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boundaries in relationships

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There’s a reason that the saying “Friends are the family you choose” exists, and it’s that many people wouldn’t choose their actual family members, given the choice. If we could all magically start with a blank canvas and decide who our relatives were, I’d bet good money on the idea that everyone’s family tree would suddenly look completely transformed. Because friends are the family you get to choose, and that’s where most people become selective. When it’s time to decide who gets to be close to you, who you spend a lot of time with, who you share your victories and sorrows with, you want to be precious about it. You need to protect your energy, your mind, and your emotions. There are some people who make you feel at risk every time they’re around – at risk for a mental breakdown or emotional upset. And when you choose your friends, you leave out anyone who makes you feel that way. But you can’t pick your family.

Since you can’t, but for many, many reasons you need to have a relationship with them, that can mean managing relationships with people who aren’t always 100 percent good for you. There are some times when setting up boundaries is simple enough (though it’s never exactly easy), but then there are some really tricky scenarios when setting up boundaries feels rough for all parties. We went over what some of those are with licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Hard Work or Harmony Kiaundra Jackson (pictured below).

Kiaundra Jackson

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Living with family with mental illness

Having a family member who struggles with a mental illness or personality disorder can be particularly trying because their condition inherently makes it hard for them to see things from another’s perspective. Jackson says, “Oftentimes if you are a caregiver or even if you just have someone in your family who struggles with mental health issues, they become the center of attention. Other issues often get pushed to the side. It depends on how severe the mental health challenge is. For example, if they’re harming themselves or other people and need to be placed in a facility versus it’s just someone who struggles with depression and things of that nature.”

boundaries in relationships

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Realize professional help is best for all

Jackson states that if the affected individual refuses to take their medication, go to therapy, or accept professional help of that nature, “It can be very draining for the family. Most people try to get the person who is struggling to seek professional help, take medication if needed. That’s a constant battle because we know if they’d do those things, they’d feel better, and we’d feel less stress as family members.” And it’s okay to acknowledge that while you want the person to get help for themselves, you also want that relief for yourself. “I’ve seen people try to become that person’s therapist, instead of allowing the professionals to do their jobs,” Jackson says. But that’s an uphill battle. That’s what the professionals are there for.

boundaries in relationships

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Help yourself if they won’t help themselves

Ultimately, if a family member with mental illness won’t stay on her course to get better, the resulting chaos affects the family, and they have no choice but to put up boundaries. “You cannot force anyone to do anything.  It’s up to that affected individual,” Jackson states. “Sometimes setting boundaries can seem harmful or hurtful. It can be, ‘Every time you come here you break stuff…or the police have to be called,’ so maybe the boundary is ‘You can’t come over here anymore.’ For someone with mental health issues, it can feel like the family is not being supportive.” Be prepared for those accusations, but don’t take the guilt as a sign that you should bail on your boundaries.

boundaries in relationships

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It should be a group effort

Everyone in the close network of friends and family should share the work of helping a loved one with mental health issues. You can’t be expected to be the only caretaker, so one boundary you may have to enforce, Jackson says, is telling other healthy family members that it’s their turn to step up.

“Make sure not just one person is taking care of the individual who is struggling. It’s a family effort,” she says. “That can mean saying, ‘Hey I can’t deal with this today. Sister/brother/mother can you deal with this today?” If your loved one with mental illness isn’t getting better, then caring for her might be a job the family takes on for the long term. When responsibilities are shared amongst each member, it becomes more manageable.

boundaries in relationships

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Boundaries are for the both of you

Jackson reminds us that setting boundaries is not only for our own mental wellbeing but also for the betterment of the other person.

“If we don’ set boundaries and let them do whatever they want, they can be detrimental to us, to themselves, to the family, to the community,” Jackson says. “We are enabling that behavior. That person is not going to realize something is wrong if someone gives in every time.” And trying to fix things for them every time, rather than having them work it out on their own (which can include seeking professional help when applicable), can damage your sanity. “I’ve seen people get to the point where they just don’t care. They do care but they’re tired of caring. Sometimes people allow their family members to do whatever they want to do because they’re just done fighting. They’re physically and mentally exhausted,” she says. “I’ve even worked with a caregiver who was literally questioning her own sanity…her family member was gaslighting her so much.”

boundaries in relationships

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Dealing with family who always needs money

Many families have that one member who can’t hold down a job, spends every dollar that comes their way, and is somehow perpetually broke, very much due to their own bad habits. So they come to family and ask for money, or for a job, or for a referral. Jackson advises, “Verbalize your thoughts and feelings. If this person has a bad reputation of ruining jobs or not being a good referral, whatever the case may be, we have to find a gentle way to break that down to them instead of avoiding it. You can say, ‘I would love to refer you but I noticed the last three jobs I referred you to you got fired from, so that made me look bad. I don’t feel good giving you any recommendations any longer.’ That person probably isn’t going to take that well but that’s also not your problem.”

boundaries in relationships

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You don’t have to ice them out right away

Let established patterns dictate how you handle someone. “I’m all about giving people one to two chances up top,” Jackson says. “They have to show they’re putting in effort. If you see, for example, a cousin who is working two jobs and going to school and needs $50, of course give it to her, but if that person is living on mom’s couch and not even looking for a job, you’re not going to enable that. In that case I would give them resources. Not from my own personal or professional connections. I may say, ‘I heard this place was hiring. I saw this ad. It could be a freelance job for you. You should apply,’ and things of that nature that encourage them to be independent. As an adult, you should have that capacity to fend for yourself.  I know some of us start off in different spaces, but I am all about helping people have a sustainable life. If you keep feeding that money habit, it’ll always be a thing. And when you finally say no, it can be a lot more drama than if you’d said something at the beginning.”

boundaries in relationships

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The lost lover

Next, we spoke about that family member whose personal relationships are always falling apart. She’s frequently in a dramatic breakup, moving out of the shared home, needing a shoulder to cry on, a ride, or a place to stay…urgently. Jackson says, “For some people, chaos feels normal. If things are status quo, it feels weird to them. They thrive off the drama. For the people who are attached to this person, boundaries are important. You will want to be nice and considerate and supportive if that person really does need you. But if this is an everyday thing or every other week thing, there comes a point where you have to say no. You say, ‘You have to find your own place to stay. You can’t stay here again because you broke up with your partner again.’”

boundaries in relationships

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Ultimately, you’re helping them

Shutting out a relative who needs a place to stay after her umpteenth breakup that year can feel cold, but taking her in each time isn’t helping her.

“It can feel mean but at the same time you’re teaching them a new skill set,” Jackson states. “If all of their family members and friends set these boundaries, at some point, a lightbulb should go off in their head like ‘Wow…nobody is really giving into me. So maybe the mirror needs to be placed upon myself.’ It can be great to band together with friends and family to come up with a consistent plan, like ‘When she calls, we are all going to say no.’ That will allow that person to fend for themselves. It also teaches problem-solving skills. She sees, ‘I’m in this pickle, nobody is here to help me. How can I get out of this on my own?’”

boundaries in relationships

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When family is beefing

Sometimes it isn’t you who has an issue with any given family member, but two family members you like can’t stand each other. If you aren’t careful, they will let their stuff spill all over you. “Make sure that the issues they have with each other do not impact you, and do not impact your relationship with each of them,” Jackson advises. “So it’s important to let both parties know, ‘Hey, I’m very close with this person over here, and with this person over here. There isn’t going to be any tit for tat. You’re not going to be able to disrespect that person in front of me. And I won’t allow that other person to talk smack about you either.”

boundaries in relationships

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Don’t get pulled into the drama

Family that’s feuding will likely still try to complain to you about the other and drag you into it. “Say, ‘If you guys have issues, you have to work them out.’ If you keep getting stuck in the middle, you’ll feel like you have to choose. It’s a sticky place to be in, but if you let both parties know from the gates you’re close with each of them and are not going to stop communicating with either of them, and you’re not going to let them disrespect each other in your presence, that’s key,” Jackson says. “At big events like family reunions or weddings, the family could get in a feud that ruins everybody’s day. A conversation has to be had ahead of time. Say, ‘You don’t have to speak to one another. But for the sake of this event be cordial. Maybe that means not speaking to each other. Whatever you need to do to keep the peace.’”

boundaries in relationships

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You aren’t wrong for setting boundaries

Putting up boundaries with family members can come with feelings of guilt, especially if you’re new to doing it. That doesn’t mean you’ve done the wrong thing. “Sometimes you need an outside person to say, ‘You’re doing the best that you can under this current situation.’  That simple sentence can put things into perspective,” Jackson says. She says she likes to show them anybody else in their scenario would handle it the same way. “Also make sure there isn’t people-pleasing going on there. Oftentimes what I see with the people I work with, when they do feel bad, it’s because they’ve had a long history of pleasing everybody else,” she adds. “They can’t stand it when people are mad at them or if they make someone sad. Working through people-pleasing is probably a huge chunk of that as well.”

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