If you are a family member who deals with another’s mental illness, chances are your life can get very full and often confusing. I hope this article about healthy boundaries helps.

OK, so your life has changed. Things are a bit different after the diagnosis of a family member’s illness. It could be a daughter with bi-polar, a husband with clinical depression or your own sudden experiences with panic disorder. These circumstances happen every year to millions of Americans and family members -- the “affected others” -- need to adjust and compensate for this new situation.

Presumably, if you are an affected other, you have the professional medical support you need to help your loved one. But you’re realizing that still things do not work as smoothly as they did before.  This is hard! Learning how to implement boundaries and raising your personal standards are good ways of “surviving” another’s mental illness. Some things that used to be OK in your life suddenly are just too much. This is to be expected -- but not tolerated. Let’s consider a typical problem that most people face at some time in their life: people who drop by your home without notice.

Some people don’t mind drop-in traffic.  However, at some point you may feel overwhelmed by this prospect since you are now dealing with the new challenges of a family member’s mental illness. If you used to be fine with drop-in guests but now find them overwhelming, you may want to implement a new “boundary” to improve your life and reduce your stress.

Without boundaries, you’re constantly tiptoeing around hoping your friend Suzy doesn’t suddenly pop in to “dump” all her woes on you. Caring for and worrying about your own family member can be a 24/7 preoccupation – do you really want to share the little time you may have left with Suzy, on her timetable? Most people fall short in the department of understanding what personal standards and boundaries have to do with “surviving mental illness”.  When your life changes after a diagnosis, it is important to review your life and decide which activities are acceptable and which are not. In the above example of allowing friends and neighbors to simply stop by anytime they like, you may feel that this is just too much, given your new circumstances. 

Here are my top three reasons to install boundaries:

1. Boundaries will decrease your stress level.

2. Boundaries will allow you to take care of YOU so you have more time to care about and for your family member who is suffering mental illness.

3. Boundaries will set a precedent of honesty and integrity, and free your mind for more important issues.

Here are possible options for dealing with the drop-in traffic:

1. Do nothing. Continue to cope with an open door policy even though you don’t want uninvited guests and feel increasingly angry that people just stop by.

2. Hide in the closet whenever someone knocks, hoping that they’ll eventually give up and miraculously disappear……… until tomorrow.

3. Develop and implement a new boundary.  This may seem like a lot of work, but the truth is the amount of energy you spend NOT dealing with this problem is probably doing more to complicate your already complicated life.

 How do you implement a boundary?

1. Review your daily life and decide what issue is bothering you. Then think about ways to stop the issue from happening. In our example, the drop-in traffic is the issue.

2. Next write down what you will say to your friend and deliver your message in a friendly, clear, but firm manner.  Your conversation may go something like this: “Suzy, I wanted to talk to you today because I’ve decided something and want to let you know what it is because it affects you. Since Jamie’s diagnosis I’ve really been overwhelmed with everything. I think I’m starting to calm down but I really need to do a few things to take care of me. I am asking all my friends and family to call me before dropping by. I’m hoping this will allow me to schedule my time better, have more down time and generally feel more in control of my schedule. Would that be OK with you?”

 Of course, you will have to adjust your “message” for the person you speak to, because, let’s face it, you may not want to ask certain people “Would that be OK with you?”! You may need to make the statement and ask them to follow your request.

 Finally, it is important to understand that how your message is received cannot be your worry. Some people are bound to get upset, ask for details, and want to know what’s going on with you…..blah, blah, blah. Remember, this new boundary is for YOU -- something to improve your life and well-being. This is not about them. So allow them to feel the way they do and stick to your guns. The new freedom and energy that will result from raising your standards and implementing a boundary will be palatable!

 Mary Logan, MA is a personal coach who works with family members dealing with mental illness. Mary Logan focuses on wellness issues facing her clients as they enter a new role of caring for a family member with mental illness.  You can sign up for her free 7-part e-course on staying well with boundaries at http://www.ucanthrive.com

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