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When Setting Boundaries isn’t Enough

It’s the holiday season! And for many of us, the holidays mean time with family, which equals a whole mess of feelings. Joy, pain, loss, comfort, trauma—it runs the gamut of emotions.

Dealing with family dynamics is tricky. A big reason is that many of the buttons, traumas, or triggers that family members push were established when we were children. We forget those triggers were put there when we were viewing the world through a child’s logic, which tends to be all about us.

  • Your parents yelling at each other translated to you did something wrong.
  • Your sibling coming home grouchy translated to you doing something wrong.
  • Your dad drinking too much translated to you not getting him to stop.

Everything as a child was about us, and for those of us with High Functioning Anxiety who have a lot of empathy, we took on double the responsibility.

So as you grow up, you take that child-like perception and morph it into an adult body. Many of the reactions, thoughts, and desires you have around family were born from those child-like perceptions and needs, and we act them out over and over again as adults.

That piece of the puzzle is what is left out of the personal development advice of “just say no,” “set better boundaries,” or “stop allowing your family to treat you so poorly.” But it isn’t that easy to just say no or set better boundaries because the minute we do, our child-like self is all kinds of triggered and stressed.

The question to ask yourself is: What am I gaining from participating in this behavior?

For example, let’s say one of the dynamics in your family is that you always cover for your brother. He is irresponsible, chronically late, and a tad self-centered. He annoys your older sister because he can’t be counted on, but you are always there to defend him, always running interference, always protecting him to the detriment of your relationships with your spouse, sister, and kids. The common wisdom is to set better boundaries, but every time you try, the old message of “but he needs me” keeps playing in your head and the guilt is too much to not step in and help.

If you ask yourself what you are gaining from participating in this relationship, the answer might be love, appreciation, or feeling special because only you can have that relationship with your brother, which makes sense because your relationship with your brother was built when you were very little and he had the ability to make you feel so unique and special. It was a priceless feeling. Now as an adult with rational thinking, you can see that the dynamic is unhealthy—but every time you are around him, you get to feel that special, unique feeling of an eight-year-old.

Now the challenge of answering this question, though, is that we aren’t curious, we are judgmental. We tell ourselves our behavior is stupid. I mean, he causes so much stress every year and yet you constantly go along and defend him. You should have better boundaries!!

But what if you had some compassion and kindness? What if you could say, “Wow, that is totally understandable. Growing up and seeing the world as an eight-year-old, my brother was my place of refuge. In a family of inconsistency and uneasiness, taking care of him and covering for him made me feel safe. But now I am older and so is he, and taking care of him taps into that old feeling of safety, but it is false. It actually makes me feel out of control, I fight with my family more, my spouse hates my brother ,and if I am honest with myself, he is taking advantage of me.”

So how can you change the dynamic?

Set better boundaries! (Ha!) It isn’t that simple.

Maybe it is having a conversation with your brother, sharing your reality.

Or setting small boundaries that you are comfortable with (e.g., not defending him when he acts out). Then have a conversation with your spouse about trying to change this behavior and ask him to give you a sign (thumbs down or a wave) when he hears you defending poor behavior from your brother.

Three takeaways:

  1. Family dynamics and all our buttons, traumas, or triggers were put there when we were children. Therefore, the many, many dances we engage in with our families as adults are born out of child-like perceptions.
  2. As we grow into adults, these old patterns no longer serve us in the same way, and yet we are still hooked into them. So we have to ask ourselves in a kind, non-judgmental way, “What am I gaining from this pattern?”
  3. Once we know what we gained, we have to be kind to ourselves and make small, meaningful changes. Changes that support us, give us what we need, and allow us time to move beyond that child-like perception.

Healing family dynamics will take way more than reading a simple essay. It takes time, kindness, and the support of loved ones. Most importantly, it does not take shaming, belittling, and ridiculing yourself for being engaged in the dynamic. Be kind; this stuff is hard.


New on The Happier Approach Podcast

This month on the podcast, we are focusing on the voices in our head. You know the horrible voice that tells you that you are a slow, stupid loser who will never succeed? It tells you that everyone but you has it figured out and that at any moment you are going to be found out for the fraud that you are. That would be your Monger.

Of all the other voices in your head, the Monger is the loudest of them all. So in this week’s episode, I am talking at length about the Monger and how she is such an important part of understanding and managing our High Functioning Anxiety. Check it out on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or over here.