This is another Reader’s Request (Thank you). Feel free to tweet or DM @Queeringpsych on Twitter or email firstname.lastname@example.org with any psychotherapy-related topics you would like to see me write about. I’m always open to suggestions. If you aren’t sure if something is relevant to my site, I don’t have a problem looking at the suggestion and letting you know. This requested piece is covering estrangement. Specifically, how setting and maintaining firm, clear boundaries can help you deal with whatever comes with and comes after cutting off contact with biological family, chosen family, close friends, and other people who used to be close to you. I’m going to talk about mourning the loss of relationships when those people are still alive (different from mourning someone who has died), using boundaries to manage the people in your life who may still have connections with the estranged person(s), and potentially rebuilding your team after this loss. Firm boundaries, again, are the tools here to take care of your own mental and physical needs while also keeping trusted people around you.
Cutting someone off is no small thing. Even if they were incredibly toxic and it made all the logical sense in the world to cut them off, it is STILL no small thing. Especially if the person had clocked in a lot of time in your life. There’s going to be a place of some size in your life that’s gonna feel empty on some level. And that’s legit. I might be preaching to the choir here, but consider this your pep talk. This is a Boundaries 202 post for a reason. If you aren’t sure what I mean by boundaries or aren’t sure where to begin on how to set/maintain boundaries, please check out my Intro to Boundaries piece. Again, setting and maintaining firm boundaries is about having compassion with yourself and setting lines in the sand for what you need, want, tolerate, and don’t tolerate in your life. Boundaries are not about controlling how other people act. Boundaries aren’t punishments for people’s behavior. Boundaries are instead guidelines for yourself and how you act. Boundaries are also a layer of protective armor for your mental and physical health. Like I mention in the Boundaries 201 Part 1 piece here on setting boundaries with toxic, etc. people in your life, many people have gotten used to going through life with little to no protection because there was no real guarantee that those boundaries would even be respected. By cutting someone off who is having a negative effect on your life, you are setting some important boundaries.
Estrangement is another kind of loss, even if you were the one who decided to cut off contact. Grief is a normal response to experiencing a loss, any kind of loss. Like I explain in my grief piece here, grief isn’t just 5 stages with 5 emotions. Grief looks different for every person and for every situation. Life is complicated and so are the ways people deal with loss. Please take a chance to read the grief piece. It will give you another point of understanding about the mix of feelings you can feel for possibly a long time. And give you some ideas of rituals/strategies you can use to start healing from this loss.
Because Life Isn’t Clean-Cut
There was a reason (or reasons) why you decided that this person shouldn’t be in your life anymore. If it helps, write those reasons down somewhere you can always pull it back up. This isn’t to be petty. This isn’t to hold onto emotions in a way that starts to negatively affect you. This is intended to be a helpful reminder for possible future situations where holding up this boundary may feel hard. And you may need a reminder of what makes this boundary so important to keep up. Part of what makes estrangement complicated is you are mourning the lost/ended relationships of still living people. You could still run into these people. They could try to come back into your life on their own. And/or you could have mutuals in common. Managing the people in your life who still have connections with those estranged people takes SERIOUS boundaries and boundary-respecting. Like I mentioned before, setting boundaries is not about controlling other people’s behavior. You can’t control other people, but you can set boundaries around what you will and won’t tolerate in your life. That could mean not wanting to engage in conversation about the estranged person and removing yourself when conversations about them start. Or telling people that you won’t go to events where the other person will be. If the other people respect you, they will respect your boundaries. Again, this could end up being very hard. People are not used to boundary-setting and you might get some push-back. But they can miss you with all that. This is about your health and happiness. They shouldn’t be pressuring you to give the person another chance or to do anything that you aren’t 100% comfortable with. If you want space, you should get space. And everyone should be going at your speed and in the direction you choose. Your emotions may feel complicated and all over the place during this time. That’s where self-reflection, mindfulness techniques, and self-care are key to help you make some sense of it.
If you are having a hard time finding an objective person to vent to and figure out your emotions with, one option can be to speak to a therapist about it. It’s a common myth that you have to have to be dealing with serious mental health symptoms right now in order to get therapy. Therapists are also trained to help people get through what is called “life transitions”. Things like losing a job, a new relationship, moving to college, having a child, marriage, death of a loved one, etc. are all life transitions that people might need help with. So if the process of estranging yourself from a loved one and maintaining those boundaries becomes really difficult, speaking with a professional might help you look at your situation from different angles and work through all the related emotions, etc.
Side note about Guilt:
Like I mentioned in my intro to boundaries piece: Because we live in a society that not only doesn’t teach people what boundaries are and how to set them, but also doesn’t teach people how to respect the boundaries of others, many people feel guilty or rude for saying no or setting other kinds of boundaries. If society and people in your life have basically taught you that no one’s boundaries get respected and “It is what it is,” it can be hard to not see other people’s boundaries as anything but rude or extra. Again, boundaries are about being compassionate with yourself and your physical and mental health. For whatever reason, you felt this person being in your life was causing more stress than the relationship was worth. That’s real and valid. People might be in your ear, saying some other stuff. They might say you reconciling is “good for the family” or that you broke everyone up. Really what they are asking you is for you to sacrifice your mental/physical health and happiness so that everyone else can be comfortable. But at the end of the day, you are the one who has to live this life and deal with the consequences. This would be a great time to pull out that reminder list you made earlier. Stick to your gut.
(Re)Building Your Social Support System
Like I’ve said before in my Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, boundaries aren’t just great armor. Clear, firm boundaries can also be used to nurture and make the rest of the relationships in your life even stronger. You did all this work setting and maintaining boundaries to cut this person out of your life. It would frankly suck to do all of that and not have the rest of the relationships in your life be as strong as they could be. Use boundaries and clear communication to build connections with people who help you grow and make you feel good while limiting time/energy around people who feel draining to be around. Even if that means cutting off more people. Check out my life reassessment piece here. Maybe it’s time for a little life spring cleaning. Like I say in the Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, being around the people close to you “should be a peaceful break from all the nonsense, not a part of the stress”. Having your boundaries constantly ignored may seem little at first, but each “little” disrespect piles up and starts to weaken/damage those relationships after awhile. It also hurts your physical and mental health to deal with disrespect everyday. And there’s so many things in life we cannot control. Especially the more marginalized you are and the different kinds of systemic oppression you deal with everyday. There’s so much disrespect you probably have to swallow every single day just to survive. So why not make sure that you don’t also have to deal with disrespect in the parts of life you can control?
If you need to start rebuilding your social support system and aren’t sure where to start meeting people, try free/low cost classes, workshops, interest groups, meet ups, etc. (These are just opportunities to meet new, like-minded people. Don’t necessarily come in there hard looking for bffs for life. Just the exercise of meeting new people and seeing things of different points of view can be amazing for your personal growth all by itself. If you find people that you want to develop a mutually close relationship with while exploring your interests, awesome I wanna avoid high expectations and high let-downs here. Things take their time.). Again, the close relationships in your life should be mobile safe spaces. The time you spend around the people closest to you should be the times in your life where you feel free to drop all the fronts and find some peace. That’s what setting and maintaining clear, strong boundaries can do in your close relationships and in your life in general.
It’s a beautiful thing to feel safe and secure in the people close to you. Setting and maintaining clear, firm boundaries is a huge key to having a strong support system. Life is too short and way too real to have a squad that will disappear when things start to get rough or to have people in your life who tear you down instead of having your back. We spend so much energy constantly having our defenses up that being able to at least have some moments where you can chill and be you is healing in and of itself. Cutting people out of your life is just as much self-care as building and growing the other relationships you have going on in your life. You are making an important (and difficult) step towards your future. Congratulations.
Thanks for reading. The next piece, on Sunday 5/12/19 will cover how to tell if a therapist is right for you and your needs right now in 3-ish sessions.