Would you rather get a voluntary root canal or try setting boundaries with your mom?
There’s a fine line between being supportive and over-stretching our abilities
Raise your hand if the first time you said no to your parents as a kid, the response you got was “Ek thappad lagega na bola toh.” Raise your other hand if shutting your room door was considered an act of rebellion and rudeness. You can now give yourself a round of applause because you made it through life with little idea of boundaries, privacy or space. Setting boundaries in an Indian family can be as difficult as trying to get a kid to eat karela (the aforementioned thappad comes to mind).
There may be a generational battle brewing between us millennials and Gen Z, but we are envious of their relatively carefree childhoods. Though it may sound a bit self-congratulatory, it’s the new-age parents who have taken a step away from the one-tight slap parenting tactics of our elders, giving kids more autonomy and self-awareness as they grow up. Gen Z has a boldness that we wish we had, whether it comes to their self-confidence or their ability to ask for space when they need it.
I’m not a parent myself. But not a day goes by when I don’t see a mental health post of some kind popping up on social media, as psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and mental health advocates raise awareness and bust misconceptions. There’s a lot to learn and unlearn from them: — crying is good for you, the right way to apologise, practicing effective self-care.
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A post shared by Neha Bhat | Sex Therapist (@indiansextherapist)
A post by psychotherapist Neha Bhat triggered something in our minds. The advice we see about setting and respecting boundaries online is usually formulated with a western societal setup in mind. Setting boundaries in an Indian family requires a different kind of thinking and approach.
Indian society, like most Eastern nations, is highly relational, Bhat writes in her post (you can view the full thing here). We are each other’s support systems and safety nets but also our biggest oppressors, she explains. Further adding, “So, to learn this language of setting boundaries, in this cut-and-dry way which could lead to disconnection from those very safety nets, feels almost alien to our context where it is expected that one ‘should adjust’ and ‘be flexible’ and ‘understand’.”
We love our big fat families, and our society is set up in a collectivistic manner. That means we always have somewhere to turn in times of trouble, but we also face a barrage of unsolicited opinions and people in our business at any given moment. “People’s opinions matter, and the feeling is that we need to maintain the honour of our family image. Of who we are, what we portray, and what we uphold,” explains psychotherapist Rhea Kishnani. We are dependent on what society thinks of our lifestyle choices, decisions, and actions. That’s how we receive social validation and, subsequently, the social capital that comes with being able to rely on the family unit.
“In a collectivistic society, individualism and psychological differentiation become an act of rebellion, rather than an act of growth. We then go on to tell our children what we learnt in this loop in an uncritical way where we are just passing on the information we have received years ago,” adds Kishnani.
Setting boundaries in an Indian family feels like such a challenge because we fear the reaction. As Kishnani says, we’re a society that’s fabulous at guilting. You’re made to feel like a selfish person for not doing things that are asked of you by your family. Dad does so much for you, why can’t you do this much?
This is why for us, saying no is the second step of upholding the boundary we have set. The conversation is both internal, and external, because after you say no, you have to combat the guilt and shame that inevitably follow.
“I’m going to say, ‘No, mom, I can’t do this for you.’ That’s the first step. Then comes the guilt and shame I’m going to place on myself, saying I’m a terrible daughter, I could have taken those 10 minutes out of my day and done it. That gaslighting is also part of boundary setting. I’m going to make myself feel so bad that I’m going to abandon my original boundary. The image of being a good daughter is one I want to uphold, only then will I feel a sense of validation,” says Kishnani.
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Intergenerational trauma, social environment, class, gender, caste all have affect how we are able to begin setting boundaries in an Indian family.
If you’ve decided you need to do this, keep reminding yourself of why. It can make upholding your boundaries mentally easier. Don’t look at them as borders that divide you and a toxic relationship or even a loved one from whom you need some space. Rather, a method of protection, as Kishnani describes it, that keeps you from over-extending and burning out. Sustainable relationships last a lot longer than guilt trips.
How to start setting boundaries in an Indian family
Reconnect with your body
Our bodies have a natural alarm system that goes off when something seems iffy. We just need to listen.
It’s like when we teach children about good touch and bad touch. “Pay attention and don’t shut it off or push it under the rug,” says Kishnani. “Say, you’re helping an aunt go through a divorce and are feeling drained and burnt out.” You may not have the mental resources, maybe you’re too young to be doing something so adult. “Your body, mind and cognitive capacity might be sophisticated, but it may not be enough to hold the emotional load of an adult getting a divorce. You have to listen to your body and say, ‘I might not be able to give you more than this. Maybe it’s time you seek professional guidance to support you in the way that you need right now.’”
There’s a fine line between being supportive and over-stretching our abilities. We’ve been encouraged from a young age to go above and beyond, and that’s what we get praise for. If you’ve decided to set up boundaries, respect your own, too. Tune in when your body tells you that its resources are depleting and you need to replenish. Even if that comes at the cost of not getting a ‘thanks’ or ‘wow, good job’ at the end of it.
Grab a spoon because you’re about to stir the pot
How do you tell someone that you need space without displeasing or offending them? The hard truth for us people-pleasers is that you can’t. You’re about to rock the boat of rules and it’s what we’re most afraid of. Just like when you tweet your opinion on the best Shah Rukh Khan movie of all time, be ready for possible backlash.
We tend to fear negative reactions and overthink the extent of the possible ripple effect. “By not bringing up our feelings, emotions and boundaries, we’re saying, ‘I’m not going to stir the pot’. But it’s coming at the cost of abandoning ourselves, our growth and our development. That’s what we’re challenging by setting boundaries in an Indian family. That I have to set this boundary for the sake of my health even if it comes with chaos. The chaos is not mine,” says Kishnani. Learn to be comfortable with making someone else uncomfortable
If your boundaries are not upheld, then what sort of contingency do you need to have in place to be able to protect yourself? Kishnani adds, “Boundary setting comes at a cost. In a dysfunctional family, your protection is going to come at the cost of offending or triggering someone else.”
Your contingency plan can be to plan calming techniques in case of a high-pressure confrontation. Is there a friend or a colleague’s house you can go to for a beat before you return to the conversation? What do you need handy in order to get through this ordeal?
Have an advocate in your corner
There’s strength in numbers. Eating three french fries is always better than one. In this case, counselling psychologist Dr Ishina Choudhary, founder of Insight Alchemy, says that you should have someone in your corner. Someone to whom you can vent your emotions instead of bottling it all up and having it explode at inopportune moments. This chosen confidante can be a friend or supportive family member who will be present when you’re trying to set boundaries. Having a safe person in your corner can give you the extra confidence to speak up.
When you’re both on the same page, they can reinforce your need for space, help you explain where you’re coming from, what you’re feeling, and what led to this decision if you feel yourself shutting down or getting overwhelmed at that moment.
Have options: flexibility will have to go both ways
We’re part of a community that fears change more than white sari-clad chudails on a highway (there’s something to be learnt from them too). Choudhary echoes Kishnani’s sentiment regarding the unspoken rules that are passed on from parents to children, and so on. “These are the rules society has made, and we have a fixed mentality. People are more comfortable sticking to what they know. Whereas life is ever-evolving, every part of it is changing and we’re struggling to keep up or completely rejecting it.”
We know we condemned the need for ‘flexibility’ that’s burned into our brains from childhood. But when you have set your mind on setting boundaries in an Indian family, this change isn’t going to happen overnight, unless you’re ready to cut someone out of your life if you don’t get what you want.
Realistically speaking, setting hard boundaries won’t bode well for stubborn people whose habits or minds you may be trying to change. Choudhary talks about flexibility in the context of having options. You may have Plan A to present an overbearing parent, but if that doesn’t work out, you can present them with Plan B which may be less drastic of a change, something they might be more open to before you eventually try bringing up your initial plan again. Think of it more like a temporary negotiation.
For example, if you want some privacy at home but mama flips out as soon as she hears the click of the door lock, you can suggest you both try Plan B – from 2 PM to 4 PM, your door will be shut and you don’t want to be disturbed unless absolutely necessary. You get a bit of privacy, while she still feels you’re part of the household.
There’s still a pretty high likelihood that she bursts through the door to ask you if you prefer kali dal or kadhi for dinner. But at least she has the onus of sticking to the choice she agreed to, and that may cause her to think twice. Seeing your disappointment over time may slowly chip away at the habit she has of invading your privacy.
When it comes to setting boundaries in an Indian family, it’s most likely going to be a long game. Don’t be disheartened if you’re not taken seriously the first time. Just like breaking boundaries is a habit, building them up is a practice. Be ready to try and try again.