This pandemic has been a global life-changing scenario: grieving unexpected losses, managing worry regarding financial instability, learning to balance work time and family time. This has triggered a lot of reflection in the news questioning the lifestyles we have been carrying until now. If you've been living abroad for some time, far away from your family of origin, you might have found yourself missing your family and friends back home and thinking again about your choice of living abroad. In my sessions with my expat clients, I frequently see them struggling to make peace with their decision to stay abroad. In the current world-wide crisis, that choice can feel more substantial than ever. Nobody wants to feel like they are leaving their loved ones behind. Neither we want to feel obligated to connect and reach out when the nature of our bond is complicated. 

In some cases, the decision to live abroad also comes with an inevitable push to find the much-needed emotional distance from unhealthy relational dynamics. Remember: in some instances, living abroad is the healthiest possible choice! However, particularly toxic dynamics are still in action thousands of miles away; in those cases, setting healthy boundaries and upholding them becomes paramount. 

During the lockdown, we often found ourselves with a lot of time in our hands. Did you take some time to reflect on the course of your life? Why not take advantage of it now and rethink our most significant relationships? What impact do those relationships have in your life? Do you find yourself struggling and overthinking whether you want to keep in touch with them? Do you find yourself continually justifying who you are to them? Do you dread getting in touch because every time you do subtle messages with guilt or threats is thrown into the conversation? Do you believe that no matter what you do, it's never good enough for them?

If you read the questions above and several dreadful familiar scenarios and memories came to mind, you've probably experienced some manipulation. Unfortunately, psychological and emotional manipulation is a very frequently-used powerful tool for gaining control by politicians, marketing campaigns, and close relationships. This manipulation is not always intentional and is quickly learned from one generation to the next one. Breaking free from passing down manipulative messages filled with guilt from one generation to the next one is not easy. Those messages are usually ingrained in interactions and disguised as pieces of advice from an experienced member. Other times they come in the form of reminding us of all the sacrifices they've done for us. Beware of those messages since nobody but ourselves is responsible for our actions. In Susan Forward's book, Toxic parents, she describes several family dynamics with different types of deep-seated psychological manipulation which can lead to direful interactions. From negligent parents who were unable to take care of their children's emotional and physical needs to any abusive dynamic.

If you've dealt with unhealthy family dynamics all your life, you've probably run out of ideas on how to heal those bonds. Maybe you also came to terms with the realization that they are most likely not going to change. You know you care a lot about them, and that to create a healthy relationship you need to start validating your own emotional needs and start setting up boundaries. However, upholding those boundaries seems like a terrible idea and impossible to put into action. What has stopped you in the past from making the changes you need? Is it the idea that you're selfish for needing that space? Or do you feel guilty because you think you're not a 'good daughter/son/sibling/...' if you ask for that?

Guilt is probably one of the most definite obstacles people find when thinking of setting boundaries. Imagine guilt as the tug-of-war between what you wish to do and what you think you should do. "Shoulds" often come from the legacy of family messages we've learned growing up. Some of them are direct, like: "Always put family first." However, in most cases, we learn those values just from observing our parents and closest relatives. For example, picking up from your mother's actions that being a good mother meant being selfless due to her always putting everyone else's needs before hers. Those family messages make up some of the moral rules you carry around. When you feel guilty about your interaction with your family, have you thought what "shoulds" are triggered? Do you still identify with those values as an adult? Or have you rebelled? And most importantly, what do you honestly want?

How to set and uphold healthy boundaries

To begin with, do you know for which aspects of your relationship with them you need boundaries? Your body might be your ally in learning when someone has crossed your limits. You can notice when they break your barriers because your body will also react with anxiety, feeling rigid or tense, etc. Take some time to think what made you feel upset: does it feel you have an obligation to talk to them every day? Or that you think they could interrupt your life unexpectedly with their emotional crisis?

Then, think about what you need to protect yourself and your emotional needs. To do that, reflect on what aspects of your life you share with them, how often you are in contact with them, and consider if the relationship is one-sided or not in terms of emotional support.

Tip #1: What do you share with them? 

You grew up feeling invalid or continuously depending on validation for who you were. Do you still think you need to update them regularly on your life getting to the point of oversharing? How is their reaction when you share vulnerable experiences? Choose wisely who you are sharing with- it should be someone you can count on responding compassionately. Especially if your life and identity are things they disagree on (i.e., sexual orientation or identity, religious beliefs, politics, etc.) and often criticize you about it. Remember, in dysfunctional dynamics, the more you share, the more private information can be used against you. Instead, why don't you focus the attention on them or on neutral topics? 

Tip #2: Who do you go to for emotional support?

When you've carried around emotional wounds from your childhood, it's understandable that you long for the support, guidance, and validation you've never had. Watch out for what Freud[i] called repetition compulsion. In simple terms, this means endlessly engaging in situations similar to past experiences where you were hurt before, but hoping this time, things will go differently. Do you expect that your parents will react in a supportive way this time? And afterward, do you find yourself wishing you hadn't gone to them and getting mad at yourself for getting your hopes up again?

Tip #3: When do you answer them?

If, in the past, you felt you were the emotional caretaker of your parents, most probably, you are still unintentionally carrying on with the same roles throughout your adult life. This interaction can be challenging when living abroad, primarily due to time difference: are you supposed to be available any time of the day? Do you feel you are their emotional firefighter- always on-call and ready to calm them down? Have you ever thought of changing your communication patterns? If you're still answering them whenever they call with a crisis, you're unknowingly reinforcing that unhealthy dynamic.

Tip #4: Rethink the frequency of contact:

How do you connect with the person you are trying to set new boundaries? Do you call them once per week? How do you feel after you connect with them? What would be a reasonable frequency of contact for you?

There are several ways you can show them you care: for example, sending them an article or a joke that reminded you of them.

Why not reduce your call frequency and demonstrate them in another way-a more respectful way with your needs- that you are there for them?

Tip #5: Learning to break guilt-tripping messages

Sometimes guilt and shame are sturdy emotional chains that prevent people from leaving unhealthy relationships. Guilt can be experienced internally when questioning if it is fair to ask for what you need. It can also be imposed externally- with what is known as guilt-tripping. Be careful with how you reply to those messages: the real message or demand is often hidden. Learn to address the real issue directly while ensuring not to take responsibility for the other person's feelings or falling for the trap of guilt. Write an example?

Do you feel that showing your loved ones you care about them and being available for them means forgetting your own mental well-being?

Then it's the time to face the reality that changes always start and finish with you! Why not give it a try to embracing your choices and making the changes you need to do?  

Lucía Largo
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Lucía Largo
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
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