By Amelia Mitchell
Families and friend groups have systems, and we each have a special role with clear expectations, change rocks the boat. We all know what to expect from Uncle Matthew, or how Mom and your sister interact over cooking, and these days some of our differences have become even more polarizing and challenging.
From what I can tell, my buttons, triggers, and soft spots were installed early. Some seemingly before birth. It then follows that the people most able to push those buttons, find my weaknesses, and trigger a response are those who have known me for a very long time, they are my family.
In order to shift a dynamic, we do need to become aware enough of ourselves and how we are participating in it to make a change. For example, as the oldest daughter, I am a caretaker and uber-responsible. When I do this for others it is easy to go too far, I am often allowing them to be less responsible for themselves and am I then taking extra credit for my “goodness.” This dynamic leaves me cranky, tired, and feeling like I am carrying and processing far too many people’s emotions. All of a sudden, I am managing everyone’s expectations and keeping the peace.
Wow. That’s too much. Are you aware of any family dynamics that you get sucked right into when you are together? Are there scripts or emotions that always show up? Is there a good person and a bad person? Or an old bruised wound that gets the band-aid ripped off each holiday dinner? Perhaps there are misunderstandings that sit just below the surface, leading the conversation to reaffirm everyone’s point of view over and over and over? It might go like this, Mom love’s you more, or Cousin Sue always gets treats from Grandma, or nobody has ever understood who I actually am!
I’d love to be the family dynamic fairy who could pop into family events and sprinkle fairy dust over you all! Instead, I do have some ideas about how strengthening your personal boundaries can begin a shift.
First off, you have to be willing to be a bit uncomfortable, a short uncomfortable conversation will NOT KILL YOU. It is hard, it can feel like the room is closing in, you can do it, it will be ok.
Now, as with anything practice improves our skills. Let us start with something smaller, not the biggest issue. That way you get to practice and ease into the process. A few small successes will help you build skills and confidence.
So, what are boundaries?
They can literally be the physical edges of your skin, and saying no to a hug, or noticing you feel uncomfortable when crowded is a clue to where your physical boundaries lie. We have awareness of our personal space beyond our skin and some of us are more and less comfortable with others in that space.
Boundaries are also interpersonal, a line in the sand that says, this is ok with me and this is not. For example, I’m happy to shop and cook a big family meal, and I expect you dear family members to clean up afterwards. Or, I’d love to watch the grandbaby on occasion or one specific day of the week, however I am not able (interested in) to provide full time care when you go back to work. Boundaries are often a combo of interpersonal and energetic, we don’t exactly know what we do want, we know this doesn’t feel right. Coming to trust what your gut is telling you, the yes/no is very helpful.
Boundaries are also flexible, it is perfectly reasonable to have different boundaries with different people. For a whole combination of reasons, I am happy to help out one friend in a challenging situation, while for another all I want to do is send them my good wishes in messenger. That is 100% ok. Boundaries should be fluid.
If it feels like your boundaries have been washed away by tidal waves of other people’s needs or requirements, a tune up is needed.
Back to choosing a couple of things to work with, remember, start small.
Saying no when you have always said yes or acquiesced non-verbally is a good place to start reinforcing your boundaries.
I live in a large body, that’s simply what it is, we have a good relationship and I don’t expect it to change size. Because restaurants are often more interested in fitting in another booth than making sufficient space for their patrons, sometimes I will be shown to a table that I literally don’t fit at. Years ago, I might have simply gone along and sat their uncomfortably, squished in a tiny chair with arms or a booth with no room for me. I’ve come to realize that my body isn’t bad or wrong. There is really good science to explain my body size and I’m not going to apologize or feel unworthy of a seat in a restaurant. So now, as happened today, when offered a table that I cannot be comfortable at, I said No, this won’t work for my body, and simply asked for another. I am a patron and deserving of a seat that accommodates me. If that isn’t possible, I can go somewhere else. (yes, part of saying no, is feeling of value)
What small thing happens a bit too often that you say yes to when it coulda, shoulda been a No? Are you now picking up your nephew from school all the time after you did your sister a favor one month when she was in a training program? Have you lent money a few too many times to someone? Are you going along with something simply to avoid disappointing or angering someone? Are you trying not to rock the boat?
Again, start small here, and find something you can say no to. Disorganized host who calls you three times before you arrive for holiday dinner to pick up extra things? Perhaps you say yes to the first request and then say no, I’m not able to do that, to additional requests? Friends you really enjoy, however as an introvert it is exhausting to be there for the whole event, say yes, I’d love to come for dessert. Effectively saying no to spending longer than you are able.
You see, a short hard moment brings a whole lot of relief. It is not our job to keep the peace and make everyone happy. Actually our job is to take care of ourselves first. You know, as the flight attendants always say, put on your oxygen mask first, before taking care of others who need help.
I am asking you to take a moment and find a gentle no that will bring space and peace to your life. It might even show up at a holiday dinner this weekend.
What could you say no to?
If you want to learn more about boundaries, you can join me for Balanced Boundaries, an Alchemy Evening on Thursday, May 15th at 7:00pm.
We will also be offering a one day class on getting grounded and healthy boundaries this summer.
Which leaves me with my final tip for those no’s.
If you have identified a place where it would be good to say no, and it feels a bit daunting, take a moment before speaking it. Feel your feet firmly on the ground, sink in a bit and feel the support of the earth beneath you - I like to imagine/feel roots of a tree growing out from my feet going deeply into the earth. When I need that extra support, I take a few deep breaths and make that contact, it brings me stability, strength, and grace. This can be done in an instant and once steady I feel able to go and speak what is true and valid for me.
Owner Amelia Mitchell, brings her years of experience as a therapist as well as a deep interest in wellness, self-care, and healing to Alchemy's blog.