Establishing Healthy Boundaries with a Mentally Ill Family Member
Establishing healthy boundaries with a mentally ill family member is a key step for your self-care as a supporter. Read on to learn more about the kinds of boundaries I have with my brother, who has chronic depression and anxiety.
Life Without Boundaries
When my brother’s symptoms were heightened before his official diagnosis, he was verbally abusive to me on several occasions. While he stopped short of physical abuse, I did feel threatened at times by the way he spoke to me. These incidents would culminate in my brother having a « come down », where he would be extremely apologetic for how he had acted.
My reaction at the time was to dismiss the apologies. After all, here was a man who was clearly not in control of his behavior — and surely to accept an apology would be to blame him, right? I was also worried about making my brother feel even more depressed by telling him how his actions had affected me.
This quickly turned into a vicious cycle — my brother would verbally abuse me while highly anxious, apologize profusely, I would insist it wasn’t a big deal, it would happen again. All the while, my own mental health was suffering because I was frightened of establishing healthy boundaries with a mentally ill family member.
Speaking Up for Myself
Through advice from my counselor, I learned to voice my upset to my brother after these incidents in a non-judgemental way. I was able to explain how the verbal abuse damaged my self-esteem and raised my anxiety levels. Although hearing this information caused my brother a lot of guilt, it was the first step towards establishing healthy boundaries between us — I had made it clear that I was not okay with this type of interaction.
Nowadays, I set healthy boundaries with my brother all the time — I tell him the hours that I will be sleeping and working, and ask him not to call during them unless it’s an emergency. I leave the room or hang up the phone if he becomes verbally abusive towards me. I also verbalize all the time to my brother that I love him and want him to be well — this sentiment can co-exist very peacefully alongside solid boundaries.
The Effect of Boundaries
When I set my boundaries, my brother learns what behavior isn’t appropriate, and this can prompt him to seek specific help if needed. For example, once he learned that his verbal outbursts were causing me great upset, he sought advice about anger management. In our case, setting boundaries was a win-win situation.
What are your experiences of establishing healthy boundaries with a mentally ill family member? Let me know in the comments.