Boundaries and balance: When do you say No to family?


So here I am… taking on the role of caretaker (again).  But this time, I’m not OK with it.  This time, the person who needs care is perfectly capable of caring for himself.  This is a person with whom I’ve set clear boundaries in the past so he exhibits as little control over my life as possible.  Setting boundaries is something with which I struggled most of my life.  I was unable to set boundaries with myself.  I took on too much.  I pushed myself too far.  I was never good enough.  I put others before myself.  I was unable to set boundaries with others.  I allowed others to take advantage of me.  Sometimes people hurt me and used me because I could never say No.  I have learned over these last two years in grad school how to find balance, to say Yes to myself and to say No to others. I discovered how to be giving and kind and loving and hard-working without harming myself.

Yet, here I am… once again… attempting to balance what is right for someone else and what is right for me.  Here I am drawing a line in the sand.

When I arrived home after my week in Glasgow, I discovered my mom was in town.  While I was out of the country, my grandfather was hospitalized due to a severe kidney infection, high blood pressure, low pulse and vitamin deficiency. My mom came up to get some things in order before I returned. Namely, she set up automatic bill pay, arranged some finances and hired someone to take care of the yard and clean his house.  She also finalized some things for the condos she and my grandfather purchased because she wanted to make sure they would be ready by September when she moves here.  After a week of madness, she had to return to Alabama.  She has two more months at work before she can retire, she’s trying to sell her house and she’s a single parent.  She has a life.

I’m the only family member who lives here. My mom did what she could over the phone, but I’m it.  There I was in a rehabilitation center every day for three weeks while his kidneys healed, his blood pressure stabilized and his strength returned.  This was a familiar scene given what I went through with my grandmother last summer.  It was also unfamiliar.  My grandmother was bed-ridden.  She needed someone to be with her. I was very close to my grandmother.  My grandfather is not dying.  He just got sick, stopped eating and didn’t feel the need to take care of himself anymore.  I do not have a very positive relationship with my grandfather, for various reasons I wish not to discuss in detail here. In short, I do not want him to have any control over my life. To put it another way without going too far: He is an alcoholic.

He comes home tomorrow. He is not allowed to drive and he refuses to hire an assistant. Heaven forbid we spend any of that money he’s been saving since he was 15.  Lord knows, there’s no reason to spend money to make life more convenient for someone else when you can have it hanging out in the bank when you’re 82 years old.  So here I am taking care of a house, managing bills, buying groceries and keeping track of medications for someone else.  He is perfectly capable of doing these things for himself.  The reasons why he won’t take care of himself are some of the same reasons why I am not close to him. But… he is family.  Because I am the only family he has here, he expects me to play this particular role for him.  I’d be happy to do the things I was doing before, but I have to set boundaries so I can be OK.  He knows I will not cook for him and I will not clean for him.  I do not have the time or desire to do either for him.  Hell, it’s a struggle to do those things for myself.  I think most of my friends and family know it is less about my time and more about his control.  Daily I receive text messages from family members who know the situation: Take care of yourself.


I have responsibilities just like any other adult.  I pay my own bills and manage my own life.  I have one of those good 9 – 5 government jobs.  I am a graduate student and am trying to finish my Master’s thesis this summer.  I can barely balance those things.  I haven’t been to yoga or the chiropractor in months.  I keep gaining a pound here and a pound there as the summer progresses.  I want to make time for friends, but I find myself relying more and more on the Internet as my sole form of communication.  I was supposed to move next month, but now I have to wait until September. I was so looking forward to making a fresh start and finding a more balanced routine again.  I was looking forward to leaving behind the one person that I feel continues to hold me back emotionally in my personal journey.

I know I must maintain balance in my life because I value it and I need it. Balance and boundaries go hand in hand.  If we don’t establish clear boundaries with ourselves and with others, we can’t possibly find balance.  Without boundaries, the rocks keep piling up until it is too tall to support itself. I was so good with balance.  I could stand in Tree Pose for hours if you asked me.  I always loved the balance board when I was in physical therapy for my hip injury.  Each day, I was able to equalize my footing as my right hip became stronger. But right now, I feel my feet slipping from underneath me.  I feel wobbly.  I know I am about to lose my footing and will need to grab hold of something before I fall.  Right now I’m questioning whether my boundaries are ill-defined.  I know if one rock falls, the tower scatters.


I read this draft and realize all of this may give you the impression that I’m selfish.  Who wouldn’t want to do these things for a family member? Remember, I am not talking about my child or an ill parent.  This is someone fully capable of being a grown up.  I did take care of someone once… although I think bathing someone who can’t leave the bed is a little different than cleaning a bathroom for someone who just doesn’t want to clean.  We can easily say what we would do if we were in a situation when we are not in that situation. It is understandable if that is your impression. My friends, family and I know the truth.

Photos: Line in the sand & Balancing rocks


Have you ever been responsible for another human being who wasn’t your child?  Have you said No to someone so you could ensure you would be OK?  Have you said Yes to someone and hurt yourself in the process?  How do you balance managing own life and someone else’s when it isn’t our desire or responsibility to do so?

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11 thoughts on “Boundaries and balance: When do you say No to family?

  1. I don’t think you’re selfish at all. One of the most generous things you can do for other people is take care of yourself so that your own well does not run dry when you most need water. It’s okay to hold a little in reserve.

    1. I love how you put this – I definitely need to hold a little more in reserve from now on. 😀

  2. I say no to my family all the time. My parents bought a house on an empty nest. They want me to pay rent when I live on my own. They want me to help them with their mortgage. They want me to pay their property taxes. I look at them and laugh.

    I wasn’t the one who made the poor decision to buy a house on an empty nest, during the height of the housing boom and buying a house outside their means.

  3. Oh, man do I ever know something about this. You’re a smart girl, so I wouldn’t dare sit here and give you any advice. You already know the rules: balance and boundaries. Unfortunately, the boundaries must be defined first, and it’s hard to do so. Then, and only then, can balance come. I will only say that I’m thinking about you, and I hope you are able to find some time all to yourself soon. xo

  4. First, I want to hug you because I’ve been thinking of writing a post about the same kind of thing, boundaries with parents and family. It’s a really tough situation you’re in and I’m sorry to hear it. Saying no to family when part of you aches to say yes is really tough but sometimes, you have to look out for you before them, especially if it’s an ongoing issue.

  5. I am so sorry. You are not selfish. Your blog post does not come across as selfish. You do not have to allow someone to emotionally abuse you because they are family.

    I know how tricky relationships with grandparents can be. I think sometimes the empathy part of the brain must go before everything else. Or maybe some people just never had it. Whatever the cause, it can result in incredibly guilt-inducing and hurtful relationships.

    I hope everything works out. Take care of yourself.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I definitely feel guilty at times for not doing more because I’m the only relative in town. He’s able to manage his meds, cook and clean and file and manage his own bills and other things, but he doesn’t want to. Sigh. I hope he realizes soon that we need to hire outside help. I appreciate your support. It means a lot. Also… I hope your stand up routine went GREAT! I know you were nervous and I hope you had a blast. 😀 I’m really bad at

      reading blogs and not commenting. So… yes… I read your blog. :) Hehe.

  6. We do not know each other well, but this post resonates with me in more ways that I am able to articulate on here. In short, I have recently had to make decisions about a (very) close family member who repeatedly brings their toxic and self-destructive behavior into my life. I am someone who has also had to draw distinct boundaries to create and maintain the life I want to lead. I feel compelled to re-define “selfish.” Simply, what may feel (because we beat OURSELVES up for these thoughts and decisions) selfish is really self-preservation. You have every right to have a healthy life. You have every right to define your own happiness. You have every right to make room to welcome those who support your happiness and your life. That is not selfish. That is leading a healthy life of which you are deserved–desiring and creating the space and structure that is best for you. And really, your decisions *do* take into consideration the ways in which others are affected. More, disengaging with toxicity does a service to all involved–because you do not contribute to, and therefore cultivate, an ongoing unhealthy relationship. Unfortunately others’ may not be doing the same.

    I’m so sorry that you cannot move forward immediately. Hopefully, the time before September will move swiftly! You do have the strength (and the tools, Shanti Shanti Shanti*) to push through. Because you already imagine your life emotionally (and psychologically and and) balanced, you are already there–just try to remember that… you are.

    *I promise this will be my last of the yoga-mama-gurl moments (this time).

    1. oooo…. yeah… since we were just talking about how I’m a bad comment responder!

      I seriously don’t know if I already responded to this, but I have it starred in my Inbox so it’s safe to say I didn’t respond. Fail.

      I think it’s great you are able to say No to your family like that. I am surprised when I hear about parents who ask their kids for such things, but I guess that is reality. We can learn from our parents and sometimes that means learning from their mistakes!

      Props to you for setting boundaries.

  7. I know you know I know, but it bears repeating: You are not selfish, you are someone who refuses to annihilate herself to suit his needs. My heart hurts for you that this crisis delays your moving forward into your own place. May the karma boomerang be swift and generous towards you in return.

  8. Obviously I’ve been reading your blog for a while and know how much you did to take care of your grandmother, but I don’t think you come across as selfish. Just someone with their own life, responsibilities and stresses. It’s hard to help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves – in some sense, you can’t. It doesn’t help your grandfather to live an independent life if you are always picking up the pieces for him – but it sounds like that is the problem – he doesn’t want to.

    I hope everything works out and you are OK! If you need anything, let me know.

    Cate xox

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