How to set boundaries with family — and stick to them
JULIA FURLAN, HOST:
Hi. This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Julia Furlan. And today, we're talking about a thing that honestly makes me stressed just to think about. We're talking about how to create and maintain boundaries with the people in your life that you're closest to and who often confound you more than anyone - your family.
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FURLAN: And just like family can mean a wide array of things between chosen family and biological family, so can boundaries. They can be as momentary as saying, hey, please - no spoilers about "Bridgerton" because I haven't seen it yet - or as monumental as ending an entire relationship. But let's start at the moment a synapse flashes and a boundary goes from an idea to something that you actually put into practice. Clearly, I am not a brain expert, but that's probably how it works.
SELA KERR: I'd say about three years ago, there was just a hard-line point where I felt myself get so angry to a point where I had never been before.
FURLAN: Sela Kerr is an artist who lives in California, and she's been working hard on making and maintaining some really important boundaries in her family - in particular, with the man in the family who has a habit of raising his voice.
KERR: I made the hard-line boundary of, if you raise your voice at me, if you start screaming, if you start yelling or even, like, getting towards and doing the things I know where this is going, I'm leaving the room, or I'm hanging up the phone.
FURLAN: This, my friends, is a boundary. If her relative does X, Sela will do Y. And I don't know if you've also had this kind of interaction with somebody in your life, but I can tell you that as a Latinx woman, it has taken me years of practice to get even a little bit close to the clarity that Sela has. And for you, maybe it's not a family member yelling. Maybe it's somebody critiquing your weight or your gender presentation or even a grandparent wanting to give your kid a toy or a piece of candy at 8 p.m. Whether it's a momentary thing or something life-shifting, learning how to articulate and establish boundaries is vital to having more honest relationships with the people in your life.
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MEGHAN KEANE, BYLINE: Hey there - LIFE KIT's managing producer Meghan Keane here. Before we jump back into the episode, we want to say welcome to any new LIFE KIT listeners. We're really glad you're here. You can expect each episode to have helpful takeaways to get you started on whatever life project you're looking to tackle. There are episodes on money, physical and mental health, parenting and much more. So take a look around. We're sure there's an episode that answers a question you've been asking yourself. OK - onto the episode.
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FURLAN: Alex Elle is a writer and wellness consultant whose Instagram account has gotten me through a pretty intense year of putting up boundaries in my personal life and also, like many people, around COVID-19. One of the things I find super helpful about Alex's advice is just how practical it is.
ALEX ELLE: I think being clear about our boundaries is the same all the way around because if we know what we want, and we know what we need and we know what makes us feel seen and supported, we're able to apply that to our professional relationships, to our romantic and platonic relationships and familial relationships. I think they're all the same.
FURLAN: That clarity that Sela has in her boundary comes from self-knowledge, which Alex says is a really good place to start. It's takeaway No 1. Know your needs.
ELLE: Name those needs. Especially if you have people in your life who you feel safe with, practice on them. If you're having a hard time setting that boundary with a family member, practice with someone that you feel safe with, and go from there. Lean in. You can be your own inner expert. You have the power to do that. Get super clear about what you want and what you need.
FURLAN: When you create a boundary, you're listening to yourself and saying, hey, this is the line you cannot cross, which, on a basic level, is just standing up for yourself and what you believe in. And that can look like you saying, hey, please don't comment on my body or my looks if somebody's critiquing you in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Or it can look like, I won't be coming to this family celebration if a certain behavior continues. The important thing is that you're stating your needs, and you're sticking to them.
Alex has a great exercise for thinking about boundaries that is our second takeaway for this episode. It's called the boundary circle.
ELLE: I literally draw a circle on my page, and in the inside of that circle, I list the things that leave me feeling heard, seen and supported and things that I want in my relationships with people - so, like, clarity, open communication, honesty, et cetera, right? On the outside of the circle - anything that is a distraction, anything that leaves me feeling uneasy or anything that's just not welcomed inside of that circle of boundaries, it stays on the outside. And I'm able to get super clear with like, OK, if I'm going to be in relationship with certain people in my family, here is what I need, and here is what I don't.
FURLAN: Writing things down or writing them out can be a really powerful way to explore their meanings. It's sort of like, if you think of your ability to create boundaries as a muscle, putting words to it on paper can be a little strength training exercise to work out.
ELLE: Understand that we have our answers if we are curious enough about them. And I learned that in therapy, actually, which really helped shift and change my relationship with myself, with those around me and the boundaries that I set in my life.
FURLAN: Shoutout to therapy and to my therapist, who has over and over again asked me to check in with myself by asking, what do I want?
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FURLAN: A good thing to remember, too, is that sometimes, putting up a boundary means reinforcing it because any of you boundary-holding babies will know that it's very rarely a one-and-done situation. I think we all wish that boundaries would be like that old infomercial tagline; you just set it, and forget it. But that's not usually the case. If you're going to stay in relationship with that person, they might make the choice to violate your boundaries again, like the man in Sela's family who raises his voice.
KERR: That was three years ago, and I had to literally say this last week again. I realize the boundary's for myself more than it is for him. I have to keep reminding him and myself that, like, I put this boundary here to protect myself.
FURLAN: Sela created that boundary for herself. It's really true, as I am sure you've probably heard; the only person you can change is yourself. It can be helpful to repeat the boundary to remind yourself why you set it in the first place. And with all of these things, identity does play into it. Another boundary Sela set was with her grandmother, who commented a lot on the bodies of other women in the family. She felt a little awkward setting the boundary at first.
KERR: I respect my elders, and I don't want her to think that I'm, you know, being feisty or being disrespectful. That's kind of the common way people talk about intergenerational issues. She's very much been aware of many radical revolutions, but that doesn't mean that, you know, mindsets don't change.
FURLAN: She felt a little awkward setting the boundary at first because, like, that's her grandma. She really respects her. But even though it felt a little weird, Sela's grandmother understood that if she critiqued what folks were wearing or commented on their bodies, Sela was going to leave the room. And it worked. After a few gentle reminders, Sela's grandmother stopped.
KERR: I think she heard that because it wasn't so personal. It was like, this thinking is harmful, and I don't blame you for it, but I will not tolerate it. So it did change that because it gave me confidence to, like, continue; if I need to make boundaries like this, make boundaries like this.
FURLAN: And while we're talking about intergenerational boundaries, Alex has a really good tip for how to model boundaries for children. But this can apply to anyone in your life.
ELLE: So for me, it's just constantly modeling the behavior that I know my children are watching and teaching them how to be clear not only through, you know, having conversations, but just by my actions because our kids are watching. So I think that's really important, too, to remember - is that we're a mirror sometimes, and we need to be super intentional about how we're moving through the world and within our own relationships as well because our kids are tuning in.
FURLAN: And as you're checking in with yourself and working it out on the page, Alex says it's really important to remember that boundaries can be flexible.
ELLE: The flexibility is important because then it reminds us who is in control - and not in a way where we're trying to control the other person, but reminding ourselves of our own power when it comes to having healthy boundaries.
FURLAN: Alex has a great example to walk us through this idea.
ELLE: Holiday settings - right? - there are certain things that we just can't talk about over the holidays. I understand that. And because of that, OK, I can still go to the family gathering, but I'm not going to engage in X, Y and Z conversation about what have you. That is a flexible thing for me. I'm going to go to the holiday gathering, but if we're going to start talking about politics or race, I have to excuse myself.
FURLAN: This is so helpful, especially for those of us who might be intimidated by setting and maintaining boundaries. I'm raising my hand here. If you're checking in with yourself and you're making sure that you feel supported, your boundaries can suit the situation first and foremost because they're yours. Real LIFE KIT stans know Andrea Bonior, a therapist and author that has all kinds of good advice for many situations, including this one. She says that being flexible about boundaries doesn't mean giving somebody the opportunity to trample all over them.
ANDREA BONIOR: So it's not that you can never change your boundary, but it's that once you decide that a boundary makes sense, you've got to stick to it for as long as it makes sense. And you can't really give the mixed messages of, well, I kind of didn't mean that. You know, I see that in dysfunctional partnerships all the time where it's like, everybody's constantly setting new boundaries and constantly sort of going back on them, and so it's just very confusing.
And at some point, it becomes hard to know, are the people deliberately taking advantage of my boundaries, or have they just been given the message enough that these boundaries really don't mean anything and that even I could take them or leave them?
FURLAN: So we've talked about how boundaries can be tricky to create, and they might take a little strength training to maintain. And Sela's boundaries with family members are great examples of being really clear about communication and the things that you will and will not tolerate. But now I want to bring up the story of a really big boundary, one that has to do with a toxic, abusive relationship. These kinds of boundaries can change your relationship forever.
CALLIE LITTLE: We all live with how we're parented. She lived a really painful life, and unfortunately, she didn't have the resources to parent me. I have a lot of compassion for that. I also have a lot of respect for myself that I didn't get the resources I needed.
FURLAN: That's Callie Little. She had already put 800 miles between her and her mom and had already recognized that her mom didn't have the ability to parent her the way that she needed. But for her, there was a breaking point after years of abuse.
LITTLE: The straw that broke the camel's back was such a small thing in comparison to everything else. After - I was 24, so after 24 years of hearing about how I was this vile, vicious, toxic, ungrateful brat - and that is, like, some of the kinder things - the thing that was the final straw was that she called me an idiot because she said something racist, and I told her she was being racist. And she said, don't be an idiot. And it was just this tiny thing, but it was also this huge thing. Like, I don't let anybody in my life speak to me that way.
FURLAN: Callie is one of the many folks who are estranged from a close family member. One online questionnaire conducted by Karl Pillemer, a sociologist at Cornell University, found that 27% of respondents reported being estranged from a family member. For Callie, after that boundary went up, the stakes only got more intense.
LITTLE: I got an email from a family friend about a year into the estrangement, and they said, your mom wants to tell you her diagnosis herself.
FURLAN: Callie's mom had terminal lung and brain cancer.
LITTLE: And I went into a bit of a hole because at that point, I had to decide, you know, if I wanted to keep the boundary. Do I want to be in touch with my mom, who's the only mom I'm ever going to have? Or do I want to let her die without ever saying goodbye?
FURLAN: It was two weeks before Callie was about to get married, and this added a lot more stress. But the boundary stayed despite people criticizing Callie on Facebook and telling her that she would forever regret sticking to such an intense boundary. Estrangement from biological family is the kind of thing that people have a lot of feelings about, which Andrea says is rooted in our expectations of family.
BONIOR: I think we have a culture that very much is somewhat unforgiving of family estrangement, or, at the very least, they're skeptical of it. You know, I have a lot of clients who all their lives have been told, oh, just, you know, your mother loves you; forgive her, you know, after really abusive treatment - or a father or a brother or whatever. And the clients are constantly faced with that script from out - the outside world saying, oh, just, you know - why don't you just let bygones be bygones? And so you have to be prepared for that, too, that it might look, quote-unquote, "wrong."
FURLAN: Andrea says that as you create a boundary, it's important to think through the effects that a particular boundary might have. That's our fourth takeaway for this episode. If it's a big one, think it through.
BONIOR: We can have the best-laid plan for why our boundaries are meaningful to us and why we need to assert them for our own mental health. But sometimes the people in our lives don't respond as well as we would hope, and they don't actually have our best interests at heart, or they can't really even understand where we're coming from. So I often advise people, especially if it's been a really toxic or problematic relationship, to be realistic about what the aftereffects might be. What's the fallout?
FURLAN: Andrea recommends that, especially for big boundaries, there are a lot of questions that would make sense to go through, especially with the support of a therapist.
BONIOR: Am I willing to actually stop speaking to this person after multiple warnings when they have broken my boundaries? Am I willing to take the steps that I need to to keep me and my family safe if this person has sort of an explosive type of personality? Am I willing to actually put my money where my mouth is in ways that I have to be prepared for?
FURLAN: In Callie's case, she was ready to manage the consequences of this boundary. And who knows; maybe the years that led up to it making smaller boundaries with her mom made her boundary muscle really strong. Callie's mom died about a year after her wedding. And although she didn't talk to her mom before she passed, Callie says she's able to uplift and celebrate her mom in ways that might not have been possible before.
LITTLE: One of the things that has been the biggest gift in my mother's death is that, you know, now that she's not here and suffering the choice that I had to make, I don't have to feel guilty about it anymore. And that was the first sense of relief I got when she died. Since then, I've been able to, you know, think about her and celebrate her life in a lot of ways, I mean, do a lot of the things she never got to do.
She never went on an airplane in her life. She never left the country. And last year, I went to Europe for a month by myself with no money, but I went. And I think of her when I'm doing those things and how I hope that she - you know, I don't know if - I don't know what I believe in as far as the afterlife goes, but I think of her, and I call her to me, and I feel like she's there.
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FURLAN: So my little boundaroonies (ph), we've reached part of the episode where we recap the things that we've learned so we can make sure that you take this advice from inside of your ears and your brain and into the rest of the world. And, you know, I think it's worth saying that boundaries are hard. Not everybody grows up exercising their little boundary muscle. I know I didn't. So just know that it's OK to start from wherever you are and go from there.
So step one is, get really clear with yourself. Ask yourself, what do I need? And then trust yourself. Trust your gut. Step two is, write it down. You can use Alex's boundary circle exercise to map out the things that make you feel centered and supported, and leave the other stuff on the outside of that circle.
ELLE: Try it. Have fun with it. Don't take yourself too seriously. Just give it a go.
FURLAN: Step three is, boundaries can shift and change with you because you decide what they are. They can be flexible.
ELLE: At the end of the day, our flexibility really does depend on what we want and what we're willing to put up with. It really just comes down to, what are we comfortable with?
FURLAN: And step four is, when you're thinking of making a life-changing boundary, get comfortable, and think through the things that might happen as a result.
BONIOR: It does take some extra strength and extra planning to say, you know, I'm going to have some fallout from this, but I believe in what I'm doing enough to know that it's the right thing, and I believe enough to pay the price of some discomfort.
FURLAN: I'd say my final thing is, good luck because I'm going to be out there trying to strengthen my own weak little boundary muscles right along with you.
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FURLAN: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one with meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg and another one about digital privacy, which is very important. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT, which I know you do, and you want more, which you can get, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And here, as always, is a completely random tip, this time from Mariel Faby Husey.
MARIEL FABY HUSEY: Next time you get a little shell in your scrambled eggs, before you fry it, use one of the cups of your cracked egg as a scooper. You'll find that eggshells attract eggshells.
FURLAN: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at email@example.com. I know I've used these tips. They're good. This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Clare Lombardo and Beck Harlan. I'm Julia Furlan. Thank you so much for listening.
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FURLAN: Real life cats - wait. I'm going to just - real life cats.
OK. We're good. All right. Have a good day. Thank you.
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