As a daughter of Indian immigrants, and as a licensed therapist, I understand how complex setting boundaries can be for those of us who grew up in collectivist or non-Western households.
In collectivist families, close ties between individual members are encouraged and prioritized. Maintaining group membership often supersedes individual needs. In more individualist families, there are looser ties between members, and individual needs often supersede group membership. Neither is better than the other, but they both involve tradeoffs. In one, it can be difficult to advocate for personal needs when prioritizing others, and in the other, there can be levels of isolation and disconnection due to focus on self.
For many children of immigrants and people who straddle more than one culture, independence from our families isn’t the goal. Instead, many seek interdependence where we can exist alongside—and with—our loved ones, not for them. If you relate to any of this, how can you set boundaries when boundaries were never modeled or encouraged to you or when your family’s cultural values don’t embrace this concept? How can you protect your mental health while respecting and honoring your cultural and familial values? To find out, read on.
What it means to be enmeshed
One of the biggest struggles in reaching interdependence for many folks from collectivist families is tackling the concept of enmeshment. An enmeshed family is one where there are permeable boundaries, and a lack of separateness from other members. This can decrease a sense of autonomy, and it can increase the struggle of fully understanding our own feelings, thoughts, and needs. Holidays—with their high expectations and physical closeness—can exacerbate these experiences.
Of course, enmeshment is not wholly bad or unhealthy, as it can be a protective factor where it’s a cultural norm, and it may even be adaptive for immigrants in a new culture and host country. In addition, not every collective family system is negatively enmeshed.
In my work with children of immigrants and those straddling more than one culture, the goal is often not to forego time with family altogether or solely focus on the self. Sure, it may be ideal to be able to say no, walk away, and live guilt-free. But the reality is that many of us have been conditioned to feel guilty about “rocking the boat” or have deep internalized narratives that involve an either-or mindset. In order to be grateful, I can’t question or set boundaries within my relationships. If I prioritize my own mental health, then I am rejecting my family. Them or me.
In many immigrant families and cultures, filial piety—or respect to elders—is emphasized, and this can further cause children of immigrants to struggle with understanding or setting their own boundaries around family gatherings and family relationships. Duty, hierarchy, and loyalty can replace personal desires. Cultural context matters. As researchers have pointed out, “Within-community cultural behavior is constrained not just by individual beliefs, but also by the (perceived) beliefs and actions of others in one’s cultural group, and in particular by those with whom one interacts frequently.” Ultimately, our behaviors and values are informed by those we exist in community with—like our family, and cultural groups.
Simply put, “boundary” may be a foreign concept, reserved for Western families. It’s important to remember that boundaries are not about changing other people’s behaviors, but rather about protecting your finite energy and resources. They are not walls to keep loved ones out, but rather a way to invite others to love you, too. And boundaries are not a one-size-fits-all. They look different for all of us, but it’s important to reflect on where you have agency to take care of yourself while maintaining important relationships to you.
How to protect yourself in the group
Here are 14 culturally-informed tips to boundary setting this holiday season.
Reflect on your relationship with the term “boundary.” This is imperative for you to be able to truly understand your own internal roadblocks to this concept and how to build strategies toward being able to healthily, respectfully utilize boundary setting within your family and cultures. A few questions I like to ask all my clients about boundaries are:
- What comes to mind when you think of the word “boundary”? This helps gain an awareness of your own assumptions and narratives around them and how it relates to your cultural and familial values.
- How were they modeled to you growing up? This helps you understand where your foundation (or lack of) comes from.
- What’s another word that feels more meaningful or resonant for you than “boundary”? It doesn’t matter what you call it and, at the end of the day, the term “boundary” can be what is actually holding you back from starting this process in your relationships.
Prepare for the chaos. During the holidays, chaos—or clutter, ambient noise, and instability to routines—can be exacerbated. Prepare for this by:
- Pack or buy things that will help you feel grounded while you’re at home. Examples include a video game, a knitting project, a book, or headphones to put on when you need some solitude in an otherwise chaotic household with no privacy or silence. These allow you a degree of separation from your environment—especially if you cannot leave it—while also occupying your mind if you feel yourself spiraling with negative feelings or thoughts.
- Create and maintain micro routines for yourself. This can be maintaining your exercise, nutrition, sleep, or journaling practices.
Sometimes setting boundaries is not always about what you say, but what you do. For many of us, in one culture we may be taught that we must be explicit, and direct; whereas in our other culture, we are taught that this can be perceived as rude and disrespectful. Instead of feeling like you have to explicitly say the boundary, you can step away or go to sleep early, and even consider different types of boundaries. For example, set time boundaries around how long you are around certain family members or visit. And when it is about what to explicitly say, remember that you can share only what is necessary to share.
Redirect the conversation. If there are certain people who tend to be more triggering or unhealthy for you than others, try to limit your one-on-one time with them. If this isn’t possible, have some talking points handy about them that you can use to redirect the conversation. For example, if an aunty always talks about the fact that you’re not married (or you’re getting old, or you’re wasting your time), then instead of responding to this, immediately redirect: How’s [grandkid’s name] doing? Or I heard you and uncle recently went to Italy, how was that?
Be prepared to be accompanied by a dear friend, Guilt. Many people assume that guilt is an indication that you are doing something wrong, and while it can certainly alert you to this fact, sometimes it’s alerting you to the fact that your values are not aligned with the behavior or expectation imposed on you. It will be important to remember this and to get clarity on whether the guilt you feel is justified.
Lean on your chosen family. Touch base with a friend or partner before you go home, and be honest about potentially needing additional support during this time. Gauge their situation and capacity, and if you’re both able, make a game plan for how you can lean on each other. Maybe it’s an agreement of texting each other every night before bed or having a code word if you need them to call you and give you an immediate reason to step away.
Compromise; give to get where you can or want to. “No” is a complete sentence, but if that feels too difficult for you, remember: You don’t have to say NO to say no. Instead, consider if or how you can offer a compromise or alternative that doesn’t cause you to forego your own comfort or needs, while still showing and giving to people you care about. This can look like setting a time limit, or even offering a different compromise altogether. For example, if different cousins each want to get quality time with you, consider a time-limited, group hang to make it easier for yourself.
Decide what you are and you are not OK with. This is different for everyone, and in Western conversations around boundary setting, a lot of the advice can be extreme or rigid. Just don’t go. Say no. Stick to the consequences. Is this bad advice? Not necessarily. Is it doable for everyone? Not necessarily. Don’t compare yourself (or your family) to what you see online. Instead, make a list of things that you are OK doing—or dealing with—and other things that you aren’t. This will help you recognize what boundaries to actually set for your wellness.
Monitor your people pleasing. People pleasing, or feeling responsible for others, can be a mark of enmeshment. Be mindful of how learned people pleasing is actually hindering your ability to set or uphold boundaries. Often unlearning people pleasing will require:
- Pause and stall before saying yes. Research has found that even a short pause before making a choice increases decision-making accuracy. Instead of instinctively saying yes to what you will do for the holiday season, say, “Can I think about it?” or “I’ll let you know tomorrow!” This allows you to really, really think about what it means to commit to this (how stressed will you be? can you really take this on?) and can give you time to script or draft a text, email, or answer that feels more appropriate to you.
- Remember that disappointing others doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong.
Be radically honest about what you can expect. Instead of trying to convince yourself that this time might be different, be realistic about what struggles or issues may arise based on historical patterns. This allows you to prepare for known triggers by preemptively playing out scenarios and noting how you can handle them in ways that feel good to you and allow you to care for yourself. (In other words, reflect on what you’re nervous will happen and then list how you can handle it so you feel more competent and confident.)
Consider your family structure—or the invisible expectations and demands on each family member. This will help you understand the roles each family member feels expected to or has learned to play. For instance, maybe you get frustrated because the burden to cook and manage everything around the holidays is on you and your mom. You may start to acknowledge this with your mom, and even preemptively ask your brother to take more initiative in helping with cleanup, or offer to pick up food one night so you can both have a break.
Consider ways you can disrupt your patterns to start to create change. These can be minor, like if you know that you and your mom are always getting into an argument about your career when you are together, and you usually get defensive when she brings it up, consider what you can control, and how you can disrupt this pattern. For instance, when you start to feel like you are about to get defensive, take a breath, count to 10 in your head, redirect the conversation, or excuse yourself to the restroom, outdoors, or another room.
Make room for grief that things are not the way you’d hope them to be. It’s OK for you to be sad and disappointed that the relationship or holidays are not what you’d hope for. It will be important to have self-soothing activities you can turn to during the day(s) at home—like a funny show or video to watch, or a creative outlet to turn to. And it’s key to allow yourself to feel your feelings in safe ways—cry in the shower, journal before bed, scream into a pillow, vent to a friend. Process the grief.
Be prepared to repeat yourself. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and boundaries need to be enforced, and reinforced. Otherwise, you are teaching people that you aren’t that serious about the thing you are trying to implement.