When the people around you don’t set boundaries

Today, we’re going to talk about the first obstacle to setting boundaries, and that is being surrounded by people who don’t, themselves, set boundaries. 

We’ll use the example of family, because I have a feeling a lot of us can relate. 

Let’s say the family’s planning a week-long vacation. You want to go, but you’re also feeling anxious, because when you spend time with family things can quickly get overwhelming, leaving you feeling drained and irritable. 

If boundaries aren’t the norm in your family, it might feel like you only have two options:

Go and feel overwhelmed, drained, and irritable OR find some excuse why you can’t come. 

But even with the latter, you’ll probably feel guilty and anxious, because now people might be mad that you’re not coming.

These are pretty crappy options, yes?

When we’re embedded in a family system (or friend group, work environment, etc) where boundaries aren’t communicated, we’ll often feel constrained, frustrated, and overwhelmed, because we’re asking ourselves to navigate human interactions without a very basic tool. 

This is like expecting yourself to shovel a driveway buried in two feet of snow and ice with your bare hands. 

I mean, I guess you could, but wow, would that ever suck. And also, why?? That’s what shovels are for!

To extend the analogy, shoveling the driveway with your hands isn’t hard because you’re “not enough” or “too much.” It’s hard because you don’t have the proper tools. 

Same deal with wounded family (or friend/work/etc) systems:

Everybody’s trying to get along and feel connected without the fundamental tool of being able to clearly communicate what they need.

That’s really freakin’ hard. 

Let’s wave a magic boundary-setting wand and go back to the family vacation scenario. 

If you’re able to step outside of the family system long enough to see that boundaries are an option (never mind how you’re going to set them yet–awareness is the first step)…

…now you can start thinking in terms of, “What do I need to make this vacation feel more fun and manageable?”

Maybe you need to get your own hotel room so you have a hermit hole to retreat to when you need some space. (One of my favorite strategies.)

Maybe you need to bring your own food so you’re not eating stuff that triggers your migraines, because family trip + migraines = welcome to hell. 

Maybe you need to come for three days, not the entire week, because that’s way too much social time for you. 

I could go on, but the point is there are so many options!

When we’re surrounded by people who think boundaries are bad or rude…

…we might be in the habit of ignoring what we need, which can lead us to believe that we don’t actually have any good options. 

So, our first step out of the wounded system is to check in with ourselves, “What do I need right now?” or “What would help me feel more [calm/safe/etc] in this situation?”

Even if you don’t yet know how to communicate those needs to other people (you’ll love the boundary-setting class then, FYI), getting clear within yourself starts breaking down those sticky patterns that might otherwise keep you mired in resentment and people pleasing.

The other mindset shift that I’ve found helpful…

…is to practice normalizing feeling weird or like the odd one out. 

I feel like that a lot in my family, and at first, I was worried I might spontaneously combust from the discomfort. But so far, that hasn’t happened!

Turns out, feeling weird is survivable.

In my family, it’s pretty “normal” to not say what you need, and instead, to get angry, withdraw, or behave very awkwardly when people aren’t able to figure out what you want. 

For example, if I ask someone whether they want to go shopping with me (instead of just knowing somehow that they aren’t in the mood), they might say yes but then be super grouchy or quiet the entire time. 

And maybe later, I’ll hear through another family member that they were miffed that I “put them in that position.” 

For many years this seemed totally normal to me!

But guess what?

It’s totally not! 

Being able to clearly state what I do or don’t want is a pretty radical act in my family, and sometimes when I do this, people look at me like I’ve grown horns and a tail.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

We’ll be learning tools in the class for dealing with those situations…

…but know that it’s okay if things feel awkward and weird. 

You’re not alone. 

What’s actually awkward and weird is expecting people to be able to get along and feel safe without ever being able to say what you need, but when you’re surrounded by people who don’t have those tools or awareness, you might feel like an outcast. 

In class, we’ll be using Internal Family Systems to soothe and regulate our inner system when other people are looking at us like we’re bananas for communicating our needs clearly. 

And those techniques also help us reprogram long-standing family patterns, so not only are we helping ourselves feel more grounded and clear in the moment, we’re rewriting our inner rule book, making boundary setting even easier moving forward. 

In a couple days, we’re going to look at the second reason boundary setting can feel hard and how to make it easier. 

See you then!

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