3 Safe Ways to Initiate Healthy Boundaries with Toxic Balkan Parents

Written by: Selma Bačevac, Balkan Mama Therapy

Edited by: Amila Tutundžić, Real Talk with Amila


"I feel so much guilt when I think about setting up boundaries with my Balkan parents. I feel like I am the biggest disappointment in their lives, and nothing I ever do will be good enough for them. I keep living to meet their expectations so much that I do not know who I am."


Sound familiar? If it does, know you are not alone. This is one example of communication I receive daily, asking: help me be in a happy and successful relationship with my parents where I feel understood and respected.

I remember the feeling of wanting to make sure my parent's emotions were taken care of first. Every decision I made was based on what would make them happy and satisfy their needs, but where were my needs in that picture? Nowhere. Yet, the co-dependency persisted, and so did the shame around it.


I felt shame because I thought what I was doing and feeling was wrong. Everyone around me seemed just fine and had these fantastic relationships with their parents, so why didn't I? Why was I so different, and why was I being so difficult?

Have you ever heard the phrase "the costume makes the clown?" If you have, then you'll understand how easy it was for my pain to never be evident. While my insides were falling apart due to the never-ending shame. I had convinced myself that I was "bad" or "defected," the outside was beautifully disguised with my painted-on smile. Well, by now, we should all know that what you see is not necessarily what you get.


It took some time into my healing journey to realize that my outward confidence was a mere protective mechanism with no existing framework or secure base. It was a need for control rooted in my trauma that caused me insecurity in myself.


We all almost share the same backstory: parents who sacrificed their all to provide us with everything they could only dream of. This fact alone was enough to throw me into a cycle of shame because I felt ungrateful when I had no right to be. How can I possibly think I have any right to demand boundaries when they did so much for me?


With marriage came some space. I moved four hours away from my parents, and even though I missed them, I was elated to begin my life with my partner. Do you want to know what I didn't realize at the time? No matter the physical distance that I created between my parents and me, I would always seek their approval and presence in my life.


I quickly learned that my self-view was rooted in their expectations of me. I was miles away, yet every decision I made revolved around ensuring their expectations were met. My actions were almost robotic: I was fully disciplined to do what they expected of me even if they had stopped instructing me to do so. You may be thinking, so you seriously never rebelled? Of course, I did, but with every action that didn't align with their expectations came a whirlwind of resentment.

When I brought this resentment up in therapy, my therapist suggested introducing boundaries that would help me feel at peace about my relationship with my parents. Logically I could understand where she was going with this.


However, emotionally I was terrified. I explained to her that this may work with American families but never with my Balkan family. The fear that I would just be opening myself up to more heartbreak took over every part of my mind.


Around the same time, I truly began to grasp intergenerational trauma and decided it needed to be part of my healing journey. The more I learned about it, the more I noticed that certain aspects of the suggested healing processes did not sit well with me. These methods relied heavily on individualism and the Western culture-neither of which I belonged to. While The Balkans may be many things, they are certainly not individualistic in understanding relationships nor Western in cultural aspects.


My ancestors came from the ancient Illyrian and Slavic tribes. They came from the beautiful Bosnian Kingdom and managed to survive the occupation of the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians. Then years later, they survived the Balkan wars and the world wars.


My parents and I survived communism, the fall of Yugoslavia, and we survived the siege of Sarajevo. We survived being refugees and integrated to become the most beautiful immigrants.

None of those books took any of that into account. No therapy module took into account this specific intergenerational power. They did not consider the beautiful and immense strength I come from. This power flows through my DNA, culture, and interpersonal relationship with my parents and other family members. I could not simply set up boundaries around this greatness - no matter how much it hurt.


Or so I thought.

I remember waking up one morning and feeling like I would crawl out of my own skin from anxiety if I could. The feelings of worry took over my mind because I was about to drop a bomb. It was time to face one of my biggest fears by telling my mom that I was cutting off contact with certain family members. These people only brought negativity and toxicity into my life-it was time to let all of that go. As I sat there, worrying again about her reaction and what that would make me feel about myself in return, it dawned on me.


Like the sun that fills the dark sky at dawn with light, my own internal sun shone light onto the fact that I am responsible for myself and no one else. I am responsible for my own feelings and thoughts, no one else. Even in a collective society - I can't control what others say or do. However, I can show love and kindness toward myself and begin to take accountability for my actions, feelings, and thoughts. This epiphany led me to a path of further self-discovery.


What I learned from this self-discovery was something I used to develop the steps I needed to put in place healthy and safe boundaries with my parents.


Below I will share them with you in hopes that you too find healing and safety using them.


  1. I am worthy of feeling safe and feeling strong.

  2. When we initiate setting up boundaries inside collective cultures, we are hit with the guilt that we are doing something TO the other person, when in fact, we are telling them how we want to be loved. We are telling them what we need. As I dug deeper, I realized that my sense of guilt was rooted in my inherited cultural trauma. I did not feel safe and secure telling others no because my cultural trauma taught us to inter-depend on one another for survival. However, this interdependence became toxic when the trauma was not addressed. I realized that I am not breaking my interpersonal relationship with my loved ones; I am providing safety and strength into our relationship. Relationships with safety and strength survive; all others struggle and are hurtful.

  3. I am setting up safe and loving boundaries for myself.

  4. Understanding that I am the one in charge of my thoughts, feelings, and actions - I also realized the I am in control of my own boundaries in any relationship. I can't tell anyone else what to do; to expect otherwise is to fool myself and bring pain into the relationship. I can, however, provide a safe and loving boundary that will help me feel safe and strong inside this relationship. When I worded it this way to myself, I became more empowered to instill a healthy boundary. I then sat down and wrote what I lovingly wanted to for myself. I remember my first boundary in my relationship with my mother was "I want to be heard in my conversation with you." It empowered me; it helped me feel loved and taken care of. I felt safe enough to insert it into the relationship between us. I was responsible for it, I was in control of it, and I had the power to act on it. I did not expect my mom to understand. I taught myself to value and love myself past her expectation with my mindset of setting this safe and loving boundary.

  5. I am following through on my safe and loving boundaries through safe and self-compassionate behaviors.

  6. When I set up this boundary with my mother, I remember writing out one safe and self-compassionate follow-through behavior. I decided I would engage in this behavior when I did not feel heard in conversations with her. This safe and self-compassionate behavior for me was to become aware of my discomfort and tell myself: "You are safe, loved, and worthy. She is projecting onto you now, and you can make a choice that keeps you safe. Remember, you have emotional maturity over her, and demanding anything from her at this moment will not keep you safe. You can stop this conversation by reminding mom that the conversation has gone off-topic and that you do not feel comfortable with it going further." I remember the first time I did this; the awkward silence was really hard. It caused me to sweat and break the silence by saying, "I am sorry." Her response was, "no, you're right, we need to talk about better things." Through time, our conversations changed. I felt more empowered to instill other boundaries and follow through on them. Through my changes, she began to change. Through time, I began to feel safe in conversation with her.

My hope in sharing this with you all is that it helps someone out there make safe, loving, and self-compassionate decisions in relationships that are hard to navigate. Remember, while we can't change others, we can change how we view ourselves and the caring and safe space we carve out for ourselves.


With Love,

Selma


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