Text: Ophelia Wu
Family. Where should we begin? Every family is different - the dynamics between one can be unimaginable in another. While family is everything and a priority to some, keeping as much distance as possible from them for some others might be best. Whichever it is, I still believe having a healthy boundary with your family members is necessary and one of the most challenging things to do, especially in a more traditional culture.
From a little request of knocking on the door to standing up for yourself, everything within the household and family can potentially be a boundary of some sort. In Asia, we were brought up to be super polite, obedient and respectful towards our parents and every senior member of the family, meaning it would be frowned upon or even get told off or punished if you talk back to them, or in some extreme families, not agreeing or doing as they’ve been told. This is fundamentally a cultural and generational mentality instilled in most of the population there (or other cultures sharing similar values), making it difficult, almost impossible, to even think about boundaries with family members. ‘Because I’m your parents!’ ‘ Because I said so!’ these are the most common phrases we hear, and sometimes we don’t even question much about it. You get used to it growing up ‘because they are your parents’, or ‘that’s just how it is.’. But is it?
Respect and boundaries
You are one of the lucky ones if there’s a lot of respect among family members, especially from the senior members. From my experience, setting and voicing my boundary and asking to be respected is one of the hardest things to do. I cannot remember how often I’ve been told to do or denied certain things reluctantly ‘just because’ - it felt very disrespected, deprived, and slightly unfair. I couldn’t help but wonder why does it not seem to be the case that my needs or requests were not being respected. I have also heard from many that they find it almost impossible to say no to their family, and they care a lot about what their parents or family say and think about a specific thing or person. I understand that, but at some point, you’ve got to take back control and live your life the way you want and do it respectfully.
"If you’ve never been able to say no to your family, taking baby steps is an excellent place to start."
If you’ve never been able to say no to your family, taking baby steps is an excellent place to start. Practice saying no. If you don’t feel like joining that family gathering, seeing that annoying aunt who has grilled you repeatedly about your most private life, or sucking up to mean jokes of that distant cousin, just say no. Just because you’re part of the family does not automatically mean that you have to agree with every person and comment that has been said. It is a small but powerful move because once you get used to saying no (politely and respectfully!), you slowly feel empowered to voice more of your needs and your opinion without feeling guilty. By doing that, you’re also teaching them how to respect your likes and requests while you learn to become more comfortable expressing them. One of the reasons why we are so reluctant to draw boundaries with families is because we often prioritise them and the whole dynamic in front of our own, sometimes it is necessary to maintain a harmonious relationship, but there are times you just need to live your own life and follow your heart.
Often, the lack of boundaries or respect, especially from the senior family members, is a type of power play. There is so much complexity within the family dynamics - childhood trauma of the parents and previous generations, parenthood, fear, conditional love etc. - so many things get entangled in the most common relationship we have in life- family. Whatever they are going through, it is not your responsibility to resolve that, and as much as you respect your family members, this boundary has to come from you. Guard it with your life, and don’t be afraid to detach or distance yourself if it gets too much. There is toxicity within a family, and most often, some of the most dramatic scenes can quickly come from there. As we discussed in previous issues, the bottom line is that you need to have clarity of your needs and wants, a boundary for yourself, and extend from there. Do it from a place of compassion, kindness and respect - it will be worth it, even if it might initially feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes, a little distance and buffering space is what it needs to get closer.