Family relationships can be beautiful but tricky to navigate at times. Learning how to establish healthy boundaries can help us protect ourselves and our mental health.
What are boundaries?
Our boundaries are how we honor our needs, goals, feelings, and values. Boundaries can be considered guidelines to live by that only you can define. However, over time our needs and boundaries may change.
Where to begin
You can start developing healthy boundaries by first identifying the behaviors, characteristics, and actions that make you comfortable versus those that make you uncomfortable. You can also learn about what types of boundaries there are.
Types of boundaries
- Physical boundaries – your comfort with people touching you, sharing your personal space, and respecting your physical needs such as eating, drinking, sleeping, or resting.
- Emotional boundaries – your personal emotional needs, such as allowing you to share your feelings, validating your feelings, and respecting the intimate details of life.
- Time boundaries – your personal time restraints being understood and respected, such as the time you need to dedicate to your school, work, and yourself.
- Sexual boundaries – your preferences regarding consent, desire, and privacy being respected.
- Intellectual boundaries – your thoughts, ideas, and curiosities being accepted and validated.
- Material boundaries – your personal belongings and property, such as your car, house, and personal items being respected.
How do I establish healthy boundaries?
It might seem difficult to establish (and maintain) your boundaries, but following these tips will make it easier:
- Prioritize your needs – It’s very easy to downplay our needs – especially when it comes to those we value, like family. However, setting healthy boundaries starts with considering your personal needs and making them a priority.
- Set realistic expectations for your relationships – We cannot change who our family is and how they act. For this reason, it’s essential to set realistic expectations for your relationships with your family members. Ask yourself the following:
- Is this person someone who will definitely come to an event I plan?
- Is this person someone who has respected my wishes in the past?
- Is this person someone I can count on to keep intimate details of my life private?
- Is this person someone who will retaliate when I express my feelings or hold them accountable?
- Is this person someone I’m safe or comfortable being around at family gatherings?
Acknowledging your family members for who they are and thinking about how they’ve treated you and others in the past will help you establish your boundaries with them (and the consequences) if they ignore the boundaries you set. For example, imagine your auntie is generally a kind and loving person, but she talks about your weight in ways that make you feel uncomfortable. To establish a boundary with her, ask her to stop bringing up your weight, because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Tell her that if she brings up your weight in the future, you will change the subject or walk away from the conversation.
- Practice what you want to say – It can be hard and uncomfortable to defend yourself and be assertive, especially to a family member. Take time to practice what you want to say. You can do this by -practicing in front of a mirror or with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor before having a face-to-face conversation with the family member you’re approaching. Practicing your approach and tone will increase your confidence and comfort in establishing your boundaries.
- Be firm, but kind – Set your boundaries by expressing them firmly but respectfully. Being firm doesn’t mean being unkind or rude – being kind, calm, patient, and direct can help your family member understand what you’re communicating. In our culture, we’re often taught to respect our Elders. You can still be respectful while establishing your boundaries with kindness!
- Learn how and when to say “no” – The word “no” can be freeing and empowering, especially when establishing boundaries and setting expectations for family. If you’re a people-pleaser or like to give people the benefit of the doubt, saying “no” can be extremely challenging. However, while saying “no” to family members takes practice, it gets easier over time.
- Know when to walk away – You never have to stay in a situation or relationship that feels dangerous or unhealthy. If your boundaries are not respected or you feel unsafe, ending the relationship is okay if that’s what you need. You do not need to apologize or explain to anybody unless you want to.
The Bottom Line
Your boundaries are important and should be fully respected- no ifs, ands, or buts. You deserve to be respected and treated with love, – especially by your family. Establishing boundaries can help you feel loved and respected in the ways you need. But remember: it’s okay to walk away from a person that does not meet your needs or respect your boundaries, even if they are family.
For more information about establishing your boundaries, check out these resources:
- Protecting Your Peace from Toxic Relationships
- Establishing Healthy Boundaries with Your Significant Other
- Ask Auntie – Setting boundaries with family…
- More Tips for Communicating Effectively
Author: Stephanie Paz is a Tigua Indian of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from The University of Texas at El Paso and is working towards a Master of Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Promotion from New Mexico State University.