I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with friends about setting boundaries with family and the best way to go about it. It seems to come up a lot this time of year since many of us find ourselves taking part in more family togetherness and obligations surrounding the holiday season.
The thing is, boundaries are tough.
They’re tricky because they’re not universal. Rather, they are unique to each individual person and therefore others may have a difficult time understanding and thus accepting your boundaries.
Sometimes it’s hard to even know where your boundaries lie, let alone set boundaries with family and make them last.
What are boundaries?
I like to think of boundaries as the line that you hold regarding what (or who) you will let into your life and to what degree.
On a recent family hike, we came across a cairn, a man-made pile or stack of stones like the one pictured above. I asked my husband its meaning and he said a cairn is commonly used as a trail marker to guide hikers. Hmmmm, I thought, there’s gotta be a metaphor there as well.
Later when I had some time, I googled the symbolism of cairns and learned that through history, a cairn has been used as a boundary marker, as well as to signify a memorial or a burial site. They date back to ancient times and are mentioned in a bible passage that describes how a rock pile was constructed as a boundary for which one person would not cross over to do harm unto the other.
I think the hardest part of setting boundaries is not figuring out where you place your cairns, it’s making sure they don’t get toppled over once you place them.
Once your cairns are placed, it’s also deciding that you’re not responsible for making others ok with where you put them. So it’s more than just your yes or no, but also withstanding what happens next in regards to how others react to your boundary.
How do you set boundaries?
1.) In order to set boundaries, you must first figure out what your boundaries are.
It’s important to listen to your intuition to feel where your resistance lies surrounding a certain person or situation.
For me, I try to notice how I feel after talking to someone or engaging in a certain activity or situation. Do I feel lighter and energized? Or do I feel drained or anxious?
If the latter, that person or situation is likely pushing past where my boundary lies.
2.) The next step is to recognize that you must be secure with your boundary in order for it to last.
When you’re secure in the boundary you’ve set, you won’t feel threatened when someone is not ok with it.
We tend to feel threatened when we feel that someone is trying to take something from us. Or I know that I get upset when someone questions me on something for which I’m already feeling insecure.
Therefore, you must have a firm grasp on why you have this boundary in the first place. Why does it matter to you? What is it protecting that is sacred to you – your kids, your anxiety level, your marriage, your career choices?
3.) Think through the consequences of your boundary so you can anticipate the other person’s possible reactions.
When you set a boundary with another person, you are attempting to change a pattern of how someone treats you. This can be met with resistance, fear, hurt, anger, and an array of other emotions.
Based on what you know about the other person, try to surmise how they will most likely react to the line you are drawing.
Also, keep in mind that when you change a pattern, it can be uncomfortable and will take some time to get used to.
4.) Be clear when expressing your boundary.
If you’re not clear and honest on what your boundary is and cannot effectively communicate it, others won’t be clear either.
Dropping hints or being passive aggressive about your boundaries is the worst way to make sure that anyone understands what they are. You have to spell it out – “it is not okay with me when you do xyz” or “I am unable to help you with xyz, but I can support you in these other ways”.
Decide what you want from the relationship in question and be very specific in thinking about this and communicating it. How do you want to feel? Is it more supported, less judged, more valued? How do you want the other person to feel?
Also, how are you going to start showing up in the relationship in order to help create the change that you want to see? Sometimes you have to change first in order for the other person to change.
Basically, you can’t create change without changing up the way you do things.
5.) Be firm, but be kind.
Try to come from a place of love and be gentle with yourself and your family member.
By nature, I am a pretty soft and gentle kind of person, so this part is natural for me. But if your demeanor is normally to be more aggressive, just remember that you can be firm without being callous or mean.
There is no need for anger or resentment as that can only lead to a heated discussion in which the other person will be less likely to understand your boundary and why it’s important.
Also, you are attempting to change how someone behaves with you so it’s expected that this may take some adjustment. It can take time and positive reinforcement for a new behavior pattern to become the new normal.
Stay firm on your boundaries and realize that the other person may not accept them right away. Be prepared to distance yourself from that person or situation until they are ready to respect your boundaries.
6.) Realize that you have the ability to walk away.
In some cases, the other person may not respect your boundaries at all and in that situation, you can choose to walk away. Realize that their inability to respect your boundaries is not about you.
They may not have healthy boundaries themself and therefore do not understand how to respect the boundaries of others. It is up to you as to whether you will still allow them in your life and if you choose to, you can set the parameters for what you are willing to tolerate.
7.) Don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries.
Boundaries start with your self-worth and what you think you deserve. They are a way to love and protect yourself.
Your needs are just as important as the other person’s. Furthermore, it’s likely that someone who is pushing your boundaries already has the tendency to put their needs ahead of yours and that should not be okay with you.
Boundaries are also a form of self-care. We actively look to incorporate other self-care practices into our lives — from eating a balanced diet and exercising, to journaling, and allowing ourselves a morning routine dedicated to just this. Setting boundaries is no different.
It’s a way to honor your true self and care for yourself. You should never feel guilty about that.
What have your experiences been with setting boundaries? What has worked for you?
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Carly is a wife, mom, and former NYC fashion industry executive turned writer and life coach. Through her writings on littlevoicebigmatter.com, she shares practical advice, heartfelt insights, and actionable resources to inspire and support women in motherhood, relationships, wellness, and life. Carly also helps women create better balance in their lives and live with more joy, purpose, and connection every day through her coaching.