(and avoid being taken advantage of… again and again and again)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’re heading home for the holidays and your parents can barely contain their excitement. But your excitement level doesn’t quite match theirs. I mean, they’re awesome, or at least awesome-ish. They raised you well, have sacrificed everything for you (as they’re all too happy to remind you and your new spouse), and can’t wait to have you snuggled up in your old room again. Only problem is, you’re bracing for 7 straight days of being watched like a hawk and having every comment met with thinly-veiled criticism. It’s like a week-long festival of passive-aggression – maybe one that’s slightly more comfortable than Coachella, but leaves you feeling just as drained and dehydrated by the end.
So what do you do? I guess some people might make alternate holiday plans, or read their parents the riot act anytime they say anything even mildly objectionable. But if you’re like me, or like I used to be, you obsessively try to explain to them why they can’t continue to treat you like a 7-year-old child, while cultivating a huge resentment as your self-esteem deflates at a rapidly increasing rate. ‘Cause you know, that’s how we co-dependents roll.
Today, I’ve learned that situations like the one above can be handled peacefully and gracefully by implementing one simple practice: setting boundaries. Of course, it really isn’t that simple, especially for folks battling codependency issues.
The Declaration of Codependence
As defined by one of my gurus, Melody Beattie, author of the co-dependent’s bible, “Codependent No More”, a codependent person is “one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” For me I would get fixated on trying to change the behavior of people who I know deep down will never change. If this sounds like you too, have no fear. You’re not alone and, more important, help is just a boundary (or two) away.
Ever since I was a teenager, my biggest pain points have come in situations with family, friends, co-workers and romantic partners that required me to set boundaries… and I simply couldn’t. Or I didn’t know how to. Fortunately, after a decade of working with life coaches, therapists, and conducting countless hours of trial and error personal research, I’ve overcome a lot of my old issues, and become something of a master at setting boundaries.
I’ve also experienced a lot of success in the last few years sharing my knowledge with the folks in the Art of Charm boot camps, many of whom showed up on day one just as clueless as I once was about setting boundaries. But after going through our comprehensive program, they emerged with the tools and newfound confidence to take a new approach to some of the most challenging relationships in their lives.
Here now is my five-step plan on how to set effective boundaries. Let the liberation from being walked all over begin now!
1. Recognize the need to set boundaries
You need to understand first where boundaries are needed, before you’ll be able to set them and avoid being manipulated. In the case of my parents, I knew that I couldn’t keep subjecting myself and my husband Mark to the same dynamic that had been driving us crazy for years. We love my parents and definitely wanted to spend the holiday with them BUT… we always seemed to end up in a blowout with them. (Ok, so it was usually me in the blowout, with my husband watching from a ringside seat!) The solution? Staying at my cousin’s house, and avoiding the triggers and close physical proximity that always led to conflict.
Pro tip: Key into the emotion that makes the boundary necessary to set. For me, the emotions were frustration and sadness; frustration at continually feeling criticized, sad about how this made it harder to connect with my parents.
2. Communicate the boundary (and the emotion behind it)
This can be a tricky one, because there’s always the chance that toes will be stepped on and feelings will be hurt when a boundary is being set. Honestly, it took me two months to have the conversation with my mother about staying at my cousin’s house. I knew it could hurt her, and I knew she might try and lay a guilt trip on me for not staying at home. That’s why it’s so important to communicate the feelings behind the boundary as well. Actually, there are two reasons, so let’s go ahead and give them each their own bullet point:
- A person can’t argue with an emotion.
- It lets the other person know how their actions affect you.
When I finally spoke with my mother, I approached the conversation gently and compassionately. I told her it was difficult for grown children and their parents to stay under the same roof and not argue. When arguments do occur, it makes me sad because it puts a damper on the trip, especially if I get heated and wind up saying things I regret. I will be happier if Mark and I have some privacy and space. What do you know? Because I didn’t simply criticize her parenting or lay out my list of grievances, my mother had a much easier time accepting my boundary.
Pro tip: Allow yourself to be vulnerable when communicating your boundary, then be prepared to listen and empathize with how it makes them feel.
3. Respond with positivity
This is a loved one after all, right? So it’s important to make sure you accentuate the positivity this boundary can generate. I let my mom know, for instance, how much I loved her and looked forward to having a better, clearer, more communicative relationship with her, one where we’d both feel more honest and open with each other. She may not have wanted me to stay at my cousin’s this year, but she was able to respect my decision to do so. I was able to set the boundary AND let her know I cared enough about her to set it in the first place.
Pro tip: Remember, we’re changing our behavior not theirs. We’re allowing them to change if they choose to, but we’re no longer trying to control them!
4. Stand your ground.
This step is your opportunity to make like Teddy Roosevelt — speak softly and carry a big stick. That means communicating your boundary with compassion, clarity and positivity, and firmly holding to it no matter what. That no matter what is super important, because if you don’t stand your ground, you’ll continue to be taken advantage of. R&B legend James Brown called himself the hardest working man in show business and he expected his band to live up to that promise. That meant imposing fines on band members for being late to practice. (Thanks to my fellow AoC coach Johnny for that nugget of rock and roll boundary history!) Where my parents were concerned, I committed to completely breaking with longstanding family tradition and staying somewhere else on vacation. If I caved, my parents wouldn’t respect me OR my boundary.
Pro tip: If you encounter resistance or an argument, return to step 3 and remind them (your partner, colleague, or parent) of the benefits this boundary will bring for all.
5. Cut ties when necessary
And now we come to perhaps the toughest, but most important step of them all. If your boundary is not being respected, you have to be willing to walk away from the relationship. This may mean avoiding all contact, even blocking your boundary-disrespecting friends on social media if necessary. With parents or other blood-related family members, this can be difficult of course. And please know that although some friendships and romantic relationships are worth walking away from, I’m by no means advising you to run out and cut ties with your family when things get tough. But no matter how deep your bond, even if it’s thicker than water, the boundary must take priority. If the prospect of cutting ties is causing you distress, ask yourself this question: is it worth holding onto the relationship, but losing your self-respect and selfesteem in the process?
Pro tip: Hide them from your FB or Twitter feeds (this wouldn’t work with my parents!)
As you contemplate where, when, and how you might need to set boundaries with the people in your life, always remember: you’re changing your behavior, not theirs. Because at the end of the day, that’s really all you can control. As the serenity prayer puts it so well, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (other people’s behavior), the courage to change the things I can (your own behavior).” That’s why I like to think of setting boundaries in your life as you exercising the courage to change!
If Mark and I had tried to stay at my parents’ house over this last holiday… again… I would’ve gotten caught up again in trying to change them. By staying at my cousin’s house, I changed my own behavior – setting a physical and emotional boundary in the process — and gave myself the literal and figurative space I needed to have a successful vacation. And guess what? Mark and I had our best holiday ever. I’m pretty sure my parents did, too. After all, it takes a lot of energy to monitor your grown kids’ every move all day long. 😉
Turns out a well-set boundary can bring serenity for all!