grow without damaging yourself. Or knowing that you can’t stay out late helping someone if it means cutting into your sleep when you have something important happening the next day. Again, it’s playing the long game with your physical and mental health. You can’t be at your best if you are constantly drained and burnt out. That’s not a healthy or satisfying life. Knowing yourself and knowing your own personal limitations is key. Also your personal boundaries will naturally change as you change as a person. Like a snake needing to shed old skin as it gets older. Likewise, it’s okay to need to and want to change boundaries as you change.
Like I’ve said in the intro to boundaries piece, boundaries are not about setting limits on other people’s behaviors. You can’t control other people. You can only change and control yourself. Boundaries are ultimately guidelines for yourself so you can figure out what’s best for you in each situation. Basically, drawing lines in the sand like in old school cartoons. Setting a boundary can be as straightforward as: “If you want to come over, call/text me first” or “It offends/hurts me when you say that if you’re gonna keep doing this, I won’t be around you”. If people don’t make real efforts to respect your boundary, they don’t give a damn about you. So, at that point, where do you go from here? What can you do? I’d suggest separate yourself from people: block them, stop doing business with them, stop giving them money, etc. Setting boundaries requires a realistic awareness of yourself and compassion towards your own psychological/emotional needs. Let me repeat that last bit: Setting boundaries requires having COMPASSION for yourself. Just because you are used to being treated a certain way and that’s how it’s always been, doesn’t mean that’s how it should always be. Like I said before, people change and if your situation doesn’t work for you, it’s time for a change.
“Okay, But It’s Not That Simple”
Sometimes, it’s for real not that easy to cut someone off or to just leave them. There are times and situations where you legit have to be practical and/or think about your safety, unfortunately. And that’s real (and it’s not your fault). Just like with coming out as queer and/or trans, sometimes the situation requires really analyzing the situation. If you are worried about the potential consequences that could come from you setting boundaries with a particular person, pay attention to that intuition. Intuition saves lives and that gut feeling is probably accurate. Speaking of safety: Would trying to cut them off or leaving them have any effect on your safety or livelihood? Are you financially dependent on this person/people? Do you share custody of children? Do you live with them and rely on them to pay their half of the rent? That’s all real and needs to be taken into consideration. If you can’t just cut people off now (or for the foreseeable future while you figure something out), there are still things that can be done to limit your interaction with this person. There are still ways to protect your mental and physical health as much as possible. And this is still a part of the many ways to do self care.
It can feel impossible to set boundaries in these situations, but there are things someone can do even then. Remember, boundaries are not about controlling or changing other people’s behavior. Boundaries are guidelines for yourself. What are some ways you can practice self care by limiting the time/contact spent around draining and/or toxic people in your life? A former client of mine felt suffocated by everyone in her house because she was the main caretaker of everyone in the house (kids & adults) and each person was constantly draining her energy and time. She just wanted some time alone to herself to recharge. She had been trying to set direct boundaries herself with her relatives, but they would outright ignore her or act like they were going to change, but never did. She was burning out fast and crying tears of frustration in my office. We brainstormed possible solutions and we finally decided that I, her therapist, would prescribe mandatory alone time in the park at least 3x a week for an hour as medical treatment for “stress”. In this situation, the woman couldn’t just walk away from the situation or cut people off so we found a way for her to recharge and take time for herself.
Relatedly, who else can you rely on for support? Dealing with draining, toxic, and/or abusive people is not a 1-person job. In fact, toxic and/or abusive people love isolating people because they know people need support from loved ones/their community to break free. Who do you trust to have your back? What kind of community resources can you take advantage of? And I’m not just talking about domestic violence hotlines, etc. What are ways that you can build community and support systems outside of that draining and/or toxic environment? Free/low cost classes, workshops, interest groups, meet ups, etc. all provide opportunities to meet new like-minded people. It’s easy to get brainwashed into the toxic mindset that you don’t deserve to have firm, respected boundaries and that you deserve whatever toxic treatment you are receiving at home. Having friends outside of that circle will breathe some fresh air and new perspectives into your situation because they are not invested in keeping you thinking in the old way. Also taking these classes or going to these meet ups will also remind you that you have well-rounded interests, skills, and talents. You are more than what they say you are. Remembering that goes a long way for a lot of people. And taking even an hour break every week will do wonders for your mental health and will also help you start to think about what your life would look like in a future without all that toxic mess.
There are many different ways you can feel after setting boundaries with a draining, toxic, and/or abusive loved one. People are complicated. You can feel lots of emotions at once or experience 1 emotion at at time and move from 1 emotion to another as you go through this process. You can feel guilt. Months or years of someone close to you saying and/or implying that you setting boundaries is rude or not even possible can really get into your head. Internalizing the idea that you are selfish for setting boundaries is real…but it’s also not true. That said, it can take a while to unlearn the lies. So feeling guilt post-setting boundaries is a possibility and so is relief. Having draining, toxic or abusive people in your life can be very tiring. One-sided relationships generally are. So lifting that burden off your shoulders can feel like the first breath of fresh air you’ve had in years. You could also worry about retaliation. Toxic people both tend to have vague, weak boundaries themselves and encourage (or enforce) poor boundaries in other people. Like I’ve mentioned before, poor boundaries allows people all kinds of access to you and toxic/abusive people feel entitled to that access. Setting boundaries threatens their level of access to you and they could act out, etc. Trust your instincts. If you are even a little concerned about what they could do, listen to yourself, and take some steps to protect yourself and possibly your valuables.
Finally, another emotion you could experience is nostalgia. Very few people are all bad all the time. Part of what makes it so hard to set limits or cut ties with toxic or abusive people are the memories of when life was good and when y’all were good together. You find yourself missing the person and/or the times and emotions you had with that person. It may hurt to leave them despite knowing that leaving would be good for you in the long run. That’s real. It’s ok to acknowledge those feelings. Don’t run from that feeling or try to push it away. Avoidance always makes people feel worse in the long run. Acknowledge it. Face it. Sit with it. This is where mindfulness techniques, venting to patient loved ones, and/or speaking with a therapist can help. You’re a human being. Your feelings are allowed to be complicated. In therapy, it’s called ambivalence and it’s very common. Coming to terms with your complicated feelings in healthy ways by yourself or with people you trust will go a long way in maintaining your mental health. And don’t let the toxic person’s mind games fool you: ending the relationship with them doesn’t mean you will go without love or support. Part of self care and being your own MVP is building connections with people who help you grow and limiting your time/energy with people who drain you.
Setting and maintaining clear, firm boundaries is definitely 1 of the most important things I feel I could teach someone. Solid boundaries really set the foundation for a satisfying life and for good mental and physical health. I, professionally and personally, cannot talk about them enough. Boundaries can seriously change the quality of someone’s life. Adding to that, it’s 1 thing to learn how to set boundaries, it’s a whole other thing to take these lessons home and apply them to the people closest to you. Especially when the people in question feel entitled to you. Learning to have the compassion for yourself that they have refused to show you is key. You’re worth the effort. You are worth the satisfaction and the clarity that comes with strong boundaries.
Thank you for reading. The next post to be published on Sunday 12/9/18 is a reader request: Explaining your mental health symptoms and/or diagnosis to your parents.