Setting Personal Boundaries and a ‘No Thanks’ Approach to Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

How scary is it to draw a line you’re not OK with people crossing and to defend it?  100% frightening.

People who grewup in dysfunctional families are an extraordinarily loyal bunch.  All the books about dysfunctional families and alcoholic/addict family systems point to the skewed politics of internalizations of loyalty and the fact that no matter how let down we’ve been, we stay loyal.  We feel, illogically, that they’re all we’ve got and that we’re all they’ve got.  Ick.  Dysfunctional behavior flourishes in an environment of loyalty. Why?  All the defensiveness, perfectionism, passive-aggressiveness, controlling, and manipulative behaviors go unchallenged (or are challenged by extreme defensiveness) within a belief system that to question the status quo indicates disloyalty; so as a result of that internalized belief system, we’re a loyal crew, and the unease around us flourishes. Loyalty in the face of chaos and dysfunction is one reason it takes us forever and ever to exit relationships that aren’t good for us.  Loyalty has defined us. It feels as if it has kept us safe, feeling safe. We’re taught that loyalty is the glue that keeps us together in a world that will never truly understand. I mean, where—or who—would you goddamn be if not for this family? Who else knows you or is really there for you?  Who else has sacrificed for you?  They don’t know you.  We do.

Oh, please.  Emotional blackmail, anyone?

How will you know (a) that your family-of-origin is still dysfunctional (because when you begin to grow and heal, you’ll sometimes forget…after all you’re trained to forget), and (b) how will you know that you’re really being a champion of your personal perspective, truth, and needs?

The answer is this:  when your family starts to get agitated, mad, throw emotional darts, stop talking to you, ask if you’re depressed or having some kind of early menopause or cancer of the smart, loyal part of your brain – that’s how you’ll know.  You’re finally knowing what you want, seeing things as they are, not blaming yourself, not excusing their behavior, and starting to move past surviving and into thriving when the boundaries you’re setting—and the loyalties you’re no longer recognizing—invoke emotional itchiness in those around you; they’ll reach for whatever blackmail techniques they reach for when they feel threatened.  It’s the abandonment that we fear—which I fear, the withdrawal of my family from me just when I’m actually, finally living and behaving from the center of who I really am.

When I first established some boundaries with my family of origin some years ago, I approached it with two priorities:  one, that my family not notice the presence of my new boundaries, and two, that I would feel less anxious around family, less angry.  It was good for me to do something to lessen my anxiety, but I was adding space at that point and not really changing any dynamics (not that space isn’t helpful, it can be!)  I didn’t know any better, but I knew something had to be done and I was trying. All good. More recently, as I’m re-jiggering how I interact with family, they are noticing. (This time I was so focused on what I needed and wanted I forgot to prioritize not being troublesome or threatening to them!) They’re agitated, hurt, and mad.  In that way, it’s a bit lonely. But it’s OK.  I mean, did I really expect them to appreciate my personal, spiritual, getting-happy for me task?  Well, yes, but then, well…wrong family.  From the perspective of effective change, their agitation is a good sign. It means that I really, truly did alter my side of the dynamics, even if the new signal isn’t recognized or accepted.

I couldn’t be happier, or feel more…right, like finally, unapologetically right.

So, my new belief is that:  we know we’re successfully breaking free—waking up–when the zombies start to grumble and froth at the mouth, initiate a fight, when they panic, or accuse us of selfishness, trouble-making, playing the family analyst, refusing to ‘get over’ our silly childhoods finally, rocking the boat, trying to control them or family, of not loving them, being depressed, of betraying them, despite all the things they’ve done for you.

What’s most incredible is that we can brave this kind of rejection because when we at last come to that point of setting a limit or boundary in a situation and say what we need to say, like, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t come to Thanksgiving dinner at my house high on pot, don’t shake my son upside-down because I’m uncomfortable with it, and I’d like you to finally engage in conversation with my fiancée who has been in our family six years now—or see us less, etc., we’re so freed by asserting our needs that we’re actually OK.

This self-freedom is a gift.  It comes from a place of having the courage of our convictions. Having the courage of our convictions means not just believing you’re right in crazy-making situations with family, but knowing it with total certainty. Absolutely-completely-right.




  1. Thanks so much for your candid discussion of boundaries. I think that for those of us from dysfunctional (to say the least) families this will always be an ‘on purpose’ task–for some it seems to come naturally, for me I must think through all the angles carefully! Having been working on this particular issue for over 10 years now I am happy that over time it begins to get a bit easier…I don’t anguish over the process nearly so much!
    Happy to discover your blog…I’ll be looking around here and visiting back often :-D

  2. This is a very nice post about boundaries and a timely one for me. I am in the process of re-setting boundaries right now. Editing boundaries or the family members I set them with was not something I thought of when I first examined the issue. We change, situations change and so, it should only make sense that boundaries will as well.

  3. Jess Lucia says:

    I really needed to read this tonight, after a hard month of zombies frothing at the mouth. Thank you!

  4. Rebecca H says:

    Thank you!
    I love the makeover and that there is no botox;-)

  5. Human says:

    I just found this and I LOVE it. Thanks for writing this.

  6. Amanda says:

    Boundaries scare me. SO much. I’m still learning how to put them into place and stick with them without having them completely trampled on. Thank you for this site! It helps so much to know I’m not alone.

  7. Brett says:

    Thanks for this lovely article. I am starting to set boundaries and every single emotional dart and blackmail technique is being thrown at me. I am 1000% absolutely certain that I am “right” and that these boundaries NEED to be set. But man, it is viciously painful to set and enforce them.. the fallout is INTENSE.

  8. Donna Simon says:

    I love this article Amy! I have found that now since most of my family is gone, I have such a sense of shock when I am around anyone that reminds me of them.. It’s that gut response and panic feeling I get. These are the responses I get that let me know that boundaries need to be set and set firmly. This is truly a lifelong process. I seem to have this dysfunctional radar! But funny, it always take me by surprise!!! And always, always the resistance is the same from the people you set the boundaries with! related to me or not, the response is the same!


  9. Marveen says:

    Great article,thanks for this. Glad to know I am not alone. I really struggle with boundaries with my family, I am so loyal and always want to please them and hate any of them thinking badly of me even though they pretty IUCN always do unless I am doing exactly what they want.
    I am panicky and tight chested even just reading this article because if leave so much but have been unable to put into words how I felt.
    ‘Pease oh not shake my baby upside down’ resonates with me. Every time a smokey hand touches my son I feel sick, I have tried telling them to vast their hands, someone times they do, mostly they don’t. I still need to get firmer as I am bubbling inside most of the time.
    Going to look around your blog for more tips. Hope you sort your lot out x

  10. Pieta Mcgilvray says:

    Thank you for putting a perspective into a situation I have uncomfortable with some time, and now resetting, read setting for the first, my boundaries…Good really, now the tsunami is passing. This doormat has left the porch…found it tough at first, daily I understand it is the only approach left, and wonderfully, as I integrate this, it is very healing.

    Thank you again for giving clarity. Very helpful and appreciated.

  11. I found this article when researching for an article on Boundaries. I will certainly link to this post. You say so much here and do it so well. Thanks!

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