I talked to a fellow mama bear this morning, who was finding her way through self discovery, and rebuilding her self esteem after a rocky parting-of-ways between her family and her mother. I listened and nodded my head, scooting farther and farther toward the edge of my seat, sharpening my focus on the journey this mama was on – setting and maintaining boundaries with her mother. I had been in these same places mentally, after having to live with the results of setting and maintaining boundaries with my own mother a few years back.
It was easy for me to know exactly what she was going through, and I empathized with her – looking back at what I had overcome & survived. Her story inspired me… and so, I write!
We’ve all been there… lines get blurred in relationships, especially during tumultuous times, and situations where conflict arises. It’s easy to talk about setting and defending our boundaries, but it’s much more difficult to establish new boundaries in an old relationship. In relationships with parents and those we’ve known and shared years with, it’s completely uncharted territory and is often the cause of upset for parties involved. After all, why these new expectations in a relationship which has gone seemingly unchanged throughout the course of a period of time?
For someone with little or no experience setting boundaries in a relationship, the new expectations can come as a surprise for those they affect. More times than not the new expectations are not met with understanding and agreement, rather people get offended and feel targeted… but setting boundaries is not something you do for other people, it’s something you do for yourself and the health of your relationship with others.
If you’re finding that you’re having unnecessary difficulty within the relationships with your loved ones, especially your parents, it may be time to re-evaluate the functionality of your communication and interactions – establishing new boundaries.
The Guilt Trip
“Often, when we feel forced to set boundaries, we feel hurt and/or angry at the person who does not respect them, the person who is “making” us clarify what our boundaries actually are. We might also feel guilty. When your mother keeps pushing, or a friend wants to turn your friendship into a romantic relationship, or a relative or colleague wants to touch you in ways that you don’t like, it’s normal to feel angry that they are putting you in the uncomfortable position of having to set limits on them” (Barth, 2019).
When a boundary is crossed, often people get angry but don’t know that to do beyond that. They end up repeating what they need and being disappointed. Without any consequences – yelling doesn’t count – you are giving the person permission to continue to do the undesired behavior. In addition, you’re giving your power to the other person and falsely believing there’s nothing you can do” (Cantor, 2020).
Transversely, they’re upset at the fact that expectations are changing and boundaries are being re-established may also make you feel guilty. It’s important to understand that this is normal, and that it will pass – the more secure you become with your boundaries. In the meantime, it’s normal for you to feel upset with the fact that you’ve upset someone you care about, whether or not the relationship is healthy. This is compassion – a good thing! It’s also normal for you to feel angry at the fact that someone has repeatedly violated your boundaries.
But while anger can make it easier to set boundaries in some ways, it does not, in the end, help you actually delineate your own value system, either to yourself or the other person. It’s not always simple to take responsibility for your own thoughts, beliefs, and actions, especially when another person isn’t being respectful to you (Barth, 2019).
Boundaries & Why
Caitlin Cantor, LCSW, describes a boundary as “the point at which you can no longer tolerate something the other person does and still feel good about yourself, and at ease in the relationship.” She goes on to say “when a boundary is violated, the result is a consequence that teaches the other person that the behavior is not acceptable. Setting a boundary is not just telling your partner how you feel about something. Boundaries have consequences. When they don’t, you teach people the behavior that is acceptable” (Cantor, 2020).
Authors Gary Lundberg and Joy Lundberg offer this amazing description of boundaries in their book I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better:
“Personal boundaries define you as an individual. They are statements of what you will or won’t do, what you like and don’t like, how far you will or won’t go, how close someone can get to you or how close you will get to another person… they are your value system in action.”
Then this statement:
“Having a strong, comfortable belief in your own value system means you have choices and must take responsibility for your thoughts, beliefs, and actions.”
In other words, while we all should expect others to respect our boundaries, just as we should respect theirs, that’s not how it always works. Sometimes we have to clarify our boundaries in order to make sure that others respect them (Barth, 2019).
The Lundbergs believe that boundaries “need to be (1)kind (2) gentle (3) respectful, and (4) firm.”
In other words, you don’t allow someone to walk all over you, to intrude into your personal space, or act in a way that doesn’t fit into your value system… but you can also find ways to be kind, gentle, and respectful of them as a person.
Of course it’s difficult to behave kindly or respectfully toward someone who is ignoring your needs or invading your personal space. And of course, the individual you are setting limits on may not experience you as kind or gentle. They may interpret your firmness as harshness or unkindness… but if you know that you’ve been clear and kind in your efforts to let them know they have crossed your boundaries, you can also feel less guilt when they are resentful or angry (Barth, 2019).
Here are 6 Steps to Healthier Boundaries
- Clarify what you want for yourself. Think about what you actually want. Do you want for your mother to avoid mental health topics with your children? Do you want your father to stop intervening in conflicts between you and your mother? Know what you want and don’t want, what you’ll allow and won’t. Feel your feelings, trust them, and use them as a guide.
2. Be realistic. Your father may never stop inserting himself in the conflicts between you and your mother. So don’t expect your boundaries to change their behavior in that way. But you can realistically expect that your father knows that you won’t talk to him when he calls after an issue between you and your mom has come about.
3. Communicate. Once you’ve come up with clear and realistic boundaries, communicate them clearly to the other person. Remember to keep the Lundberg’s four “needs” in mind… communicate your wishes gently, kindly, respectfully, and firmly. The next time your mother talks about her mental health to the children, rather than being grumpy and irritable with her, tell her she cannot speak to the children about these topics anymore. You could say something like “I know it’s hard mom, but from now on can you please come to me with your struggles and we can navigate it together, rather than making the children uncomfortable. We can talk after work or on the weekends, but not when the children are around.”
Or the next time your father starts to intervein during a conflict, rather than tolerating the communication and angrily walking away, try saying something like, “I’m sorry dad, I know you’re a big support for mom, but I really don’t feel comfortable with these conversations between you and I. I’m sure you can understand that.”
When you set a boundary, it should be clear that you’re communicating what you need in order to be in the relationship. You’re communicating that when the boundary is crossed, you no longer feel safe, loved, and respected, and you have to take action to take care of yourself.
This may mean taking time away, limiting the amount of time with them, lessening what topics you’re willing to engage in, or at its most extreme, ending the relationship. What you need to do to take care of yourself depends on the boundary and its meaning for you (Cantor, 2020).
4. Be consistent. One of the biggest problems many of us have with setting boundaries is that, due to the difficulty, we don’t always stay on point. It’s easy to slip up and allow something you aren’t comfortable with to avoid the confrontation… but giving a mixed message can be almost as bad as not setting a boundary in the first place. If you have boundaries one day and allow one of them to be crossed the next, it ultimately leads to confusion. It’s much better to consistently tell mom and dad that this isn’t what you want. Let them know that you don’t want to hurt their feelings, that you care deeply for them, but that your relationship is not going to remain healthy if boundaries aren’t respected on both sides.
When we let boundaries slip, it’s really important to try to get right back on track, and to stay there. It’s perfectly okay for you to tell someone “You know, it’s hard for me to set these boundaries when I know it’s hurting you, so I’m sorry that I slipped the other day. But I’m back on track now, and you should know this just isn’t going to work for me” (Barth, 2019).
5. Be respectful. Boundaries are all about respect – for yourself and for the other person. When your parents start keeping the kids past the planned drop-off time without communication, or continually lend unsolicited advice on topics that are personal, it’s time for a serious conversation. Anger, put-downs, and criticisms will not accomplish much, except to make you both unhappy. It is important, however, to let them know that this doesn’t work for you, and that you are wondering what this means for them. Let the individual know that whatever the reason, these situations feel like they’re crossing some boundaries that you’re not comfortable with.
Identify how you will deal with these situations in the future, and communicate them to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Make sure to communicate what you assume when these situations arise, so that they can further understand, and hopefully anticipate your feelings regarding the conflict at hand in the future. This will only work if it isn’t a “tit for tat” kind of response, and if you are genuinely able to address issues yourself that aren’t punitive to them (Barth, 2019).
Boundaries really don’t work if they’re used to punish another person.
6. Take responsibility. It’s always easy to place blame outside ourselves; but the best way to set boundaries and keep them is to take responsibility for them. Taking responsibility for your own behavior does not let someone else off the hook, but puts you in charge of your own life.
Boundaries are yours to set and hold. You decide what you need and what you want to do if you’re not being treated the way you want to be. No one else can decide what is acceptable to you besides you. If someone isn’t respecting your boundaries, you don’t have to wait around helplessly until they do. You can take action to take care of yourself. You have more power than you realize, but you have to stop blaming others and start taking ownership of your life (Cantor, 2020).
Maybe you’re afraid to tell a loved one you’re not available to do a favor for them, or that you’re not interested. Are you worried they’ll be angry with you, or will think badly of you? Think about what you’re worried about and decide if that’s worse than feeling that your personal space is being repeatedly invaded, and self-esteem repeatedly damaged. Then you can clarify what you need to yourself communicate to the other person. It’s important to remember that even while you’re being respectful and kind, they – not you – are responsible for their behavior (Barth, 2019).
We humans do a lot to hold onto our attachments… it’s not easy to let people go. It’s scary to set boundaries and risk that people will leave. But they’re necessary.
Rather than accepting that someone doesn’t respect what you need and moving on, people will often soften their boundaries to stay in the relationship. This will allow the relationship to continue, but it won’t be a fulfilling one. If you set consequences for your boundaries and they still aren’t respected, you may have to accept that the relationship isn’t going to work for you.
Healthy relationships are ones where there is mutual respect, kindness, love, and appreciation. We don’t have to be exactly like each other, or even want the same things, but we do have to have boundaries in every relationship, and when they are violated… you have to hold the individual responsible for their actions and act accordingly in order to preserve your inner peace and mental wellbeing. You deserve healthy relationships. When boundaries are known, respected, and consistently upheld the relationship is incredibly fulfilling. You deserve for all of your relationships to be fulfilling. For each one to bring you something different. Appreciate people for who they are as an individual, be willing to accept differences and keep an open mind. Make it your goal to surround yourself with individuals that bring peace, happiness and encouragement to the table.
Before you go…
A new favorite quote I recently discovered!
Additional Recommended Articles:
Tips for Managing Toxic Parents, Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/addiction-and-recovery/202005/tips-managing-toxic-parents
Saying ‘No’ Is Self-Care for Parents, NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/parenting/burnout-boundaries.html
Barth, D., (March 30, 2019), Psychology Today: Everybody Needs Boundaries: 6 Ways to Make Them Work for You https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-couch/201903/everybody-needs-boundaries-6-ways-make-them-work-you
Cantor, C., (February 8, 2020), Psychology Today: Set Clear Boundaries and Stop Accepting Less Than You Deserve https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-sex/202002/set-clear-boundaries-and-stop-accepting-less-you-deserve
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4 thoughts on “Setting New Boundaries In Old Relationships”
Hey! Beautifully done. As I approach the end of my grad school, I had been hoping to feel more motivated to write some research based articles, but after an average of 2 research papers a week, I just didn’t feel up to it! However, I’m so thankful someone is!! Love having a neutral yet research based approach!
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Thank you so much! I’m starting my grad school journey and was told by a professor to keep the wheels turning and not to stop writing! Little did he know how big his impact would be! I’ve really enjoyed doing it and am excited to be back at the grind again this fall!
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Awesome! What are you studying?! It’s true! Stopping is detrimental, but I’m ready to write something that’s NOT assigned.
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Behavioral science and clinical counseling! I look forward to reading what you write!