You may have heard about setting boundaries recently in the media, but what does it mean? How do we go about communicating limitations? This can be especially challenging when it comes to family aka people we’re “supposed” to remain connected with because we’re related. What happens when/if our boundaries are not being respected?

Setting our own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others is a vital skill to practice in any trusting relationship. 

In order to know our needs are being met and our voices heard, we have to be able to say “no” or “not right now.” This can be especially difficult to put into practice when it comes to family members. I know for myself, as a giver and a helper, I feel challenged when needing to communicate and enforce limits with those for whom I care. It is difficult for me to prioritize my own needs if it means that will get in the way of showing up for others. I spend so much of my time attending to others’ needs when it comes to connecting with my siblings, parents, or nieces and nephews, that I tend to feel burned out if I allow my boundaries to be crossed.

Here's a real-life example of how this unfolded for me. 

One of the challenges I face is the gossip culture in my family. As in many families, I have loved ones who tend to “talk trash” behind each other’s backs instead of vulnerably addressing their concerns. I find it triggering when a family member comes to me wanting to gossip because I strive to promote growth and change in my relationships and I do not find gossiping productive. I’d much rather talk about how they are being impacted by the situation or, possibly, how they could be contributing to what’s going on. When I’m feeling triggered by my family, I tend to become defensive and even angry at times. This is due to not wanting to be a part of the dysfunctional gossip but I also don’t want to risk hurting the person I love by rejecting what they want to talk about. I am still very much working on how to communicate my boundaries in a way that minimizes that risk while also making my voice heard.

What I’ve found helpful for me is, first, I’m paying more attention to when my body is telling me I need to set a boundary. For me, this means tending to anger or annoyance that arises when interacting with my family members. This anger can manifest as clenched jaw and/or fists, an urge to lash out, shaking my head in frustration, or lingering, negative thoughts after a conversation as though this person “should just know what my needs are without me having to tell them.” That’s my cue- I’ve got to speak up for myself.


Here are the steps I've found helpful in doing just that:

1. Initiate a conversation

Once I realize a boundary needs to be set or has already been crossed. 

2. Share my experience with that family member, using “I” statements

Such as, “When you were gossiping about our loved one, I felt frustrated because it seemed like you were wanting me to join in the gossip instead of allowing me to help you solve the problem.”

3. Clearly express my need

“I don’t find gossiping helpful, but I want you to know what you have to say is important to me. Can we work together on using our time to connect in a different way?” Or, “I’m allowed to change my mind - I know I seemed ok with gossiping with you in the past, but I’m not anymore.”

4. Enforce my boundaries

If this person attempts to connect with me in the same way again, tell them. “Remember we talked about how I’m no longer comfortable gossiping with you? I feel like it’s happening again right now and I’m not ok with it. I may need to end this conversation if you’re not willing to respect my boundary.”

5. Express gratitude 

I genuinely share my appreciation with my family members when they catch themselves trying to gossip with me since I first set this boundary. I tend to say something like, “Thank you. It means a lot to me that you caught that before I had to say anything. I’m grateful to connect in this relationship in a way that feels better for both of us.”


Lastly, I have found it helpful to set preemptive boundaries for myself now that I'm learning that I can feel burned out when my boundaries have been crossed. For example, I keep my phone on “Do Not Disturb” during times when I am working, sleeping, or simply wanting some alone time. If I know I’ve had a draining week, I’m more likely to decline an invitation to a social event or I may let the inviter know that I’ll only attend for a short time.  

Ultimately, it is your responsibility to take care of yourself. After all, you are the only person you have power and control over changing. It is not safe to assume others know what you need if you are not communicating your needs explicitly. If you find family members not respecting your boundaries once you have shared them, it is up to you to create distance in that relationship which, of course, can be quite difficult to achieve at times. And yet, you owe it to yourself to try.

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Are you feeling overwhelmed or depleted? If you are motivated to start seeing change in your life, it might be time to seek help with the accountability and structure that a therapist can offer. The talented therapists here at Thrive for the People offer in-person and online therapy to treat burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation and we can determine the best support for you.