By Jourdan Bartels, LPC Associate
Supervised by Jennifer Buffalo, LPC-S, LMFT
For many of us, the holiday season is often filled with so many emotions: joy, love, gratitude, stress, grief, and tension. Visiting home for the holidays can exacerbate those emotions, and regardless of your relationship with your family, boundaries would likely help you to navigate the holiday season while protecting your mental health. As the holidays approach, we want to offer some tips on what boundaries are and how you can set and enforce them with family this year.
Identify your needs
When we know what our needs are, we can start to create boundaries that protect your ability to meet those needs. For example, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by constant activities and socializing when back at home, maybe you need to set aside some alone time to rest and recharge. Try reflecting on times in the past when you visited home and felt like your needs weren’t being met – maybe you felt particularly fatigued, misunderstood, unsupported, pressured, or otherwise uncomfortable. What preceded that feeling? What could be different that might mitigate that feeling coming up again? How can you make changes to *your* behavior in order to better meet your own needs and stay regulated?
Boundaries can be set with ourselves internally, and with others. It might be helpful for you to write down your potential boundaries as you consider what needs you’re trying to meet and how you can meet them. Remember: a boundary is not a demand for others to behave a certain way – a boundary is a standard of what you accept and do not accept. For example, if you’re setting a boundary that you won’t be participating in political conversations, you aren’t forbidding others from discussing the topic. You are stating that you won’t be participating in that discussion, and you might request a change of subject. Your family members may choose to continue the discussion – you can’t control them – at which point you could hold your boundary by exiting the conversation.
In order to stay consistent, it might be helpful to prepare yourself for others’ reactions to your boundaries, so that you’re able to maintain your boundaries even if others become upset. For instance, you might also set a boundary within yourself that you won’t be staying at holiday parties past a certain time, in order to prioritize your rest and social energy. Similar to the example of political conversations, you have control over whether or not you maintain the boundary, and you might receive some pushback from your family. Before the time comes, you might think about how you’ll respond if your cousin says “oh, come on, you’re no fun anymore!” or your mother says “it’s so rude to leave early, don’t be ungrateful!” How would you like to respond to their refutes? You could offer more explanation as to why you’ve set this boundary. You could let them know that leaving at that time is the best choice for you, despite their opinions. You could just say you’re not up to debating the issue, and walk away.
When communicating your boundaries with family, it’s best to try to be respectful and kind. Boundaries are not “mean.” Some family members might feel slighted by your boundaries, but if you are direct and kind in your delivery, it will likely be easier for you to enforce your boundary.
● Clear is kind. Being honest about your needs and your feelings is not an unkindness. When we are clear with others about what we need and feel in that relationship or situation, we are caring for the wellbeing of ourselves and of the relationship as a whole. The people in our lives are not mind-readers; it is unfair to expect others to know our needs and feelings without telling them.
● Others’ reactions are not your responsibility. Of course, when setting and maintaining boundaries, we aim to be respectful and kind to others, but we don’t need to alter our boundaries to ease others’ discomfort or difficult feelings.
● Setting boundaries is an act of fierce self-compassion. When we set boundaries, we are putting our needs first, and protecting our well-being. We are caring for ourselves. We are breaking people-pleasing patterns that are so common within families of origin. You deserve to have the boundaries you need.
Examples of boundaries that could be helpful when visiting home for the holidays
1. Maybe you need a certain amount of alone time
2. Maybe you won’t be allowing certain comments to be made about your appearance or career choices
3. Maybe you’d prefer that your family members not discuss your dating life
4. Maybe you won’t be engaging with family members who become intoxicated
5. Maybe you’d prefer to not go home at all
One last reminder: If you struggle to set and maintain boundaries this holiday season, don’t be too hard on yourself. People-pleasing and other patterns that emerge in our families are reinforced over many years – they’re hard to change! Offer yourself some gentleness and self-compassion, whether your boundary-setting feels successful, or not so successful this year.
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