How to set healthy boundaries with empathy.

Mothers and daughters. It’s a special relationship that is unlike any other we’ll ever experience in our lifetime. We all see and hear about all the amazing relationships between mothers and daughters on social media. We see the smiling faces in photos, the jokes and laughter in videos. Some mother-daughter duos may even make Lorelai and Rory Gilmore’s relationship look shabby in comparison. But, just like much of what we find on social media, what we see on the outside isn’t always what it seems.

Like all other relationships, there are some ups and downs that can test the mother/daughter relationship as we grow up. When I began experiencing a rough patch with my own mom, I quickly learned that nearly all of my friends had similar experiences with their moms. Sometimes even when our moms mean well, things come across differently than they intended. And it is commonly a natural feeling that setting boundaries within our families is insensitive, despite it being a healthy practice.

Boundaries are essential to building the flourishing relationships we all desire. According to Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, co-authors of the best-selling Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, guilt problems, and shame all abound from a lack of boundaries.

A Staple in Healthy Relationships

Boundaries are not the easiest to learn or enforce. Tina Gilbertson, LPC, BC-THM, psychotherapist and author of The Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, told me that, “If developing good boundaries were easy, we'd all be boundary-setting champions. But it's hard, which is why so many of us continue to struggle, and pass those same struggles to our children.”

There are many reasons why boundary-setting is difficult. Sometimes it’s difficult for those who’ve grown up very attached to their parents, especially parents who lack boundaries. “Attachment shouldn't make healthy boundaries difficult, but how we handle boundaries is learned mainly from our attachment figures,” Gilbertson told me. “This could be one of the reasons why we may lack boundaries. “If Mom struggles with boundaries, we're at risk ourselves for the same kind of trouble.” That isn’t the only reason, though. Sometimes, we’re simply people pleasers and have a difficult time saying “no.”

Thankfully, there is good news! Even if we perhaps have not had the best examples of healthy boundaries doesn’t mean we can’t learn them ourselves. Here are a couple suggestions you can try to to establish healthy boundaries with your mother (or any other loved ones).

01. Figure Out What Your Boundaries Are.

Ask yourself where your comfort levels begin and end. One way to identify when one of your boundaries has been crossed is to notice when you feel resentment during interactions with certain people. Consider, for example, if your mom makes a last-minute request of you and you feel another guilt-trip coming—after you informed her ahead of time that you’re unavailable that day. Feelings of frustration or thinking “here we go again” are signs that a boundary is likely being crossed. Identify what that boundary is. In this case your crossed boundary might be receiving non-emergency requests on short notice when you’ve pre-disclosed that you’re unavailable.

If this sounds familiar, ask yourself: Are there any patterns that you’ve noticed that needs to be changed? Also, if you feel forced to do something you don’t want to do, why do you still go forward with the plan? Knowing what your limits are and why you go forward with requests that overwhelm you are the first steps to trying to establish healthy boundaries.

02. Try to See the Other Side.

If you see unhealthy patterns, remember you don’t need to vilify the person, especially if they’re a loved one, but establishing healthy boundaries lovingly will be an investment in the relationship.

One of the hardest things to do is to try to see things from another person’s point of view, especially if they’re getting on your nerves. Did your mother’s upbringing impact her approach toward parenting? Was there any abuse or other factors in her upbringing that resulted in psychological or emotional issues that haven’t been resolved? The reality is that these things, and so many other factors, trickle down into other relationships and can cause many problems.

As Gilbertson explained to me, “For many parents, it's difficult to see [their] child as a completely separate person, instead of a collection of aspects of [themselves]. You might experience this yourself if you have children. It can be confusing, and lead to parent-child conflict—especially if parents are tough on themselves or have unmet emotional needs. Try to find compassion for what might be unconscious behavior on your mother's part. Instead of raging at her, respond calmly but with firm boundaries.”

Most of the time, the other person means well, but they don’t know how to go about doing or saying something without unintentionally hurting others in the process. That’s where stating your boundary comes in. If you find yourself frustrated with the other person, consider what that other person has experienced and remember that it has shaped who they are. Remembering that sometimes reactions have nothing to do with you personally can help you let go of some of the anger or frustrations you may experience.

03. Set A Clear Consequence For When Boundaries Are Crossed.

Let's say your mother asks you to do something you can't do, such as giving money you can’t afford that month. She tries to guilt trip you into feeling like she'll be completely lost if you don't help her. Instead of giving in to her request, firmly but gently remind her that you have responsibilities that are more pressing. You can say, "Mom, I love you very much, but it's simply not possible for me to do this for you. I know you can manage to do it yourself in XYZ way." Gilbertson suggests using I-statements. “Let her know you're concerned about your OWN skill level in boundary-setting and that you're going to be working on that. Apologize ahead of time if her feelings get hurt, but tell her it's important to you to develop this skill.”

If she continues to attempt to pressure you into complying, stand your ground and re-state your boundary. You can say something along the lines of, "Mom, please don't push the subject. Like I said, I can't help you with that at this time. All this additional stress is not healthy for either of us. If you ask me again, I'm afraid I'll have to end the conversation and chat with you later."

“Just because you say ‘no’ to something doesn't mean it's your job to find another way. If your mother needs something that you can't or won't give her, it's not up to you to figure out how she can get it,” Gilbert explains. “Assuming she's a person of normal intelligence, she'll be able to come up with a work-around if she has to. Allowing other adults to solve their own problems is respectful, not mean.” In a way, Gilbertson suggests, “to insist on helping another adult is to treat them as incompetent. . . You don't know what a loved one is capable of until you stand back and allow them to step up to a challenge.”

To be sure, Gilbertson says, when we set a new boundary, it will be tested. “It's not bad behavior on anyone's part if they test your boundary to find out if you mean it. Make sure you're ready with consequences and tolerate feeling ‘mean’ while you hold to those.”

This is not about punishing the person; it’s about setting a consequence to let the other party know what to expect if they cross your stated boundary. It's also about helping them see the consequences to their actions. In this case, the consequence of your mother’s insistent request will be a decrease in communication with you. She may not take it well at first, but it will help you begin your journey to establishing healthier boundaries with not only her but with others in your life.

Cloud and Townsend echo this in their book: "Spelling out consequences in advance and enforcing them gives [the person in question] a choice about whether or not he or she wants the consequences to happen. Because people have control over their own behavior, they have control over the consequences of that behavior."

04. Recognize You’re Not Responsible For Others’ Feelings

If you’re experiencing a need for more boundaries with your mother or other family members, and they don’t appreciate you standing your ground, now’s a great time to remember that you’re not responsible for others’ feelings. This is especially important to remember when that other person may be employing pressure through such tactics as emotional manipulation. If the person begins to tear up or lament that no one loves them or wants to help them when you don’t immediately comply to a request, that’s a possible red flag of manipulative behavior. When something like this happens, you’ll benefit from reminding yourself what you are and aren’t responsible for.

The truth is that you’re not responsible for anyone’s feelings but your own. You’re responsible for your own choices, your own feelings, and you don’t have to invalidate them in order to make others happy. If someone gets angry or upset with you because you’re not doing what they want, that’s on them. Their reactions are their responsibility, just like yours are your own. Once you can remember that, you’ll grow in immunity to any guilt-trips others may try to pull on you when you try to establish boundaries.

If a familial relationship has reached dysfunctional level as an adult, it’s best to speak to a mental-health professional, if for no other reason than to confirm that the relationship communication is improving or not, and to troubleshoot if you need help finding other solutions.

Boundary-setting isn’t the easiest thing to do but, as Gilbertson reminds us, “If you want to have better boundaries with your mother (and possibly help her develop them as well), you must be a role model for calm, compassionate boundary-setting. Don't be quick to write someone off just because they push on your boundaries. It's their job to test your boundaries, and your job to protect those lines. You choose both your boundaries and the consequences for violations. It's up to you to enforce them.”

However you tackle this issue, remember that, no matter what we’ve experienced, healing is possible, and we have the power to try to improve our participation in a relationship, even if the relationship is different than you would have liked.

Check out Cloud and Townsend’s excellent book, Boundaries, in print and audiobook. It will be the gift that keeps on giving, not just for your first relation on earth—that with your mom—but with all your relationships.