Setting boundaries with your parents not only protects you, it also helps you to cultivate healthy adult relationships with them. These tips can help.
When we are born, we depend entirely on our parents to provide shelter, food, safety and nurturing. Understandably, this attachment is powerful in our early years.
As we enter adolescence and adulthood, our instincts drive us to seek more independence and discover who we are, separating from our primary caregivers.
Creating an independent sense of self becomes difficult when our parents don’t understand or respect the boundaries we put in place. Setting boundaries is challenging even with acquaintances and colleagues. With the people who raised us, a confusing mixture of guilt and love can make it feel near impossible.
Kerry Athanasiadis, psychologist and practice director at Be You Psychology & Counselling, said that guilt and shame often play a role in keeping us trapped in unhealthy or unhelpful dynamics with parents or caregivers.
“Guilt can be a normal emotional response if it fits the facts of the situation,” she said, referring to instances where we hurt someone else.
“In this case, it makes sense to respond to the emotion of guilt by apologising or making efforts to repair the situation.
“However, often people experience guilt that does not fit the facts. [This] is often more related to feelings of shame, which is usually a learned response. Guilt essentially says to us, ‘I have done something bad’. Shame, on the other hand, says ‘I am bad’.”
The inner critic and ‘fawn’ response: why saying no to parents feels scary
Athanasiadis said that intrusive, unfounded feelings of guilt are often a result of a strong, guilt-inducing inner critic. It is often developed early as a way of coping with our social environment.
“This inner critic is essentially telling you that you are guilty of not fulfilling the expectations of your parents,” said Athanasiadis.
“It is usually related to core beliefs around self-sacrifice.”
If you have a strong inner critic, you may often feel that you are responsible for other people’s happiness, or that you have to please and cater to everyone except yourself.
When, inevitably, you can’t live up to these unrealistic expectations, you then feel guilty or that you have failed. This reinforces the people-pleasing response and perpetuates the unhelpful cycle.
We internalise strong guilt responses due to a range of factors, such as the different parenting styles experienced as children.
Perhaps your parents themselves modelled people-pleasing behaviours to you or encouraged you to put others’ needs first. It can also be a result of hypercritical parents, whose external judgements become internalised as a cruel and punitive inner critic.
“In some unfortunate situations, it can also stem from childhood emotional abuse or neglect,” said Athanasiadis.
“When parents or primary caregivers are not able to meet the emotional needs of the child and are focused instead on their own needs, children learn to please their parents as a way of gaining their approval and validation. In psychology, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘fawn response’.
“When you’re a child, you need your parents for your very basic survival needs, so it becomes essential to compromise on your own needs in order to survive. The fawn response is a behaviour that aims to please, appease, and pacify a perceived threat in an effort to keep yourself safe from further harm.”
Athanasiadis explained that unless this cycle is broken through unlearning unhelpful coping mechanisms, it can continue repeatedly into your adult relationships.
Being unapologetic without being unkind
Every family situation is different and complex. We may not ever fully understand why others behave the way they do, including our parents.
Athanasiadis said that often, our parents are not intentionally trying to guilt or shame us. Rather, it is an unconscious manifestation of their own development experience and trauma, their hopes, wants and fears.
“Using guilt or manipulation to meet one’s needs is usually a coping style that develops for people in response to their own unmet childhood needs that then carry on into adult relationships and parenting styles,” she said.
In her practice, Athanasiadis uses therapeutic approaches such as trauma-informed therapy and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).
DBT emphasises that most human behaviour is not deliberate or chosen, but automatic. It takes significant mindfulness to unlearn deeply ingrained patterns of social behaviour.
While this should not excuse or invalidate the real harm done to you when you are guilt-tripped or manipulated, understanding this can help foster compassion and empathy and reduce unhelpful anger or resentment toward your parents.
Whenever you struggle to say no without guilt, Athanasiadis suggests gently reminding yourself you are only responsible for your own behaviour.
“Guilt that comes up from saying ‘no’ is usually not about that person or care-taking situation, but rather about a false feeling of responsibility that stems from childhood tendencies of approval-seeking, subjugation or self-sacrifice due to fear of disapproval, rejection or abandonment,” she said.
She also explained that always saying yes to your parents can reinforce their over-reliance on you to solve problems for them.
“All human beings can draw on their own coping resources, tools and skills to problem-solve,” she said.
Always jumping in and doing things for your parents may inhibit them from building their resilience, confidence and resources, creating a vicious cycle of learned helplessness.
“Rather than doing things for your parents, perhaps try teaching them to do things for themselves instead,” said Athanasiadis.
“It’s far more empowering for them and it also frees you up from constantly rescuing them. Also, remember that resentment builds, and we also burn out when we say yes to too many things when we don’t have the resources to meet the demand.”
How to set boundaries with your parents and protect your peace
Guilt and shame make it very hard to create boundaries with parents. Start small so that you don’t get overwhelmed and be empathetic with yourself when it feels challenging.
Athanasiadis suggests first creating some space by taking your time to respond to any requests your parents make.
It’s normal to feel pressured to say ‘yes’ when put on the spot, so instead tell them you will get back to them. This gives you time to check in with yourself and your energy levels, and decide if you truly have the capacity and mental bandwidth to assist them.
“If you have extra energy available to help, by all means, say yes,” said Athanasiadis.
“If you’re running on empty, this may be a good time to prioritise your own needs first.”
Ask yourself if saying yes feels like an obligation or a choice you are happy to make. Consider if your instincts are being warped by emotions like guilt, frustration or resentment. Then, formulate a response that is assertive and firm, without being unkind.
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First, acknowledge what feelings arise. These can include guilt, shame, irritation, happiness or resentment. Make space for these feelings without judging them.
Next, feel empathy for your parents. Understand that using guilt and manipulation is most likely a manifestation of their love and disappointment, expressed in an unhealthy way.
Finally, Robbins explains how to assume the role of adult and take your power back by using “yes, and” statements. When we feel pressure or guilt, it’s often instinctive to become combative. Instead, Robbins suggests using a statement that acknowledges and validates their disappointment, while remaining firm in your decision.
An example could be that your parents want you to attend a family gathering, but you have other plans or simply don’t want to go for other reasons. You could respond with a statement like, “yes, I understand you’re disappointed. And, I am still not able to attend. And, I will visit you another time when I’m less busy.”
“Yes, and” statements make a difference because you are not rebutting anything your parents say or feel. You are acknowledging that both parties are entitled to their feelings, and then reiterating that your decisions are yours alone to make. It may take time and practice, but eventually, your parents will learn that saying no doesn’t mean you love or care for them any less.
In turn, you will learn that your parents cannot dictate what you do, and that meaningful, healthy relationships can withstand disagreement and disappointment. You may even become closer with your parents as you learn to show them who you truly are and share your honest, unfiltered feelings with them.
If it doesn’t go well, remember that it is not your responsibility to keep the peace in your family. Families are complex social systems, and all you can do is show up as your best self and take care of your own needs.
If you struggle with intrusive feelings of guilt in your family dynamics, seeking the support of a mental health professional can help.
Athanasiadis’ practice, Be You Psychology & Counselling is accepting new clients as of September 2022. Athanasiadis has experience in trauma-informed therapy approaches to unpack the root causes of guilt or coping mechanisms such as people-pleasing.
If you require urgent mental health support, Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 13 11 14.