Setting boundaries with family, letting go of expectations, and speaking up – for mental health

By Chloe Babauta
Originally published July 12, 2019

Since I started going to therapy last year, I’ve been working a lot on ways I can let go of trauma and develop healthy strategies that work for me. 

One of the many patterns I’m examining is how I have a habit of people pleasing. As a highly sensitive person, I observe how others around me feel and empathize with them. I imagine what they must be going through, and do my best to be kind to them and help them meet their needs in the way I imagine they need it. And as the eldest child in my family, I’ve internalized a sense of responsibility that makes me believe I need to do everything — including taking care of the emotions of those around me. I feel like I need to make sure nobody’s feelings are hurt and everyone is happy, and that there is no tension. 

Also as the eldest child (and as a Capricorn rising sign lol), I feel like I have to be perfect all the time. I have to get good grades, I have to have a lot of friends, I have to be smart and fun. When my parents got divorced when I was a kid, I put additional standards on myself: I have to be okay with everything, I have to keep it together (even though everything around me is changing, I am sleeping on a futon in a new family’s house, I miss my mom, I have to find a place where I fit in with a new family). Phew! That’s a lot of responsibility for an eight year old. I didn’t know or acknowledge I was going through all this until I chose to be brave and vulnerable, and used my therapy sessions to examine memories I’d repressed. It helped a lot to see where my patterns started as a child, and why I experience so much anxiety and depression: because I place such heavy responsibility on myself.

Now that I’m an adult, I still find myself struggling to meet my own standards. When I moved back to Guam for the past two years, I wanted to reconnect with my childhood friends and family, help the community as an activist, write compelling stories like my journalist dad and grandma before me, learn my roots, and feel whole and at one with my island. 

I’m fortunate to have so much extended family on Guam (countless cousins, aunties, uncles from all sides) but it became a struggle to make it to every gathering I was invited to. It was my first time living on Guam without my parents, so I became the person to “represent” our family at events. If you’ve lived on Guam (or have a large family in your area), you know there’s an endless stream of birthdays, christenings, weddings, beach days, bbqs — and you also know there will be aunties there who will judge you for not showing up. So you make sure you show up so nobody talks shit about your parents.

I do love spending time with family, but as an adult I realized my family obligations were taking over a lot of time I needed to recharge alone. I enjoy spending time with others, but I am definitely an introvert and need time to reflect on my thoughts and feelings on my own to feel whole. But on Guam, family is first and I understand that. Family is also always there for me when I need it. When I was on Guam, so many different family members helped me: they let me use their cars for the whole two years I was there, they let me live in their homes, they helped me find an apartment when I moved out, and countless other acts of kindness. In return, I tried to help family as much as I could.

On Guam we have such a strong sense of duty to each other. I have never seen another dedicated network of support like what I experience with Chamorus and other Guamanians. It is beautiful, and has sustained the Chamoru people for thousands of years.

But as a person living in this stressful world, I also think we should be able to set some boundaries when we need to take care of ourselves. 

I struggled with depression and anxiety worse than at any other time in my life when I moved back to Guam and was working a high-stress job. My stress hives were flaring up again, I could barely sleep, I ate instant ramen and fast food for most meals, I binge snacked on junk food to feel better, I partied every weekend, and I never exercised. I took to heart every critical comment I saw online about my work and internalized every perceived failure. I “set boundaries” by going to family parties less so I could take care of myself, but I ended up coping with my mental and physical health issues in unhealthy ways. Things were not going well for me! 

By the time I finally left Guam in January — even though I was starting Maga’håga Rising with Franceska and feeling so fulfilled from meaningful work and connections — I was ready to escape the web of unhealthy living I had created for myself. I needed to be closer to my parents and siblings (who all live in California) to feel more whole. I needed time and space to turn inward and heal — which I didn’t have while working myself ragged and needing to support myself financially. I knew I couldn’t keep putting off my mental health issues when it was getting so bad I could barely get through my days. 

The difficult part about setting boundaries is that not everyone will understand. It was hard to tell people I was leaving, when it looked on the outside like I was thriving. I was “doing well” for myself working at the local newspaper and telling our people’s stories, living a fun social life on Instagram, and made sure I seemed happy around loved ones as much as I could. But inside, I was struggling more than ever and I didn’t know what to do. My brain was getting so foggy I could barely focus at work, I was having emotional breakdowns regularly (and more anxiety attacks). I was struggling for months to find the right medication that worked for me and having to fight for that medication when the pharmacies, health clinics, and insurance companies’ inefficiency got in the way of my healthcare. I was at a point where I felt like I could no longer care for myself and also work. I ended up staying in more last year when my boyfriend moved to be with me, because I needed time to heal at home. This was all new to me and scary, and I didn’t have the energy in me to explain to everyone how I was sick when it didn’t look like it. I didn’t make time to say goodbye to everyone either, because it was too hard for me emotionally to explain what was going on.

I feel a lot of guilt for leaving Guåhan. I feel a lot of guilt for not being there for family and friends. I feel like I could do so much more to help our island and the people, and feel so much guilt for not being there to do the work like so many of my friends and family who have dedicated themselves. I’ve been stewing in this “guilt” for most of this year since I left, but this feeling doesn’t serve anyone (especially not me, who is the only one making myself feel it).

Even though I’m not on Guam anymore, I felt myself slipping back into the pattern of people pleasing again with lots of family visiting. It’s a blessing to have this problem: having so many family members that I can be overwhelmed, and for me to be able to see them in California when I feel homesick for Guam. I’ve read that the Universe presents you with the same life problems until you learn how to handle them with your own inner wisdom. And even if you don’t believe that, it’s still true that you’ll have to deal with the same problems over and over unless you learn how to solve them. Even though I left Guam and avoided obligations to take care of my mental wellness, the circumstances are not the “problem.” I am going to feel pressure to please family and fulfill obligations no matter where I move — it’s the beauty of being part of large families. I still have family obligations in California living with Nate and his large family out here too. In order to let go of that feeling of “pressure,”  I need to set my own boundaries for how I spend time with family.

It’s difficult setting boundaries because who ever heard of boundaries in brown families? When family visits, we all sleep together in the same house even if there’s only one bathroom. I know family is important, so I make sure I sleep over too. After having fun with different families visiting for the past six weeks, I finally reached my mental health limit. I have not had alone time or space to sort my thoughts, and less time to work on my business and personal goals. I feel selfish “choosing” my boyfriend over family, so I spend weeks away from my partner who knows my mental health needs better than almost anyone. I pour myself into hosting family and being fun, the way I see my parents do. I see how much they all give of themselves and feel the same sense of duty. And I still have more family I want to see even after I’ve gotten away to re-center myself for a day. 

Today I took the time to sit down with my journal and do some cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ve had less spending money lately and haven’t made therapy appointments, so I tried to put into practice some techniques I learned from my therapist on Guam.

At the top of the page, I wrote about my situation the way I would describe it to my therapist:

“My visit with family was triggering depression and anxiety in me — let’s explore why or what was going on. Let’s learn from this and think about your needs and triggers, to grow from this.”

Then I wrote: “How do I feel?” as my therapist would ask me.

I felt:

  • People pleasing mode overdrive
  • The burden of wearing a “mask” 24/7
  • No bedroom = no privacy or energy retreat
  • Less sleep
  • Spending more energy watching what I say (no cussing)
  • Low energy
  • Speaking in a way that goes against my values, so as not to offend the values of others
  • Hiding my true feelings
  • Worrying about judgment
  • Judging others

Then, I practiced being a responsible parent for my inner child by validating those feelings instead of telling myself to just suck it up and that other people have problems too. I practiced compassion and wrote to myself: “It makes sense you would feel this way after all that for more than a week!” And giving myself the gift of this small act of kindness and self-compassion already made me feel a bit better.

I read through this list and found patterns in my behavior that went back to how I felt as a kid, especially with divorced parents and having to adjust to new extended families. I was so focused on trying to show my parents that I was okay that I never said any of these feelings out loud. I wrote these feelings in my diaries for years though. I’ve learned that I am good at understanding my own feelings, but the next step is vocalizing it. And even more importantly, trusting that everything will be okay and that people will understand, and learning how to let go of the burden I’ve placed on myself of dealing with these feelings alone.

I am going to have to handle the hectic but wonderful life that comes with having a big family forever, and I am grateful for that. But in order to enjoy quality time and connect, I need to understand my own needs and limitations, and honor those. I need to let go of the mindset that I need to be what I consider “perfect” at all times. This means I should be able to say I can’t visit for an entire week at a time, if I know it will make my anxiety and depression worse again from not meeting my needs. It means I have to trust that family will understand, won’t feel hurt, and will still love me even if I say no sometimes. 

It feels silly even writing this because I know most people don’t care that much, but it’s still a process unlearning my people-pleasing tendencies and practicing voicing my needs. But part of growing up into the woman I know I am meant to be means standing up for myself, because if I don’t then who will? Being a grown woman means knowing myself, and communicating and connecting with others while also honoring myself. It’s time to step up, for Young Chloe who never felt confident enough to stand up for her needs. For the sake of the relationships with the people I care about. For myself right now, because I need to learn that is valid, and that my needs matter too. 

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