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Setting Boundaries with Controlling Parents

A blog reader writes, “Hi I’m a 45 yr. old woman living alone.  For about 8 yrs my mother has become very controlling.  She insists I move closer to her so I can be with family more.  She doesn’t take into consideration I have a life and a job.  How do I tell her no without hurting her feelings and still keep my boundaries?”

What are Boundaries?

A boundary is the psychological (and sometimes physical) distance making it possible to define who you are, what you need and where you’re headed.  It is the necessary space required to stay connected to self and all that is needed for happiness, health and growth.  When people disrespect our boundaries, or if we don’t set them for ourselves, we lose some understanding of who we are which then effects our relationships and pursuits.   Boundaries are the playing field for people to discover who they are and who they are to become.

Relationships that pose the greatest challenge to setting boundaries are typically with parents and significant others.  In this case, the question is regarding a mother that has not taken no for an answer and is not respecting the adult child’s choice of where to live.  Usually, when parents don’t respect their adult child’s way of life, this pattern is not new but started in childhood.  It’s not uncommon for the parent to have been critical or emotionally neglectful towards the child growing up so the adult child continues to give up personal boundaries for the deep hope they will finally get validation or approval from the parent.  Or, it’s common for the parent to have relied on the child for emotional support growing up or involving the child in adult problems leaving the child “parentified” and all too familiar with “pleasing” and caring for others.  The two above examples often result in the adult child having “collapsed boundaries” which basically means they don’t know how to say “no” to others and “yes” to themselves.  Adult children who have collapsed boundaries usually experience guilt and feel they are bad or selfish if they care for themselves.  And, they often feel responsible for the hurt or upset a parent feels if a boundary is set.  To feel better as a person and negate the feelings of guilt the adult child will usually return to appease the parent ignoring and losing their own self, needs and direction.  What is not grasped is that if you communicate honestly but respectfully, “hurt feelings” are not your responsibility.  Each person’s responsibility is to know what they need and then convey that with respect.  If we spend all our energy trying to spare others from their own feelings, we will lose ourselves in the process.

How to Start Setting Boundaries and What to Expect

So, what is the way out of this dilemma?   The short answer to the writer’s question about how to set a boundary with mom while not hurting her feelings is that you probably can’t set the boundary without mom getting upset .  Now, the longer answer.  Unfortunately, the way out is back in and is not easy.  In fact, it’s usually straight to the center of what the adult child has been avoiding since being young.  Many clients in my private practice want to talk about ways they can change their parent’s point of view, change their behaviors or get the parent to accept them.  Although, that’s a good first strategy, most of my clients have been trying to do this for years to no avail.  So, it’s definitely barking up the wrong tree.  The difficulty for the client lies in accepting the parent where they are and for who they are.  The difficulty is taking the focus off trying to change the parent, and instead changing how they relate to the parent.  The way out of this hurt is not to focus on the wrongdoings of the parent, but to put energy into changing the response toward the reality of who your parent is.  This means there will be a lot of long avoided feelings to deal with such as guilt, sadness, grief, and anger.  But, it also means there will be a new beginning and the adult child will finally start living like the adult they were meant to be – creative, independent, and unique.  It’s a hard journey, but a worthwhile one.

If you or someone you know has a question you would like to submit for my weekly blog post, please feel free to submit it via my website under the “Ask Sylvia” section in the middle bottom column on homepage.  All questions will be received and answered anonymously.

Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley.  For more information about San Diego Therapy, feel free to call or email her.
Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.