How To Set Boundaries With Your Family, According To A Life Coach

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When we’re young, most of us don’t think about how to set boundaries with our families. Our families, especially our parents, have a say in nearly every aspect of our lives, and we usually accept that — until we’re older and they continue trying to play this role. If your family members are trying to get information about you that you’re not comfortable sharing, push you into doing things you don’t want to do, or influence decisions that aren’t theirs to make, it may be time to set some boundaries with them.

“The bigger question isn’t even ‘how do I set boundaries,’ necessarily,” Washington, DC-based life coach Nick Hamilton tells Bustle. “It’s ‘how do I be my fully expressed self?’ Often, part of that is setting boundaries, and I think the hardest place to set boundaries is with our caregivers. That touches some of our deepest stories about how the world works.”

If you have trouble standing up to your parents or other family members, you're not alone. But with practice, you can get better at it — and as you do, you'll likely develop a healthier relationship with less resentment. Here are some ways to set boundaries with your family, or anyone else who isn't respecting you.

1. Choose Your Approach Wisely

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“There’s different sides of [setting boundaries],” Hamilton says. “There’s the really aggressive side that has this attitude of ‘F the world, I'm gonna be who I am and put it in everyone's face.’ The other side is more gentle and feels more like ‘I’m gonna redirect this person's energy and still take care of myself.’ There is a lot of room for variation between those two ends of the spectrum.”

When you’re angry with your family for violating your boundaries, it may be tempting to lash out at them and stop talking to them or limit your interactions as a form of revenge. But keeping yourself in a state of anger may not feel good for you. On the other hand, you also don't want to bend over backwards to be nice to them if that compromises your own emotional expression. Try to find a happy medium, one based on what makes you feel best rather than how it will affect others.

2. Know That “No” Is Enough

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“‘No’ is a complete sentence,” Hamilton says. “Especially for female-bodied humans, there are a lot of messages of emotional labor and caregiving and responsibility.”

Many of us grew up learning that saying “no” isn’t polite or safe, but it’s completely fine to say, “I feel uncomfortable,” “no, this is inappropriate," “no, I'm leaving," or “I don’t want to have that conversation,” Hamilton says.

3. Use “I” Statements

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If you want to go into more detail about why you need to set a boundary with someone, they’re more likely to listen if you focus on how they’ve made you feel, rather than why their actions were wrong.

“Sometimes, ‘no’ can be hard to hear, and if you’re trying to open a dialogue, it may have to be structured in a way that’s more letting someone know how they affect you,” Hamilton says. This kind of statement will follow the general format of, "When you do this thing/say this thing, I feel this way." This way, you’re not assuming anything about the other person, which could cause them to become defensive.

4. Set Consequences

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Your boundaries will be meaningless to the other person if there are no consequences to crossing them. So, Hamilton recommends letting them know what will happen if they violate a boundary. Some consequences could include leaving the room or hanging up the phone.

If they still persist after this or you need something stronger, you could stop speaking to them for a certain period of time. At that point, they should get the message that if they're interested in future interactions with you, they'll have to respect your boundaries.

5. Take Time To Think About What You Want To Do

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You don't have to decide right in the moment, as a boundary's being crossed, how to set it. If you need time to process what's happening or think about it, you can take a breath, go on a walk, or call a friend, Hamilton says. "Start very slow," he advises. "You're pushing a lot of stuff inside of you, and that feels real."

6. Don't Take Their Reaction Personally

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Not everyone is used to having people around them set boundaries, so they may react negatively when you do. Know that this doesn't mean you've done anything wrong.

"If you assume the reason people are shaming and blaming you and criticizing you is because they don't know what to do with their own feelings and the stories they carry, you can avoid taking it personally," Hamilton says.

7. Learn The Signs A Boundary Has Been Crossed

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"Our bodies and brains and nervous systems are a big blob of information, and we have our instincts built into these systems," Hamilton says. So, over time, you'll start to recognize the signs a boundary has been crossed in your body. You might feel a pit in your stomach, for example, or a burning in your chest.

"That's the beginning of anger," Hamilton explains. "But people ignore it because they're taught it's not safe to be angry." Once you give yourself permission to feel anger and realize it's actually there to help you defend your boundaries, you'll begin to recognize the signs more easily.

Setting boundaries isn't easy for many people, so if you don't succeed right away, just treat your failures as an opportunity to refine your strategy. It's a skill, but it's one you will learn with time.