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October 21, 2022
How To Set Boundaries With Difficult Family Members

Melanie Katz

A family smiling and gathering together for a family selfie.

My Challenges With Family Communication

Growing up as the youngest of four children, I grew up around lots of people who had strong opinions. And with those strong opinions came lots of arguing and walking on eggshells. To avoid conflict, I learned to bottle up my feelings. And when my feelings became uncontrollable, so would my temper.

As I got older, I lacked confidence in vocalizing my feelings and often felt misunderstood by my family. That’s when I became determined to improve my communication skills. 

I didn’t realize at the time that I lacked boundaries with my family. I had become such an expert at bottling up my feelings that I never learned how to assert my own needs. And because I had no boundaries, people would walk all over me. This reinforced my internal belief that my needs weren’t important to them.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are personal. They belong to you and only you. Whatever boundaries you set should be within your comfort zone. 

Your boundaries give you the right to express your needs. If you feel that a family member has crossed a boundary with their words or actions, you have every right to express yourself. Boundaries also give you permission to walk away, to remain private, to change your mind, and to say no.

Five boundary-setting tips

Boundaries are a therapeutic concept I practice and share with my clients. Boundary setting can feel challenging and scary, but the benefits can be life-changing. It’s tough to figure out how to set clear boundaries. But these tips can help equip you to build healthy, respectful, and safe relationships with your family.

1. Consider your boundaries

Make a list of what would and wouldn’t make you feel safe or respected by your family. As an exercise, consider what it feels like to be around a family member who disrespects you.

2. Accept your needs

Write down what you need for a healthy relationship, and be ok with those needs. You can’t expect your family to believe your needs are important when you don’t believe they’re important yourself.

3. Healthy boundaries are the opposite of hurtful

As a recovering people-pleaser, I know how scary it can be to set boundaries that could hurt a family member’s feelings. But the reality is, healthy boundary-setting is the opposite of hurtful. Over time, you’ll see that boundary-setting can help you build more meaningful, healthier, and stronger relationships.

4. Practice boundary-setting

Boundary setting takes practice — like building muscle. Practice assertive communication by saying no, and speaking firmly and directly. Before attending a family event, think about the boundaries you need to set for your well-being. Remember that you can say no or walk away.

5. Talk to a therapist

Speaking with a neutral, non-judgmental third party can help you work through the boundary-setting process. Your therapist can also help you to make a plan in case a family member chooses to disrespect your boundaries.

Learning how to set boundaries with your family will allow you to build healthier relationships that you can apply to other areas of your life. If you’d like to learn how to set better boundaries — and become a stronger, more independent person — consider reaching out to one of our therapists.

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