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Why You Should Set Boundaries with Relatives

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wisconsin chapter.

You deserve to feel comfortable at your family gatherings.

Setting boundaries seems to be a trendy concept lately and for good reason. Boundaries are necessary in relationships of any kind so that each person understands what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable to the other person. Furthermore, boundaries should be honored and even encouraged with an arms-wide-open mentality. This ensures that everyone is on the same page and able to move forward with awareness, respect and clear communication.

With that being said, setting boundaries can be intimidating and even uncomfortable to do. Lately I’ve felt the overwhelming need to set some with several of my relatives. To be transparent, I’ve set boundaries in the past but it doesn’t seem to get any easier with time. Speaking as a major people-pleaser (something I’m trying to work on), I don’t like it when people aren’t happy with me or when I feel invalidated in my boundary-setting; it stings even more when it’s a problem with family.

However, a deeply comforting piece of advice is that you and I simply cannot control other people, including the things they will do, say, or think. If we spend our days trying to control the uncontrollable, we will be miserable and resentful towards the world. Not only that, but we owe it to ourselves to create the healthiest situation possible. It’s this advice that helps me remember the significance of setting boundaries.

I have heard from many and experienced for myself the entitlement that relatives feel they have to know our business. It’s almost like it’s a right of passage for them to be informed simply because we’re related…except it’s not. A great example of a recurring topic with my family is my love life. Sure, there are times when it has been difficult for me to navigate, so I’ve turned to loved ones for support or advice. However, that doesn’t mean that anyone is entitled to know what goes on between me and my partner otherwise. They can be curious and check in, but I shouldn’t feel forced to share if I don’t want to; that’s where boundary setting comes in. Everyone needs relationship advice at some point, but I don’t want to subject myself to anxiety, stress, or even false narratives. Therefore, I set some boundaries with my family on “love life talk” and what I would like to be kept private. Doing so has saved me from a lot of unnecessary conflict.

Another prime example of a time I set boundaries is when I got out of eating disorder treatment. The first thing I did when I saw my family was tell them straight-up the things they should try their best not to say to me or talk about while I could hear. Specifically, I asked them to please refrain from commenting on the food on my plate, calories, my weight, and exercise. It may sound like I was asking too much, but I absolutely wasn’t. Setting these boundaries was necessary for me at the time since I was in an incredibly vulnerable space. I was scared but optimistic, and I knew that my family couldn’t magically adhere to any boundaries without me blatantly telling them my needs. They were not offended or rude but instead supportive and understanding. Additionally, I didn’t want them to feel like they had to walk on eggshells around me so I told them that too. We underestimate the power of honest and clear communication! To finish on this thought, my family did a lovely job of respecting and honoring my boundaries because of our open communication.

On the other hand, there have been occasions when we go to family get-togethers, such as Thanksgiving, and other relatives make unsolicited comments that are harmful for my eating disorder recovery. Therefore, my parents have stepped in to help set boundaries on my behalf when I’ve felt too overwhelmed or uncomfortable. It’s also important to remember that not everyone can be perfect all the time and we have to pick and choose some battles. It is even completely valid to remove yourself from a situation if need be, which brings me to my next point.

Unfortunately, some relatives may not understand or respect your boundaries the way you need them to. I’ve had someone brush off my boundary like crumbs in a dustpan, dismissing it with a distasteful joke as if to sweep it into the trash. There are also instances where it hasn’t felt worth it to even try setting boundaries because I’m certain my relative won’t be receptive. There will be times like this where you realize you must distance yourself from your relative in order to be the happiest version of yourself. You have done what you can and it’s not enough to keep the toxicity around just because you’re related. Again, we cannot control other people and the way they think, speak, or act. Luckily, we can control and focus on what we do for our own welfare. It may weigh on you heavily to distance yourself from a loved one like it has for me. However, making it a priority to lean on those who make you feel supported will help you overcome the hardship.

Although setting boundaries has never been an easy feat for me, it doesn’t have to be that way — and it shouldn’t be! I have grown remarkably since practicing this important concept. I encourage you to take the leap and have constructive conversations with family members about what you are (and are not) comfortable with and how you feel about certain issues. This ensures that you are respected and able to enjoy your time around the people you love most. It might also give you a better sense of who you want to keep around more often. It is through the art of setting healthy boundaries that you can cultivate a life you love and a wonderful support system.

Hope Nelson

Wisconsin '22

Hi! I'm a senior at UW-Madison majoring in Life Sciences Communication. My true passion lies in educating and engaging with others in conversation about diet culture. If you need me, you can find me listening to The Weeknd, petting dogs, or eating a generous bowl of moose tracks ice cream.