What Happens When You Change But Your Family Doesn’t

family judgement, when you're family doesn't change

A few years ago, I was having a difficult time with a family member of mine. We have a history of relationship struggles. Without going into too much detail, I feel that this person was emotionally manipulative and verbally abusive to me when I was a child. The more recent conflict was reminiscent of some of those past behaviors, and I was feeling extremely triggered and upset.

But I’m not a child any longer and I’ve done a lot of work on myself over the years. I spent over a decade in therapy, and at the time that this triggering incident happened, I’d just started online therapy with a very compassionate therapist.

Sharing Your Boundaries Can Be Scary: Do It Anyway

After some soul searching and fruitful discussions with my therapist, I decided that rather than ride out the mess I found myself in with this person — something I’d often done in the past in an effort to self-protect — I was going to do something proactive here. I was going to make my boundaries known. I was going to tell this person what behavior was and was not okay with me.

This was terrifying, to say the least. When you share your feelings and boundaries with someone who has hurt you deeply in the past, it can make you feel extremely scared, vulnerable, and exposed. But the behavior I was witnessing had continued over the years, wasn’t getting better, and I realized that the way I was going to be able to keep the relationship intact was to make my boundaries crystal clear.

Writing the email where I explained how this person’s behavior hurt me was painful, and stating my boundaries regarding their future behavior was nerve-wracking. Hitting send was petrifying.

But I did it.

Understand What You Can And Can’t Control

A few days later, I received an email back that was basically a barrel of questions:

  • Why are you doing this to me?
  • What is so wrong with my behavior?
  • Why are you so angry?

Tons of deflection, questioning of my intentions, and zero acknowledgement that my feelings were valid or that the behavior in question was remotely inappropriate.

I responded by restating my feelings, reexplaining what my boundaries were, and trying to do so in a respectful and kind manner. And then…silence. I wrote several follow-up emails and even tried to schedule a phone call. But each time I was met with silence.

I discussed what to do with my therapist. I felt hurt that this person wasn’t giving me the time of day after I had opened myself up. It felt similar to the kinds of things that had happened when I was a child, trying to tell this person how I had been hurt, and being told that my feelings weren’t valid. I was often given the silent treatment during my childhood too.

My therapist helped me realize something really important. “Your job is to tell your family member how you feel, and what behavior of theirs is and isn’t okay with you,” she said. “That’s the part you can control. The rest is up to them. You can’t control that.”

I had done the work here. I had done the brave thing. No matter what this person said (or didn’t say) my feelings were valid. And whether or not my family member liked them or was able to absorb them, they heard them. How they reacted to my feelings and the boundaries I proposed was not my responsibility.

I had changed. They had not. And I now felt equipped to deal with the emotions they provoked in me.

Letting Go Is The Hardest Part

This revelation — that the only thing I was responsible for was my own behavior and boundaries — took some time for me to truly believe. After years of wishing and hoping my family member would listen and would change, it was hard to let go of the notion that they just might not.

It was even more difficult to believe that I had done the right thing and that there was something helpful about sharing my feelings and boundaries even when they weren’t acknowledged. But I came to realize that whatever happened in the future, my boundaries were out there, for me. And if this person violated them, it would be okay to disengage from the relationship in whatever way I saw fit. This was a very empowering notion.

As of now, my relationship with this person is in an interesting place. After many months of silence, this family member and I are back in touch. Since the first email where the family member expressed hurt and confusion at what I had expressed, we still haven’t discussed my emails.

However, I have noticed that this person seems to be acting more mindful around me, and hasn’t repeated any of their past problematic behavior — at least for now. I consider this a win. And I also know that if something comes up in the future, which it very well might, I know what to say.

I’ve changed. I know what I will and will not tolerate. I know that my feelings matter. And I know this is all I can control.

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