Everyone speaks about the need for healthy boundaries, but there is no cookie-cutter blueprint for implementing the changes necessary to put them in place.
When I researched boundaries for this post, I found plenty of sources outlining ways to set boundaries with a mentally ill loved one. What I did not find was a guideline illustrating how to construct healthy boundaries with your support system when it is you that is mentally ill.
It is a tricky situation with boundaries when you are mentally ill. When I am entrenched in the battle for my mind, lines get crossed, and I need them crossed. Because when I am in the middle of an avalanche of symptoms, I need my support system. I need them to talk me off the ledge, and I need them to lead me in the right direction.
Decade of Instability
From 2001 to 2011, I experienced a decade of debilitating instability. I had manic episodes with psychotic features in 2001, 2004 and 2009. In 2010, I had postpartum psychosis after the birth of my daughter. Threaded in between were times of normalcy, but there were also times of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and intrusive thoughts.
Here is the problem when you are mentally ill and experience an extended season of crippling instability: Your support system becomes so accustomed to your vulnerabilities that they see you as the sick version of yourself even when you are well.
They see you as fragile, so if you are having a bad day, they think it may be a precursor to another episode. They see you as less capable of dealing with the tough moments that are a natural part of life, so they hide things from you. They soften the blows. They are so used of taking care of you that they forget you are an adult who can take care of yourself perfectly fine when you are asymptomatic.
Grabbing the Reins
And though you needed their help, and you appreciated their help, and you will likely need their help again—at some point, you must grab the reins and start navigating your day-to-day life. You need to walk through the difficult moments just like everyone else. Both you and your support system must internalize the fact that sometimes a bad day is just a bad day, not a sign that your mental health is compromised.
There is a danger of falling into the trap of letting others take care of you even when you are asymptomatic. It is easy to step into the role of the mentally ill daughter/sister/friend/wife/mother. When you take on that role, people expect less of you. In turn, you expect less of yourself.
So how do you do it? How do you set healthy boundaries with the people you love the most? The people who held you up when you couldn’t stand up on your own. The people who were your voice when you couldn’t speak.
There are six truths to remember when setting boundaries with your support system:
1. You teach people how to treat you.
I am a firm believer you teach people how to treat you. You can teach people to respect you, or you can teach them to treat you like a doormat. You teach people outright by your reactions to confrontational situations, and you teach them silently when they disrespect you, and you say nothing.
Even if the relationship began with a modicum of respect, that respect erodes piece by piece if you allow the person to disregard your personal value. Once you teach someone it is acceptable to mistreat you, it is nearly impossible to unteach them.
2. You have the right to set healthy boundaries even if you are mentally ill.
You may believe you have fewer rights because you are mentally ill. You may feel indebted to your support system because of all the assistance they have provided throughout the years. You may even believe they will leave completely when you initiate change.
Mental illness does not diminish your need for proper boundaries. If anything, you must be extra vigilant because at times your rights are blurred because of your mental illness.
You can be grateful for your support system and still establish limits with them. To be an effective part of your support system, an individual must be able to support you while remembering you are an actual person, not a collection of symptoms and inadequacies.
3. Everyone has deal breakers. Be clear on what yours are.
When you are on a journey to establish healthy boundaries with your support system, you first have to reflect on what you can accept and what you cannot. You need a clear picture of what your deal breakers are.
Deal breakers are different for everyone. We all have our limits. It is a very personal decision.
After I became a mother, my deal breaker became that I would allow no one to teach my daughter it is acceptable to disrespect me. That meant removing myself from situations and people who would disrespect me in her presence.
4. You have the right pick the people you include in your inner circle. Be selective who you invite inside your life.
There are members of your support system you love deeply. They have stood in the gap for you when you didn’t have the strength to hold yourself up. Some of them may be immediate family members or friends that you cherish.
You want nothing but the best for them, but there may not be room for them in your inner circle. You should reserve your inner circle for people who make you a better version of yourself.
There is no room for toxic relationships. There is no room for factions and divisions. The people in your inner circle are your board of directors. You must choose them wisely.
5. There are some people you must love from a distance.
This is a hard truth. There are people that have supported you to the best of their ability. They have loved you the best they can. You may have spent years trying to make a particular relationship work, but the relationship is built on sand, so it crumbles time after time.
There are some people that are just not good for you. It doesn’t mean they are bad people, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t give you all the love and support they had to give. You may want to love them at all costs. But if you ever want to be autonomous, you must love them from a distance.
It doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate the support they provided. It simply means you can no longer pay the price it costs for them to be in your everyday life.
6. At some point, certain relationships have run their course. Move forward without looking back at what you left behind.
Sometimes people are only in our lives for a season. It is always sad when you realize a long-term relationship has run its course, but it is important to know when it is time to move on.
Speak the truth in love. Let the person know how much you love them and how much you appreciate the assistance they provided. But firmly let them know your life has taken a new direction that doesn’t include them.
I know it sounds harsh, but it is better in the long run to be honest, so you can move forward with that door closed firmly behind you. If you spend your time looking back at who and what you left behind, you miss out on today’s happiness and miracles.
The Brutal Truth
If your support system can’t accept you are no longer that familiar sick person in need of constant care, you must have uncomfortable conversations to discern which members of your support system fit into the new limits you have established.
Everyone in your support system may not be in the same place as you. You may have worked on yourself by receiving therapy or embarking on a self-awareness and self-improvement journey.
You are no longer the person you were, but your changes are invisible. The ones closest to you can’t tell by looking at you that you are no longer the person you once were.
There are no shortcuts here. It will require soul-searching to determine if your support system can still support you. There may be some branches on that tree you need to prune off.
Do you have trouble establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries with your support system? What steps can you take today to make your closest relationships healthier?