From the U.S.: Can you offer guidance for how to provide limited help and set appropriate boundaries with needy, personality disordered family members?

My spouse and I are a stable couple trying to raise kids of our own. Our immediate family is happy and healthy.

We have one elderly family member with BPD (long history, managed somewhat with therapy).

I recently consulted a psychiatrist about another close relation. He suggested that her patterns were consistent with something on the “spectrum” of personality disorders (unstable relationships, narcissistic injury/rage, victim mentality). The therapist we spoke to was frank and cold, suggested that therapy (if she ever seeks it out) for her will be lifelong, and encouraged me to be optimistic about my future with her in the periphery.

We have, in the past, tried to be helpful and involved with these difficult family members, with mixed results. I have also been hurt (it seems these people have no anger management skills, no filter). As they both age and their needs grow, I face increasingly difficult choices. The psychologist encouraged us to keep the personality disordered people in our lives, but peripheried and boundaried. I don’t know how to do this with people who are aging and otherwise alone. When I expressed guilt, she told me I was taking too much responsibility.

My home is the hub of family gatherings, serving as a place where these people can find periodic connection. We have pulled back on this a bit. I will admit that my heart is increasingly not in it. I am going through motions, checking off the box in my head that says “did something.”

Boundaries are so simple in the abstract and difficult in practice. There are extended family members involved who know little and opine much. Some of them feed the victim mentality of the personality disordered people. I can’t explain my choices to my extended family without sharing private information about the disordered persons, so I don’t say anything. I don’t need validation, but the judgement from extended family is wearing.

I feel tapped out. How do I do “boundaries” with compassion? I feel I am only able to do what I must by becoming hard. I want to be helpful, but I can’t be hopeful. These people hurt me if I allow it (I know they can’t help it).

How do I walk this road?

A: Your difficult relatives are fortunate indeed to have such a compassionate and caring person in their family circle. You are certainly not alone in having aging or needy relatives who are less than wonderful. But knowing that isn’t very helpful, is it?

I wish I had an easy answer to your question but I don’t. I do have some opinions but please do take into consideration that I only have a brief letter to go on.

I worry about the present emphasis I see everywhere about the importance of “boundaries.” Too often, it implies putting up a wall. I think it’s more useful to define it as putting up a shield. Walls keep people out. Shields deflect the barbs of words and opinions so a relationship doesn’t hurt us.

I therefore don’t agree that it is ever helpful to get “hard.” I do think you need to find ways to let the behaviors of the difficult people and the words and opinions of others roll off you.

There is an old saying: “Consider the source.” You don’t have to take in what these difficult people or uninformed people say. You don’t have to argue. You don’t have to justify, apologize or explain anything. Ideally, you will find a way to smile and nod and say innocuous things like “I’ll think about that” or “Thanks for sharing” and move on.

Then — and this is the important part — go to people who know the situation and who care about you for the hugs, validation, and support you deserve. You are blessed to have a stable and happy family. Don’t let the occasional visit with challenging people overshadow that.

Compassion isn’t something that people have to deserve. We do what we can to ease the lives of elderly and/or difficult people because it is the right thing to do. But it is equally important to do right by yourself by turning to your own network for support so you can keep it in perspective.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie