Your Mind Matters Episode 12 – Toxic Relatives, Setting Boundaries, and Coping with Emptiness

Your Mind Matters Episode 12 – Toxic Relatives, Setting Boundaries, and Coping with Emptiness

Not sure how to stand up for yourself? On this week’s episode of Your Mind Matters we’ll discuss assertiveness and boundaries in family relationships, coping with a mental health diagnosis, and dealing with feelings of emptiness.

Call us with your questions for future episodes: 415-855-0553.


Christine and Chris lament the fact that the weekend is only 2 days. They also share that they’ve gotten generally positive feedback on the recent major update to the Pacifica app and excited that listeners are calling in with their mental health questions for the podcast. They’re hoping to do a themed episode on back-to-school and school related issues next so if you have questions to that effect please submit them!

Question 1:

Hello, this is Jacqueline from Manchester. What advice do you have for dealing with toxic people. I’m having some struggles with some of my family members not respecting my autonomy as an adult. I am in my mid-twenties and often choices that I make are not respected. My opinions are not respected. Everything from insisting that I can’t handle picking out a car on my own to my habits on watching TV. I am just getting very very tired of dealing with this and since it’s with family members I have fewer options I guess you’d say. So what are some ways that I can assert my own autonomy? Because my knee-jerk reaction is to avoid confrontation and keep the peace, but I think that that only exacerbates the problem. Thank you so much.

Chris wonders about what it means for a relationship to be toxic and whether differences of opinion would count. Christine suggests that it might be whether the feedback or disagreements are constructive versus whether it’s constant nagging, belittling, or editing. Chris wonders how the caller knows her family are disrespecting her and whether or why the caller needs to listen to her parents. Christine speculates that it might be that the caller can’t get away from her parents or get quiet space or time. It can be very hard to assert autonomy when living with parents or relying on parents.

Christine notes that “house rules” aren’t the same as listening to constant criticism. Frequently receiving unsolicited advice or comments about her choices is probably tiresome. By letting the comments go unresponded to, even though this approach might minimize conflict, the caller could be sending the message that she either doesn’t mind the family member’s input, or even that she appreciates it. Christine suggests acknowledging the family member’s positive intention but then letting them know that you’d rather not have their advice. Articulating how you feel about their input or criticism, using “I” statements can be helpful. It’s also beneficial to identify the emotion that the person’s criticism generates and then sharing that with them.

Question 2:

Hi, I’m from Oregon. I was diagnosed with BPD [Borderline Personality Disorder] about a year ago. I’m fairly young. It’s something that I’m learning how to manage. I’m a lot more at peace with it now, but I still struggle at times to feel okay with it being a part of me, so I’m not sure ways that that that I could change how I think about it. The other thing is I have really bad feelings of emptiness. They’re kind of overwhelming to the point that I’ll be with people that I really care about, friends or family, and I feel disconnected from them and I can’t enjoy being around them. It’s as if I can’t feel happiness or enjoyment. It’s just hard. So I was just wondering what are some ways that I might be able to help myself enjoy things again and feel more connected to the people I care about. Thank you. Bye.

Chris commends the caller for acknowledging and coming to terms with her diagnosis. Chris notes that his understanding of BPD is that feelings of emptiness are a common part of the syndrome. Given that, he thinks it might be helpful for the caller to look for people who share the diagnosis and may be able to supportive, either through online or in-person groups.

Christine notes that the caller seems to have made good progress in accepting her diagnosis but speculates that perhaps the caller is identifying too strongly with the diagnosis. She encourages the caller to remember that she is a multi-faceted person and that she may have a mental illness but she ISN’T the mental illness. That is a seemingly small but important distinction for people.

Identifying with a mental illness or having a label for your struggle can be empowering and beneficial, but at the same time, overidentifying with it can be detrimental if you forget that you can be multiple things at once and that the illness doesn’t have to define you. Chris mentions that it’s important to remember that mental illnesses are often on a spectrum and severity varies a lot. He feels that it can be helpful to have a label for what you’re struggling with, but it’s important not to limit yourself and assume that you can or cannot do certain things based on your diagnosis.

Christine agrees with Chris that emptiness is a symptom of BPD. Christine talks about DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and how it’s the gold standard treatment for BPD. DBT incorporates the apparently incompatible goals of acceptance and change. This typically involves acceptance of one’s emotional experience and validating their feelings, while developing new, more effective behaviors.

DBT incorporates a lot of mindfulness and the concept of being present in the moment. For the experience of feeling empty, Christine suggests trying to be present and grounded in the current moment, being fully immersed in what you’re doing, rather than thinking about the past or future. The caller noted that she struggles to enjoy things, and Christine and Chris share that it may take time to start enjoying things again, but that scheduling a lot of pleasant activities and being fully present while you’re there, with time, can enable you to start to enjoy these activities again. Chris suggests noticing the feelings of emptiness but not putting too much stock in them, focusing on just letting those feelings come and go.

Question 3:

Hi, my name is Jessica from Tennessee and I have a question about boundaries with toxic family members. A little back history: I have always had a back-and-forth relationship with my parents. I moved out. I’m on my own. I actually live 1200 miles away. I have my own family. I’m married. I have a child. Over the years I have tried to mend things but as I am on my own personal journey, and I grow and evolve I’m starting to see that there are different ways to behave.  I’m going through EMDR therapy and a lot of past childhood things are coming to the surface. I have cut contact for the time being and I’m completely content with that. However, I have a child. He’s very attached to his grandparents and they’ve always been great with him. Right now my husband is the go-to communicator for in us, but they have just kind of been almost harassing him asking, what they did, tell him that I need to move past the petty things. I’m at a point where I’m ready to shut them out, but that’s at the expense of my child. So I was just wondering if you had any tips for that. Thank you. I love the app.

Christine commends the caller for getting into treatment to work on her issues and past, and for setting boundaries with family members. Chris notes that it’s a challenging situation because while the caller could try to maintain the relationship for the sake of her son, sometimes the things people do are unforgivable. He thinks that having boundaries is a great first step.

Christine agrees that it’s a challenging situation because the caller is trying to balance the caller’s desire for her son to have a relationship with his grandparents with her own desire to maintain her mental health and cope with memories or negative emotions that arise when interacting with her parents. Christine acknowledges that given the hard work that the caller is doing in therapy, now might not be a great time to interact with her parents. She encourages have clear and well-defined boundaries with her parents.

Both Chris and Christine note that some people make better grandparents than parents. It can be hard for the middle generation to feel that they didn’t get that better relationship, and may not have healed from their childhood. Christine notes that the grandparent-grandchild relationship won’t necessarily be the same as the one between the parent and child. Christine doesn’t think it’s necessarily a problem for the caller’s husband to be the go-between since he might be more objective, as long as everyone keeps in mind that the message may not always be conveyed exactly. The caller should feel empowered to set boundaries and limits based on what she’s comfortable with. Both Chris and Christine feel that it’s the caller’s prerogative to set up whatever rules she wants or feels she needs. Christine does caution against using the grandchild as a bargaining chip or limiting access to him as a punishment against them.

Do you have questions about mental health for the podcast? Call and leave us a message: 415-855-0553.