Every family is different, and when it comes to the person who we find most challenging all of us are unique. Perhaps it’s a parent who can’t help themselves from handing out the unwanted advice at every opportunity; the little brother whose judgments you could do without; or the uncle whose attitude of “someone else will take care of me” feels like the final straw. When it comes to how to handle difficult family members, there’s a simple framework that can be a real life-saver, and that’s what I’m going to to share with you today.
One of the things that makes family stuff so challenging is that we often find it really hard to extract our emotions from what’s happening.
For example, take a snide comment that feels like a pointed attack, and has you storming out of the room, seething with rage. If you were watching a movie of your interaction, it might seem pretty innocuous – your step-brother’s giving you a bit of financial advice, maybe.
What an onlooker wouldn’t see are the years or decades of history leading up to that moment. If you’ve felt belittled or patronised over a long period of time, that one comment can really seem like the final straw. And it’s that kind of build up that can leave your normally resourceful self feeling like you’re fourteen years old again.
Setting boundaries with your family can be hard
We can’t choose our families, and so one of the most effective tools we have at our disposal are boundaries. Boundaries help you set strong limits around what is and isn’t acceptable.
But they often feel complicated because we tend to lump everyone we’re related to together under one label: “family”. Your soulmate sister occupies the same mental territory as your dad, who you can’t stand to be in the same room with once he’s had that first drink. And whereas you’d feel confident letting a colleague know if they’d crossed a line, it doesn’t feel right to put the same boundary in place with your aunt. After all, she’s family, right?
Now, I want to talk a little about boundaries. Where we tend to compromise on boundaries a lot is by giving other people energy for things which are not important to us. Why? Well, lots of reasons:
- We want their approval
- We worry what they think about us
- We don’t want to be rejected by them,
Or all sorts of other things you can probably think of when it comes to your family.
So what I’m going to share now is a simple way to start getting clearer about your boundaries.
It’s not complicated, but to get the hang of it you’ll probably find it easiest to grab a piece of paper and a pen. Anything will do – back of an envelope, a post-it note, whatever comes to hand.
The only 3 boundaries you need
Firstly, start by drawing 3 concentric circles – one in the middle, one round that, and another one round the edge of that. This is how you’re going to rethink your boundaries with the different people in your life.
At the center of is you. It’s that simple. The very middle is you, and that’s you and your energy.
Write “Me” in the middle of that first circle.
Around you, then, and closest to you and your energy, is the realm of the Mother. In that second circle, write “Hearth” – this is the first, and closest, circle of people in your life – whether or not you’re related to them.
The realm of the Mother: The Hearth
The realm of the Mother is called the “Hearth”. In an old house, the hearth or fireplace would quite literally be the warm centre of the home, and this is the image I want you to start with when thinking about whose energy has an impact on your life.
The people who are at your hearth are the people who are very close to you and very special to you, and how they are really impacts how you are. What I mean by that is: if your child is upset, you’re upset. Sure, you might practice mindfulness or use other strategies so that you’re not literally unable to function when your toddler’s having a meltdown, but for the people at your hearth your connection is really strong.
Now, this is the really important part: You get to choose who’s at your hearth. It’s not dictated to by someone else.
The people at your hearth are people like your children. Your spouse would probably be at your hearth.
You might have some of your siblings at your hearth, but maybe not necessarily all of your siblings.
Your parents might be at your hearth or they might not be, right? You get to choose. You might have your mum, but not your dad, or your dad at your hearth, but not your mum.
You might have your neighbor at your hearth if you’re particularly close with them. Your best friend might be at your hearth.
It’s like an intimate group of people, and this is the distinction.
How to work out who’s at your hearth
Figuring out who is at your hearth is the area of the Mother PowerType, and here’s why: This is a group of people for whom you will sacrifice energy on a short-term basis. If your kid is unwell, you’ll get out of bed and drive them to hospital even if the most important thing for your well-being is a good night’s sleep. That’s how you decide if they’re at your hearth.
People that you would dip into and even go negative in your energetic stakes that you are happy to sacrifice for because their well-being is that important to you, so it’s the realm of the Mother PowerType.
Beyond the hearth: The realm
Beyond the hearth then is the “Realm,” and the realm is the area of the Queen PowerType. In that third circle, write realm.
Your realm are people that are not at your hearth, but you do care about them. They’re people beyond that, so siblings who are not at your hearth might be at your realm. (You might have some siblings who are not even in your realm. We’ll talk about that in a moment.)
Your realm are people like your siblings who are not at your hearth, your parents who are not at your hearth, your kids who are not at your hearth, and any of those close connections.
You might have friends who are in your realm but not necessarily at your hearth. I’ve got lots of friends like that. They’re not “drop anything” friends, but they’re great friends. They’re in my realm. Your clients would be in your realm, if you feel a connection to them.
For me, the Hunger Project and everyone that works with the Hunger Project, which is the aid organization that One of many support both with our time and with our money, are in my realm and very important in my realm. In fact, sometimes they cross into my hearth. Sometimes, they ask me to do things, and I go negative because it’s important for me.
That’s the context of realm. If you’re the Queen, these are the people who are in your nation. Not everybody is going to be in your nation. You cannot give your energy to everyone all the time. The Hunger Project is very much in my realm, but there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of other amazing aid organizations doing great work, amazing not for profits doing great work who are not in my realm. I can’t have everyone in my realm. As much as sometimes you’d like to, you can’t.
What if someone’s in the wrong place?
Now, you might be looking at the diagram you’ve just jotted down and thinking that there are people in your Hearth who are draining lots of your energy – and actually, they don’t belong there.
Sometimes, people that are currently at your hearth or in your realm shouldn’t even be in your realm. That’s when it’s time to get into your Queen PowerType and banish them from your realm – with love, but knowing you’re not going to give them any energy anymore.
If you’ve got a brother who is just a total drain, always rings you up at the most inopportune moments, never ever supports you when you need it, is angry all the time, is just abusive when he calls you up, but you’re helping him out of some feeling that you “should” because he’s family, maybe it’s time to banish him from your realm with love.
Now, that idea might feel triggering to you. Everyone’s own perspective on this is different. It’s really important that you choose according to your life values whether to give energy to that person or not. You might feel that while you’re happy to draw a line putting someone in your realm, you’re not ready to get rid of them completely – and that’s OK. But make sure you’re really making that choice from an empowered place.
If it feels hard to set a boundary
There’s a quote from Brené Brown which I love. She says
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated, and that’s why we sometimes attack who they are, which is actually far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
I see this a lot. When we find it hard to set boundaries with our spouses, with our children, with our parents, and then when those boundaries are overstepped, we feel used and mistreated. We start to get resentful, and then we start to come out with the things we really don’t want to find ourselves saying. We say “You are such a pain. You’re so needy. You’re always doing this.” Or whatever it is for you…
As soon as we start saying “always” or “never,” we start attacking. We attack rather than actually reflecting that perhaps we’re teaching them how to treat us, by not having a boundary in place.
Get the boundary in place, and then communicate that boundary. It will get respected unless they’re someone who shouldn’t be in the realm – in which case, different rules apply.
How to set boundaries
Setting boundaries is a big topic. If you could do with some help figuring out how to have those conversations, don’t fret! We’ve got you covered with our helpful practical guide: Enough is Enough: How to gracefully set unshakeable boundaries. Click here to grab your copy now.
How about you? Have you been able to navigate challenging family situations with aplomb? Or do you find it hard to remain poised and present when in the company of the people you grew up with? Share your story in the comments – we love to hear from you!
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