During the first lockdown, nearly two years ago, I wrote this piece for Expert by Experience about the reality of boundaries in South Asian homes as a young woman. Since then, I have been on a journey of trying to establish (and stick to) boundaries between myself and my family. Here is what I have learnt.
Setting boundaries with family
When I first started establishing boundaries with my family members again, after a difficult period and family bereavement that shook up our dynamic, and a pandemic which threw us on top of one another, I decided communicating “I need boundaries” or “you are not respecting my boundaries” was an important step. I thought surely by being clear and transparent, it would demonstrate the importance of what I was asking for? Wrong.
Boundaries is not a language that they understand, no idea when they are breaching mine, or frankly when people are invading theirs. I was questioned over and over again, what are these boundaries you keep going on about, and frustration at my constant use of the word. I have realised that communicating boundaries to a generation that does not have the words nor experience to understand them, is a large part of the battle on this journey.
Setting a clear line
Next I thought, why don’t I set out a clear action, something that would help them understand where the line needs to be drawn. One simple example, was trying to make clear that when my door is closed, it means I am in a meeting or busy, and not to come in (I had some very embarrassing situations of family shouting or walking in on video meetings). Seems simple right? Again, wrong.
South Asian family boundaries
I have come to wonder, whether in South Asian families, we see ourselves so much as a collective that we struggle to understand where one person starts and the other ends. We do not see each other as an individual in their own right but an extension of ourselves (particularly where we are of the same gender). If we view the world in this light it is very hard to understand the rationale behind boundaries and adjust our behavior.
Consistency with my limits
My therapist told me the important thing with boundaries is being consistent, no matter how cruel it may seem, or how guilty you might feel. This has probably been the hardest aspect of it for me. There are days when I am tired, emotional and don’t have the energy to put up the fight to establish my boundaries with loved ones, especially where this involves removing myself from difficult and heated situations.
Maintaining boundaries takes time
We are all also human, and we get triggered, and I don’t always follow the advice I would give to others to remain calm and collected. Frankly, setting and enforcing your boundaries is an upward struggle and it doesn’t happen overnight, and it has taken me a very long time to understand that this struggle is worth it in order to protect my mental sanity.
Respecting others’ boundaries
I have also realised I don’t necessarily understand or respect boundaries. It makes sense that when you grow up in an environment where they are rarely established or respected, that you fail to develop healthy habits around them. In my romantic relationships, I view someone breaking their own boundaries and lines, as a way of demonstrating their love because this is something I am willing and have done for them. It is only recently I have come to realise how much pressure this has been putting on myself.
My tortuous ongoing relationship with setting boundaries
So my journey with boundaries is very much ongoing and tortuous, and I suspect I will never get to a point where I feel I have reached the destination. It is a constant struggle of setting boundaries, enforcing them continually and without fail (harder than it seems) and coming to understand that you and your mental health are worth the upward struggle it takes to enforce them.