“If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your family.” This sardonic quip from spirituality guru Ram Dass is particularly apt when the holidays arrive, and our family reunions create childhood scenarios that play out once again. All of us can point to a family member who challenges us with a never ending tug of war between love and anger.
It can happen before the turkey is out of the oven, when suddenly, without warning, your relative takes offence at some innocuous reference or inadvertent remark that triggers a slight from years ago. In an instant, the Pavlov bell rings and the both of you unconsciously revert to the roles formerly played as part of the family dynamic.
A difficult concept for many family members to grasp is the importance of setting boundaries around relationships. My clients often tell me how their loved ones think of a boundary as a wall or fence that separates them and keeps them from their desire to be close. Which is not the case; by being direct about the boundaries of our relationships with parents, siblings and children we let them know how much we are willing to give; how close or distant we want to be and what they can expect from us. Simply stated, there will be times when one person is in a different place than the other, and one’s happiness should not be dependent upon another’s. And while it may sound harsh, how the other person deals with that is his or her issue.
A tricky part comes when family members unconsciously attempt to pull us back into the relationship patterns and roles that were in play during our childhood years. But it’s essential for our own well-being and our family’s as well, to separate ourselves and express our individuality. We do not have to feel guilty about creating a life for ourselves.
Detachment can be confused with indifference but disengaging behind a boundary doesn’t mean we don’t care. It is recognition that we do not wish to be put in a place where we are being forced to respond as a co-dependent, ceding our wellbeing to oblige an outcome we do not want.
Difficulty in learning how to set healthy boundaries within the family structure will persist but fortunately it is a skill that can be learned. It is about loving ourselves and understanding that self-care is not being selfish.