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My Experience with Restructuring a Diffuse Boundary within a Family System

Growing up in the African American community, I was socialized to embrace a collectivistic view where the needs of the family or community were given a higher priority over your own. “You must be there for your family, no matter what” is a phrase that was constantly communicated to me throughout my life. When family members fell on hard times and needed a place to stay, I witnessed my mother allowing them to live with us for months at a time. There are memories of arguments over money as a family member lent money that was supposed to be used to pay utility bills to assist them with a difficult financial situation. I saw volatile verbal disagreements and even physical altercations. Within a matter of weeks, those family members would be laughing and joking as if nothing happened. I would frequently hear, “You know that’s just how they are.”  The messages that were being communicated required devout loyalty and unconditional support. 

I completely embraced the cultural values being bestowed upon me without question, until I realized the impact it had on my well-being, particularly my mental health. I found myself becoming the “people pleaser”, where I would volunteer my time and money, although I had little to spare while working part-time and attending college. I did not realize that I was overextending myself, until I took a close look at my planner and realized that I had no time for myself or to study for upcoming exams due to familial obligations such as scheduling doctor’s appointments, assisting with applying for affordable housing, and grocery shopping. In my mind, I thought if I did not help, no one else would. It became so overwhelming, that I found myself avoiding phone calls and neglecting my academic responsibilities. I just did not want to do anything for anyone anymore, not even myself. This was very much unlike me as I never requested an extension on an assignment and found myself doing so often. 

One day, while searching for my bus card so I could leave the house for class, I could not find it. I began searching through all of my things and it was nowhere to be found. The first tear fell, and I attempted to stop myself from crying, but I could not stop no matter how hard I tried. I sat on the floor next to my desk and just cried. I was paralyzed by my emotions. I remember sending a text message to one of my friends, saying that I had been crying and could not stop. She immediately came over to my dorm and walked me through what became my first grounding exercise (a breathing technique). Once I was calm and able to communicate with her, she inquired about the break down and I explained to her the stress I was under with working, taking classes, and the obligations I made to my family. I had not opened up to anyone about my struggles before, as I did not trust easily. My friend provided a safe space for me to truly talk about my family system and the conflict I had with being there for them and my responsibilities as a student. At the time, I did not realize it, but my friend and I were discussing the diffuse boundaries in my family system. Everyone was so reliant on each other, particularly on me, that I could not be independent and take care of the new priorities of working and going to school. I recognized that I was overwhelming myself with maintaining the diffuse boundary and we discussed strategies to begin establishing clear boundaries with my family as I would be no good to them if I were not taking care of myself. 

While I should say that after that talk with my friend I began putting boundaries in place with my family, I absolutely continued to struggle with doing so because with each boundary I put in place, the more guilt and anxiety I felt. Despite those internal feelings, I knew I had to make a change to prevent more emotional breakdowns.  I took my first step and began implementing clear boundaries with my family and fully embracing the power of “No.” For tasks that required more time than I could contribute, I would let the family member know that I could not complete the task for them due to other obligations. Secondly, I started finding ways to shift responsibility. Being in first generation to attend college, I was heavily relied on for information and navigating services. Rather than lashing out against my family, I came up with another way to help them. Instead of making calls to ask questions for them, I would provide them with the numbers and have them make the calls. Third, I had to learn to be more direct and assertive. In my family, this was such a struggle because I was always told to “respect your elders” and to not talk back. My assertiveness was met with such resistance, which can occur when altering the structure of the family system. I was even accused of being “bougie” and how suddenly having an education “changed me.” While it hurt to hear those words from my family, I also understood that they were fighting against my changes to our family dynamic. Placing boundaries with family can be incredibly difficult, however, taking even small steps can be helpful to your mental health. 

Dr. Latrice Peoples, PsyD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, P.C

[email protected]

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