Healthy Boundaries for Caregivers
April 6, 2023
Clear boundaries, and mutual respect for these boundaries, are essential elements of any relationship. But establishing healthy boundaries for caregivers can be complicated. This is particularly true for family caregivers of people living with a mood disorder. It is difficult to watch someone you love suffer. However, if you don’t establish limits around your caregiving, you risk becoming resentful or burned out.
What are personal boundaries in the context of relationships?
Personal boundaries are the limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships. Boundaries exist on a spectrum, with some people having more rigid boundaries, and some having more porous boundaries. People with rigid boundaries tend to keep things “close to the chest.” They are unlikely to ask for help and may appear detached or aloof. People with porous boundaries have a hard time saying “no,” often because they fear disappointing others. They may be “oversharers” and/or accept manipulative or abusive treatment from others.
If you are like most people, your boundaries vary depending on context. For example, you may have more rigid boundaries at work, but more porous boundaries among family members. As is often the case, the healthiest boundaries are typically a happy medium between rigid and porous. For example, people with healthy boundaries value the opinions of others, but these opinions do not always dictate their choices. They share their wants and needs appropriately based on the situation. They are able to ask for help, but also accept “no” for an answer.
Why family caregivers of people living with mood disorders should set healthy boundaries
Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries as a caregiver of someone living with a mood disorder can feel confusing at times. Some days, your loved one needs more support and flexibility, and other days, your loved one needs more space and structure. However, boundaries are essential to personal growth, relationship health, and self-care.
One way to understand boundaries in the context of a caregiving relationship is to think about safety gates. Caregivers often install safety gates around the house to protect others from harm. These gates are sturdy enough that they can’t be dislodged or torn down, but low enough that people on both sides can easily see one another and communicate. Often, the gates are adjustable and can be moved to enclose larger or smaller spaces, as needed.
As a caregiver of someone living with a mood disorder, this means that the exact layout and placement of the boundaries might shift over time, but there are always parameters of some sort. People living with mood disorders benefit from knowing their loved ones’ boundaries and how their loved ones will feel if those boundaries are not respected. Establishing boundaries also helps caregivers to avoid burnout.
It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as “perfect” when caring for someone with a mood disorder. You will not always get it right, and that’s okay.
Areas in which a caregiver may establish healthy boundaries
Consider each of the following areas where you may want to establish boundaries. Ask yourself these questions to help you determine what your boundaries are.
- Financial– What kind of financial support are you willing and able to provide to your loved one? What are your limits? What can you offer and for how long without feeling taken advantage of?
- Executive functioning– Mood disorders can adversely affect executive functioning skills, including planning, memory, and organization. What type of assistance are you willing to provide for your loved one? Are you comfortable helping them make appointments, remember to take their medication, or tidy up their house? What is reasonable for you to expect your loved one to be able to handle it on their own?
- Communication– What are your expectations around communication? Has your loved one ever dismissed your efforts to talk about issues, shouted at you, or walked out on a conversation? What can you promise to do to establish healthy communication?
- Time– How much time are you willing and able to dedicate to your loved one? It is helpful if your loved one understands when you are and are not available.
- Other family norms– Do you want to create any boundaries around technology? (No cell phones at the dinner table, e.g.) What about expectations for family time? If your loved one is a teen or younger, are there certain chores that they are responsible for completing?
What a conversation about healthy boundaries could sound like
When talking about boundaries, it is best to be clear and straightforward. Choose a time when both you and your loved one are calm and open to discussion. Use “I” statements to explain why the boundary is needed. If you are worried that your loved one might get defensive, you can always “sandwich” the more difficult message between two more positive statements.
“I know you’ve been feeling really frustrated lately, but that doesn’t make it okay to yell or use foul language. When you communicate like that, it creates unnecessary tension and conflict, and I suspect it doesn’t make you feel very good, either. I want us to continue talking openly, but if you raise your voice or curse at me, I will stop the conversation.”
“I’m happy to pay for your copays while you are not working. In return, you can empty the dishwasher when needed and fold your laundry. This will save me from having to nag you and give us more quality time together.”
What to do if your boundaries are crossed
Everyone’s boundaries get crossed sometimes. To err is human, especially if your loved one is in the habit of doing things a certain way. These missteps are a good opportunity to reinforce the boundary and why it was made in the first place.
- Remain calm– Easier said than done, but if you react with anger, the message may get lost! Try to model calm, respectful communication.
- Reinforce the boundary– Try to be as specific as possible. For example, instead of saying, “You expect me to do everything for you,” try “Remember we agreed that I will schedule your appointments, but it is up to you to remember to keep them.”
- Explain the ramifications– For example, “When you rely on me to remember all of your appointments for you, it feels like you are disregarding our agreement and taking advantage of my willingness to help. I will have to pull back on the time I spend helping if this keeps happening.”
- Limit engagement– If your loved one gets defensive and/or starts yelling, take a break. Explain, “I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, but this is not going to be a productive conversation if you talk to me like that. Let’s take a break and reconvene later.”
- Be consistent– If your boundaries are constantly shifting, it will be confusing for your loved one. In the case that you do offer some flexibility, it’s best to explain why. For example, “Normally I will not be available to drive you to appointments. However, I know that you are nervous about driving into the city, so I’ll make an exception.”
- Be persistent– If your loved one continues to argue or repeatedly crosses boundaries, try the “broken record” technique. Restate the boundary that you established and the consequence for crossing it.
Author and researcher Brene Brown writes, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” Setting boundaries isn’t easy, nor is it supposed to be. But the alternative is burnout and stagnation. By setting and maintaining boundaries, caregivers can support their loved ones, encourage long-term growth, and set an example of good self-care in the process.